The second installment of the My American Values series focuses on what can be called the ‘American Dream’. While my last post concentrated on American law, the values discussed herein cannot easily be found in our founding documents, but more in the national story that Americans tell themselves. Note again that is post is subjective and personal.
What is it?
First, the ‘American Dream’ must be defined. In 1931 James Adams wrote the following in The Epic of America:
[The American dream is] of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
This definition implies “better and richer and fuller” for each successive generation, evidenced by the later mention of such possibility existing “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”. Thus, there is a generationally progressive element to the Dream. The Dream is both collective and individual; we as a nation dream to be better off than our parents and each individual dreams to be better off than his/her parents.
Note that this Dream isn’t inherently zero-sum: the individual wants more pie (for example) than his/her parents, and the society wants to make available more pie for everyone—no one necessarily wants a larger percentage, or slice, of the pie—just more in an absolute sense. Yet while it isn’t inherently zero-sum, it often does manifest as such—getting ahead mean more people ‘below’ you and fewer ‘above’ you. This is perhaps most interestingly aided by the American tradition of immigration; immigrants come to make up the ‘bottom’ which has been vacated by the newly mobile. Indeed, the zero-sum version of the American Dream requires immigration. Note that the Statue of Liberty states, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” not ‘give me your educated, your English-fluent, your elite’.
Is it a dream?
Yes, it is only a dream. For the American Dream to be a reality, there are a few necessary conditions.
First, the nation’s economy must grow—there must be more ‘pie’ to go around than the previous generation in order for more people to be better off than worse off. If the economy is stagnant, some people may trade places, but in the end each person’s gain is another’s loss. I hope I’m not the first to tell you that our GDP had negative growth in 2008 and 2009, and our growth rate hasn’t been over 4% since 2000.
Second, in order to satisfy the “opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” part of the Dream, there would need to exist an equal opportunity for each U.S. citizen to achieve a measure of success. I don’t feel I need to argue that a child born to a poor non-English speaking single parent, through no fault of his/her own, faces unequal opportunity for success than a child, through no virtue of his/her own, is born into an affluent family with a stay at home parent in suburbia. We have a long way to go here.
Third, each generation must give to their children a world capable of success. The American Dream requires parents to want better for their child; to actively equip them with better tools and lessons for life than available to themselves. Because when a generation is 20-30 years old, that generation can’t command the economy or government. Influential institutions in the U.S. are commanded by those in their 50s and 60s (and increasingly 70s, as well). That generation has failed their children. They have gifted us a world where jobs are less available than when they were our age and where education—even adjusted for inflation—is greatly more expensive then when they went to school. What’s worse is that the generation doing this to their children, the Baby Boomers, was given unprecedented opportunity and growth by their parents! What are their parents called? That’s right—The Greatest Generation. In short, the ‘Baby Boomer’s have given their children a world worse than their parents gave them. In American Dream parlance, they are failures.
Does it exist?
Perhaps. However, in order to be successful (defined in the standard education/profession/economic way), one must behave, dress, and sound a certain way. For example, you’ll find few political, media or business leaders without a strong (and unaccented) command of English, without wearing the typical Euro-centric ‘business’ outfit of a suit and tie, without Euro-American values, Judeo-Christian beliefs, hetero-normal identity, etc. Thus, social mobility is encouraged, but you have to look, sound, and act the part. It’s not only that you have to ‘Americanize’, but you have to ‘elitify’ (a term I have coined to mean ‘to become like the predominant elites’), as well.
Thus, we encourage low-income and low-class born and naturalized Americans and immigrants to work hard and get only at the cost of shedding their previous identities. The working class has put down the beer and pick up the wine. The urban and rural must either lose their respective accents or relegate themselves to a lifetime of code-switching. Immigrants must don suits and learn English quickly. All must learn to value capitalism, education, the institution-centric paradigm, etc. The present elite does not look much different than their parents’ elite—and I can tell you that tomorrow’s elite doesn’t look much different than today’s elite. Thus, to really grab the American Dream, one must give up who one’s parents were. One must elitify.
And it is this elitification process which bothers me the most. Without it, the American Dream would represent true mobility—but instead it is a farce. True mobility would mean being able to retain the values and identities of your parents while still being successful. American stories like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Nanny, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are so interesting because the main characters don’t go through this elitification process where everyone expects they would.
Thus, my American value is not the American Dream—but the value of true mobility. America is often called a melting pot, but we must be careful with this metaphor. Elitification is like a fondue—all sorts of cheeses are added but in the end they create one homogeneous flavor. True Mobility is like chili—many ingredients are added, but each retains its individual flavor and identity while still succeeding as part of the whole. This value is more American because it conforms better with the Declaration of Independence; that we are all equal and through liberty—not conformity—can we pursue our happiness.