The American Dream?
'The American Dream seems rather individualistic'
Edmund Wilson | 21 January 2016

In a world where 20 million refugees flee from conflict, what hope is there for global security? In Syria’s broken country where 220,000 people have died in its devastating civil war, who believes in solidarity? In a time when VW business managers can sleep at night, knowing full well that they have lied about 11 million vehicles’ impact on climate change and people’s health, who dares to dream of honesty?

Barack Obama wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope about “reclaiming the American Dream”, which at first I thought was an irrelevant notion. That was before I saw Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Set in 1946 American suburbia, and opening with an American family reading the Sunday papers, the play seemed to have all the elements of the “American Dream.” James Truslow Adams called this a dream of a “fuller” life for “everyone […] regardless to the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” It dreams of no needless conflicts, refugee crises or downright dishonesty, and instead of equality and perseverance.

But here is the play’s tragedy: that same father in 1943 knowingly shipped out faulty parts to the armed forces that crashed 21 aeroplanes, causing his own son to subsequently commit suicide in shame. If it discourages laziness but not immorality, why is there the American Dream?

Dreams from My Father, Obama’s autobiography, takes some time telling the story of his first visit to Kenya, his late father’s homeland. There he meets an uncle, Sayid, who mourns the fact that people in his community only started begging when generous tourists arrived. People were “afraid to try to succeed”, relying on Westerners extensively. Is Sayid a man who believes in (at least a version of) the American Dream?

But as Obama observes, so many are not motivated by the dream of believing in one’s own potential, because they do not think they have any. They think they are unequal. People do not believe in it; what is the point of the American Dream?

The USA is a nation of immigrants, though, so many Americans support the values proposed in the “official” version of the American Dream. The Declaration of Independence says that there are “certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; we all are free to find our own happy ending. Isabel Belarsky’s family escaped to the States from Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, and believes firmly in the American Dream, saying that “The Dream is to work, to have a home, to get ahead, you can start as a janitor and become the owner of the building.” Americans believe in it and the Constitution reaffirms it: is it therefore not surprising that the American Dream is at the heart of the national psyche?

But is it really right? Compared to France’s national motto (“Liberty, equality and brotherhood”) the American Dream seems rather individualistic. So is it surprising that the quest for fulfilment of the Dream became a quest to own two cars, large houses and become filthy rich? Miller’s analysis certainly backs this up, and even now figures like Donald Trump stride across America’s national stage, purporting that there should be a US-Mexico border wall to keep the migrants out, all for the wealth of hard-working Americans. Has the American Dream gone mad?

I chose to write this because I dream. I dream that people on the playground will show respect to those of different heights, sexualities and backgrounds. I dream that overseas our Government will value the lives of foreigners as much as the lives of the British. I dream that all will someday rejoice in the happiness of others rather than envying it. True, there are impracticalities to these dreams – just as there are problems with the distortions of the American Dream. Some people think dreams like this point towards selfishness, but to think in that manner is to mistake their purpose. The purpose is hope: that one day you can be happy. And if everyone hopes and dreams for this, and if this is widely known, then, just maybe, we all will recognise each other’s dream and help each other to attain it. Allow me at least to dream of such an outcome.


Image used under Creative Commons license

James Routledge 2016