Monday, December 20, 2010

The American Dream

by Richard Crews
***Thanksgiving and mom's apple pie?

***The Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge?
......Yosemite and the Grand Canyon?

***Living in suburbia with an SUV in the garage and sending
......your 2.4 kids to college?

***Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

***Building a better mouse trap?
......Making more money than your father did?

***Norman Rockwell, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain,
......and Frederic Remington?

***The "Ugly American" and Cowboy Diplomacy?

Maybe all of these--and more--go into making up the image of the U.S.--the so called "American Dream."

The term itself, "the American dream," was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book, Epic of America. Since then it has come to capture much more than he originally intended. In retrospect, for the 19th century and before, it brings to mind adventurers, religious outcasts, and downtrodden people--first from Europe, then from around the world--emigrating to a country with boundless land and a classless society unfettered by tradition; a place where an individual could succeed through ability and ambition. During the 19th century its image was the wilderness frontier--the Wild West of Daniel Boone, the Gold Rush, and the Pony Express. As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the Robber Barons of big industry--steel, railroads; later, cars, tract housing, sky scrapers--came to dominate the image. And then the atom bomb, the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the space race, the Cold War. And most recently, world supremacy in money, trade, and political power, with world leadership in higher education, scientific and technical innovation, and democratic humanitarian morality; these have perhaps become the main characteristics of the American Dream.

There have always been problems with the American Dream--harsh realities not far behind the rosy, surface scenarios: slavery of blacks imported from Africa and the slaughter and forced migration of Native American populations; the extravagant spoiling of wild places and destruction of indigenous species; favoritism, corruption, and inefficiency in government. Recently, a culture of incarceration (the U.S. has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners) including the horrors of prolonged solitary confinement for tens of thousands; "wars" that are unwinnable by definition--that have no front lines, no uniformed armies, no Geneva-Convention ethics of engagement (such as the "wars" on drugs, terrorism, AIDS, and poverty); big-money politics with legislative gridlock; state and federal government financing that teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; abuse of human rights; and imbalanced wealth distribution (5% of the population own 95% of the nation's assets).

The "American Dream" represents a complex and changing image. The term has come to symbolize the best of the U.S. Usually we enjoy it proudly. But the reality has--and always has had--a darker, shameful side.