An op-ed in today’s New York Times in the form of an AIG resignation letter, and an article in this month’s Vanity Fair, re-evaluating the American Dream, raise questions rather than offering overly simplistic answers. Most interesting question: What do people think the Dream is? If it’s changing the world, then Dr King and Donald Trump could both be seen as people who achieved it, in spite of the wide qualitative chasm between the meanings of their lives. If it’s winning a popularity contest, then let’s take Barack Obama and Jennifer Hudson too. Throw in a little Lance Armstrong and any number of other folk known for triumph over adversity and you’ve got your American Dream right there. Although if you look at the amazing photographs from the 1950s in the VF article you’re quickly reminded that until not so long ago the Dream was nothing more than home ownership, a mid-sized family, and all the Coke you could drink.
Was the American Dream always about one man making it big for himself and his family? (Let’s not pretend that it was a gender-neutral dream.) Or was there something a little more, dare we say it, ‘communitarian’ going on under the surface? Think about the Old West – whose colonisation was certainly one of the earliest incarnations of the Dream…Sure, people killed each other in the race to the frontier, but they may also have met each other’s needs – shelter for the night, food when it was needed; people ultimately defining their units of concern more widely than a mythical nuclear family which did not yet exist.
As for today, whatever is really going on right now, the fact that a serious conversation about the moral dimensions of economics is not only underway in public, but not considered an embarrassment in polite company, well, it’s a start. Let me add my inflation-busting two-cents with a brief hypothesis: The American Dream is dead. The rest of the world has an American Dream: one often hidden under antagonistic sentiment toward our misunderstood fifty-state brothers and sisters. It’s a dream that America might stand for what it has done so often in literary and cinematic myths: a tune that goes something like this:
The American Dream is dead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream a new one.