…then wake me now.

I’m a proud participant in capitalism.  I’m a business-owner.  I have to know my market in order to understand how to best structure my business in order to maximize my margins.  I out-compete my competitors, I work harder at being better than the rest, and the last 10+ years have been remarkably successful, both in terms of the quality of my work, the viability of my business, and the lifestyle it has afforded me.  In these ways, I’m living the American Dream; right up there with buying a house, owning a car, and a big-screen TV, I’m doing the things that we hold up to be representative of why our “system,” our country, our way of doing things is better than any other place on earth.

Ouch.

This is what it’s come to.  This is the American Dream.  This is the image we choose to represent us to the world.

Buying stuff.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand the argument.  This “American Dream” is, in its best form, representative of the self-determined access to a “better life” that is, theoretically, available to every American, regardless of one’s lot in life.

How do we measure this success?  By what standard do we tend toward in order to quantify our access to this dream?  Money.  Houses.  Cars.  Computers.  Stuff.

We take to the streets when our taxes are too high, when our jobs are being threatened, when we think healthcare is too expensive, when anything threatens our monetary well-being.  This is important.  In fact, it’s vital for this to happen if our democracy is to work.  I have no problem with this kind of protest, whether I agree with the cause or not.  What is disconcerting, especially relative to the American Dream, is that we don’t respond similarly when it comes to non-money related issues, or rather, when it comes to issues that would require us spending money in order to fix.  Americans don’t typically take to the streets demanding higher taxes to help improve our failing school system; we don’t form revolutionary-war-inspired groups with clever names in order to draw attention to the homeless problem in this country, or the poverty problem in this country, or food problems in this country…primarily because these problems will COST money to fix, not save us money.  The implicit message this sends is that possession is valued above all else.  Well, if this is to be the totality of the American Dream, wake me now.

There is very little shared dialogue about wanting to work toward being better people.  The American Dream, as it is defined now, has nothing directly to do with contributing to the greater good or the virtue of serving one another; The American Dream isn’t explicitly designed to inspire us to reach toward our greater selves or to challenge ourselves to find a greater meaning and deeper connection to the human experience that interconnects us all.  On the contrary, as it is defined now, achieving “The American Dream” often elicits a selfish, cut-throat approach to business, a win-at-all-costs motivation to make money, and the very same bottom-line allegiance that drove the country to the brink of financial collapse in 2008/2009.  Before their illegal behaviors were brought to light, people like Bernie Madoff were lauded for their success in actuating the American Dream, and were held up by many as paragons of the very sub-culture that has cost millions of people untold billions of dollars of retirement, pension, and investment money.  And for what? So he could have houses, and cars, and boats, and computers, and big screen TVs….

The American Dream shouldn’t be supplanted, but rather expanded to include the fidelity of commitment to each other, and reflective of the fierce belief that the industriousness of the American capitalist is an extension of that commitment; that living the American Dream is not just getting more, but it’s making what is, better.

As I’ve written in previous articles, it is very difficult to actually debate anything in modern-day America, and many reading this now will jump right to the perspective that I must be advocating for some kind of “communist state” where no one is allowed to be wealthy, or for a “socialist autocracy” that takes all our boot-strap money and redistributes our wealth to poor, illegal immigrants.  Well slow down there, Blunty McBlunterson.  I’m not advocating for any kind of law or statute or monetary policy.  I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t be allowed to keep what they earn, and do with it what they please.  I’m simply asking why we don’t show the same enthusiasm and fervor toward Being Better People as we do to protecting all things Capitalism.

For years, public schools have had to resort to corporate sponsorship in order to generate greater funds.  Our children’s lunch 5 days a week is brought to you by Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s & Pizza Hut.  How long before we start hearing conversations like,

“Do you have any homework tonight, Junior?”

“Yes.”

“In what class?”

“In Walmart Presents US History.”

In fact, just over the last week, the social studies curriculum in Texas was altered to reflect a more pro-conservative bent, calling into question the motivations of the Founding Fathers, and even leaving out some of their input altogether…like Thomas Jefferson’s arguments for the separation between church and state.  This change was the result of the financial and political influence of the Texas Board of Education not only on its own school system, but also on what the textbook publishers print and make available to schools.  (You can read more about it by clicking here.)

I’m all for more inclusive history classes.  The conservative influence and agenda has been a major and important part of American history, and the more complete a picture we can paint for our students, the better they may understand the history of this country. These changes, however, smack more of tipping the scales in a more conservative direction than they do at strictly widening the scope of what is included in the curriculum.  Why not make a new political science class that is required for graduation – a political science class in which the political implications of differing ideologies can be openly discussed and debated?  Why not require 2 or 3 additional and different US history classes focusing on the Native American story and the Immigration boom of the late 19th/early 20th century along with the general history class already taken?

Why not? Why can’t we teach our children that as the world gets more competitive, more will be required if our country is to remain the power it has been for the last 100 years?  Why are so many of us so willing to let “other people” make the decisions instead of getting involved ourselves? Why can’t something as simple as an added history class or longer school day even be discussed or considered?

Oh that’s right.

Because adding classes required for graduation might make our kids smarter and more thoughtful, but it also might interfere with after-school things like TV watching or, God forbid, football.

Plus, adding classes will cost more money.

It will cost more time.

It will require effort on everyone’s part.

Besides, it’s history.  Why does it even matter anymore?

Everything is fine the way it is…You have a car, and a house, and a big screen TV, and a computer….

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4 thoughts on “…then wake me now.

  1. As always, Steve, nicely written. Well thought out. Easy to read. While I do not disagree that many Americans sadly define the American Dream as the Pursuit of Capitalism, I’d like to add that there are many others–mostly those of us with a calling to work within the Whole of Government–who still hold the original intent of the phrase as it was coined in the 30s: The American Dream is the belief that a person’s abilities and talents will be allowed to fully develop through hard work, and those same talents will be acknowledged by all others and not be hampered regardless of that person’s social status or any other anthropological variable typically utilized as a prerequisite filter in societies older than the United States. I can tell you that officials of foreign, democratic-like, governments continue to view the U.S. as that beacon of hope that is the original American Dream; they tell me so during their many visits to the headquarters in which I work. Admittedly, while some of these same admirers are frustrated with U.S. foreign policy, they are, without exception, in awe (and a little envious) that ours is the most “level” of geo-political playing fields. In my opinion, the original vein of the American Dream can still be found in the concepts that our government holds dear, and that many others are striving to attain: the rule of law, the protection of human rights, and transparency of government, to name a few. Like I said, I do not disagree with your perspective. I am just suggesting that your argument may be but one focus within a larger “American Dream” lens through which our nation regulates itself, and other nations still strive to emulate. Good article, brother.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I couldn’t agree more about the origin of how many still understand the American Dream, and was careful to point it out at the beginning of the article:

      “This “American Dream” is, in its best form, representative of the self-determined access to a “better life” that is, theoretically, available to every American, regardless of one’s lot in life.”

      The goal of this article is 2-pronged: Firstly, it is to talk about how the definition of the American Dream has drifted from its original, post-Depression call for American industriousness; secondly, it is to highlight that there is very little dialogue in the vernacular of the shared American Dream – in any definition – about striving to being better people, contributing to the greater good, or finding value in a life lived beyond ourselves. I know many people get this and agree with this, but it is not part of the public discourse the same way other things are, as was satirically pointed out in the article.

      The American Dream is fundamentally about prosperity – both in its original use and in more current forms; I just think there should be as much emphasis, discussion, and importance placed on the prosperity of the American character as there is on the prosperity of the American.

      Thanks for the comments, brother.

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