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Blog item: What is the American Dream? Is It What You Read in Today's Newspapers?

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6 comments, last: Mar-10-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Mar-9-2009)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Philosophical & Quality of Life, Sustainable Living

What is the American Dream?I often see or hear the media refer to the "American Dream" as indicating the dream that everyone can own a house.  If that was the case, the current downturn and massive increase in foreclosures would mean the American Dream is now a nightmare.  I have seen that facile phrasing about the supposed American Nightmare used by a variety of news media here and there (example here). 

However, I have never believed that the American Dream is dependent on house ownership or material wealth.  That would be a sad and pathetic foundation for any nation.  To re-phrase that interpretation of the meaning of "American Dream", it would be: our lives are all about owning a house.  If a nation's shared aspiration is house and land ownership, what kind of a country would that be?

On the contrary, according to the Declaration of Independence the United States was founded in defense of innate human rights and human potential, as it states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Is this the American Dream?That is a noble foundation for a country, even though we know well that due to shortcomings of those times, slaves, women, and other categories were somehow omitted from "equality" by the founding fathers.  But even with those shortcomings, the Declaration of Independence touches on the deeper motivating forces of life in language such as that above.

Well, I finally became bothered enough by the common, current corruption of the phrase "American Dream", and curious enough about its original, intended meaning, to look it up.  My goal was to determine whether house ownership, or even wealth in general, was indeed that original, intended meaning.  I was quite pleased, therefore, when I found that according to the Library of Congress:

The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: The American Dream is "that dream 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."

I do note that economic stability or success is not excluded from this statement of American Dream, the defining description of the Dream.  However, this definition of the American Dream would certainly include an apartment renter who works helping educate illiterate children, or who organizes oppressed workers into a union, and while rich emotionally by pursuing higher goals may have minimal material wealth.  The original definition of American Dream also includes a home owner who builds a business that he or she believes in – to do good for society and to provide jobs for others.  All of these goals and actions can create the "richer, fuller life" described in the Adams book.  But owning a house, or material wealth, is not a requirement of the American Dream.

For that reason, far from experiencing an American Nightmare, possibly we are now experiencing a re-emergence of the American Dream.  I believe we were closer to that inspiration of the American Dream when John Kennedy said "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" and when he did not stop there but sent Americans overseas to help other countries, via the Peace Corps.  That is what the American Dream is about.

Can we take this pause in the economic engines as an opportunity to re-discover ourselves, and to come closer to living our own personal American Dreams?  If that is the result of the current economic challenges, then indeed the old Chinese pairing of crisis as including both "danger" and "opportunity" is once again proved correct, not only on a policy level or political level, but also on a personal level.

I hope to hear or see one day in television, radio, print, and Web news reports, the phrase "American Dream" used in its original meaning.  As I see it, use of that interpretation by mainstream writers would be a sure sign of societal progress.

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Mar-10-2009)   Web site
Lots of good thoughts below by all. Since I consider myself a simplifier, I will summarize: live lightly on the earth, and change priorities. To that I will add a thought that some (AG?) do not agree with: an individual can not do it all, change it all, at once. So take steps with all due speed to make your life more in harmony with the planet.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Mar-10-2009)   

The first step is that we question our values and culture. Actions taken based on Blind Faith are evil actions. Blind Faith in The American Dream has allowed marketers and politicians to mold the culture into one of competition and consumption rather than cooperation and creativity. Selfishness or generosity are inherent in everyone, but how they apply these traits are guided by the culture. Some parts of our country are culturally open and sharing, while others are closed and fearful: and not where you might expect. Places with money are full of people who would just as soon shoot you because your cat dug up the flower beds, while poor areas are full of people who would share half of their last bite of food because they are at arm's length from the roots of humanity.

All in all, we can judge how our culture's morals add up by looking at how we relate to our food and where it comes from. Meat and dairy from animals confined and producing themselves to death: vegetables grown on chemically sterilized soils, processing plants where a mistake sickens thousands of people, and packaging systems where the amount of money paid to the grower of the food is a tiny fraction of what is paid for the propaganda printed on the box. There can be no 'land' of opportunity as long as the land is treated like dirt, and there is no moderation of the exploitation of lives (money is someone's life).

Most public speakers talk of the American Dream as the Opportunities that are 'available'. Most of these opportunities are only available to those who choose to be selfish or mean.

I like Wavehunter's comment about schooling people to be less selfish because you added "in the longer term, no schooling would be required". This is the pertinent part: if it wasn't for our schools and systems, we wouldn't be so competitive, fearful, and selfish. Talked to a homeschooled kid lately?

The mean (average) Meanies (there are Green Meanies, too)always get the mob together to create the illusion of an 'improvement' which usually teaches the masses to conform to some idealistic structure, but what really is taught is that the conformity is more important than the ideals. In other words, we are taught to be cooperative as it makes the jobs for those at the top easier. School systems are created so that teachers don't have to take responsibility for judging pupils, government systems are created so people don't have to take responsibility for their decisions, and job training systems are created so that employees don't have to think. When people think, they make mistakes, and that doesn't fit with the security of the System of systems.

The American Dream being 'rescued' is one of security, but it's one without a future planet or sustainable individual dreams.
Comment by:  wind (Wind) (Mar-10-2009)   Web site

I've never wanted to own a home, I always felt that the best way to leave my mark on the world, is by not leaving a mark on the world. There are so many homes covering this country that are not being lived in, I'd prefer to just "borrow" one of those for awhile! :)

Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Mar-9-2009)   Web site

Without ever thinking much about it, I understood the American Dream to be the idea that somebody can start with nothing and end up as a millionaire, or the President, or whatever they want to be. As Frank Sinatra sang in the New York song, "It's up to you".

I think many still saw the USA as the land of opportunity, at least until recently. President Obama, I believe, said that only in America could somebody with a background like his become president. Of course this is rubbish. Iceland recently elected the world's first openly lesbian head of state. Could that happen in America?

A report by economists a few (5?) years ago suggested that the American dream was more easily achieved in Europe. I cannot source it now, but I remember their argument being that it was easier to build a fortune in Europe, whereas in the USA people were more likely to get half way there and then lose it all. A lot has changed since then.

As for home ownership being the American Dream, I equate that more with Thatcherism. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher did not believe in society and felt that if people owned their own homes they would look after them better than if they rented. She had a view that people were selfish and her policies, along with those of Reagan and others at the time, reinforced this. She forced local councils to sell their social housing to tenants, many of whom made a large profit.

Thatcher famously said "there is no alternative", but she was wrong. The alternative is to school people to be less selfish, instead of rewarding selfishness. The sharing and caring needs to go beyond family, neighbourhood and nation - all artificial divisions that simply broaden selfishness - to the world community. I believe this is human nature so in the longer term no schooling will be required, but for now we need to have returned to us that which the economic and educational systems have nurtured out.

James Truslow Adams's idea of the American Dream would certainly set us on the right path. Let us hope things move back in that direction at this critical juncture.

Thanks as always, David, for yet another fine article.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Mar-9-2009)   Web site

Thanks for your view on this. Sometimes it seems that the only way we learn the hard lessons is to be dragged kicking and screaming in that direction, in this case by an economic downturn. Still, I think that through effort we can also accomplish the same goal, over time, without the necessity to bring on the worst crisis before we learn anything.
Comment by: perspectives (Mar-9-2009)   Web site

Very well stated and I agree. Americans fell into traps set by businesses, manufacturers and banks and lost sight of the important personal aspects of life that brings a sense of wellbeing; such as living within their means, sharing with and caring for family, neighbors and community.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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