The American Dream

“The American Dream” is a kind of social Rorschach: It might mean a one-family home in the suburbs, a two-car garage, marital bliss plus three beautiful children, or a partridge in a pear tree. Maybe it’s job security or a career, good health or a pension for when you’re old, a college education for the kids, or season tickets to the Bulls or the Knicks. Yes, yes, yes—achieving the American Dream includes picking up some, or preferably all of the above. It surely implies mobility and climbing spryly up the social ladder.
Is the American Dream military dominance, the US astride the world like Colossus, nuclear superiority? Yes, this too. How about the freedom to speak your mind, or the freedom to acquire unlimited cash and shop till you drop? Yes, yes—both. Every cheery politician or run-of-the-mill billionaire will happily tell anyone who will listen: “I’m living the American Dream.” It’s a stuttering echo throughout the culture, the irresistible comfort food of all clichés—it may not be healthy, but it feels good going down.
The American Dream means anything—rampant consumerism, unchecked acquisition, being bigger and badder than anyone else—and therefore it means nothing at all. One part sunny fantasy like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, one part hackneyed chestnut, the American Dream is an unfortunate illusion—more shadow than substance, more myth than reality, more shapeless phantom reminiscent of the corruption at the hollow heart of Gatsby’s delusion than concrete, shared aspiration.
And the American Dream has that lurking, entangling darker side: it evokes a narrow nationalism, a careless jingoism, and an acute patriotism. We are the chosen people, we’re building that city on the hill, and we’re number one.
Step outside the echo chamber for a moment and the blind arrogance can be staggering, and yet for establishment politicians this has become a catechism that must be spoken in order to even enter the political discourse: if you’re not wearing your flag pin and genuflecting before the disturbing notion of American Exceptionalism, if you’re not asking God to bless America above all others, you have no right to speak. The American Dream morphs into a bludgeon to beat people into quiet submission. USA!
In 1998 Madeleine Albright marked the US as exceptional when she told NBC’s Matt Lauer that America is indeed the one and only “indispensible nation.” “If we have to use force, it is because we are America,” she said. “We are the indispensible nation.”
One interpretation of her condensed and curt claim is that we are a beacon to the world and a paragon of democratic values and human rights; another is that we are exempt from international agreements (on the environment, for example, the criminal court, children’s rights, racism, human rights, and disarmament) and above the rules that govern all others, particularly concerning the use of lethal force. In her own mind she likely conflated the two: because we are the good guys, models of virtue and righteousness, our actions will always be good; because our actions are always good, we are not subject to ordinary restrictions that apply to other nations and peoples, like international law; because we are above the law, rules and statutes and sanctions are applied selectively, in our favor, and against the bad guys. Back to the start: we are the good guys. In other words, if the US takes an action, it is by definition good. We are the indispensable nation.
That path leads straight to antagonism, irritation, resentment, hostility, turmoil, enmity, isolation, aggression, rage, fury, and peril. That way lies chaos. The American Dream becomes a global nightmare, circles back, and collapses in our own back yards.
All patriotism in all places includes the manufactured or imposed capacity to see similar sets of facts in dramatically different ways. Torture, rendition, imprisonment without trial, extrajudicial killings, assassinations, drone strikes and the bombing of civilians—all of this and more is condemned as evil or embraced as good by the governing class and its “amen chorus” of nationalist/patriots depending on only one item: who does the deed.
American Exceptionalism is the magic potion US patriots drink in order to justify these specific atrocities and other human rights violations when carried out by the US state: the American cause is always just, we are assured, the American heart always pure, and “our” side always righteous. Not only does the idea that the US is the “one indispensable nation” permit Americans to approve of bad behavior in our names, it mostly puts us to sleep, only dimly aware of happenings that are excruciatingly experienced and acutely perceived in other parts of the world.
The American Dream in big, sparkling bold letters is more than distracting and deluding—it’s a hoax in the hands of snake-oil salesmen who want nothing more than to anesthetize and confuse, lull us all to sleep and steal our stuff; it’s an arrogant myth that blinds people to global reality; it’s a big lie covering aggression, invasion, and occupation. Rejecting the suffocating dogma and entangling repercussions of the American Dream is a step toward connecting with our own more authentic human hopes, our own plans and projects, our human-sized dreams and aspirations. If everyone would take a moment to gather in the assembly or the coliseum or the theater, the community center, park, or town square; if we would face one another more authentically, without masks, as who and what we really are, and, importantly, who we aspire to become in the world; if we could speak more directly and plainly to one another and share in just a few words our deepest dreams about how we want to live and where we want to go and what gives meaning to our lives— in that free space and from that wild diversity, a more honest and humane American dream could surely emerge: out of many, one.
The brilliant soliloquy by Jeff Daniels on the notorious and endlessly googled episode now known as “America is not the greatest country in the world” from the TV show Newsroom has his hard-bitten reporter character deciding to cut the crap when a student asks “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” He points out that the US is 7th in the world in literacy, 49th in life expectancy, and 178th in infant mortality. “We lead the world in only three categories,” he asserts: number of incarcerated fellow citizens; military spending; and number of adults who believe in angels.

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