On the morning of Valentine’s Day in 2011, I stood in front of my First-Year College Writing class at Northeastern University. Three days earlier Hosni Mubarak had resigned as President of Egypt. Revolution filled the screens of televisions and computers across the globe. I asked my students what they thought about it.
The majority seemed indifferent or oblivious. Many sleepily stared back at me, waiting for me to give them an explanation of why I was mentioning a seemingly unrelated topic in their writing class. Begrudgingly, a few students started to participate. A few said that it seemed pretty cool. Others passed it off as something that could only happen in other parts of the world, and certainly not in the US.
“Why won’t that kind of uprising happen here?” I asked them.
“Because we don’t just take to the streets when we’re mad about something,” someone replied, confident that he had it all figured out.
“But why?” I pressed. “Haven’t there been protests in this country? Hasn’t there been class disparity in this country like what they have in Egypt?”
“We’re like in Egypt. Sure, there are some rich people and some poor people, but there’s always the opportunity for the poor to get richer,” another student chimed in. He looked at me as if I should have already known this, that it was a commonly known fact. “That’s the American dream.”
“Okay, but there are policies, barriers, situations that trap people in this country too, and don’t allow them the education or opportunities that the rich are allowed.” I answered. A few more students were beginning to pay attention.
One raised his hand, bursting with an explanation. “But we’re a democracy! We can vote! If there’s a policy we don’t like, we can change it!”
“Does your vote count in this country?” I asked the class. A few nodded slightly, uneasily, and some shook their heads. “Can you, an individual, actually choose the person you want to be president? Can you enact change in your government easily without large financial backing?”
“Well, no,” the same student replied. A few more offered their opinions.
“So,” I asked, “is there really this opportunity for everyone to get rich eventually?”
“I’m not sure,” my once-confident student answered hesitantly.
“So, why aren’t people in the streets like they were in Egypt?” I asked.
“Maybe they believe that they have more opportunities than they really do. Maybe this American dream is what’s keeping them from getting angry.”
“So is the American dream a liberating force?”
“No, well, I don’t know. It seems like it’s kind of holding them down.” He looked at me with an uneasiness that shook me a little A lot of my students were looking at me as if this was a revelation they weren’t anticipating. Sure, some were aloof, defiant — but for others, this was a moment that challenged the root of what they had learned since the first day of their American lives — was the American dream truly a source of hope, or was it a delusion aiding in the oppression of the lower classes?
Occupy Wall Street
Living in Brooklyn in close proximity to the birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I was conveniently swept up by the romance of it all, but wanted to stay grounded. I was reminded of that Valentine’s Day discussion, and I wanted to talk to other Americans about how they felt about their country’s present state and possible future.
Becky, 24, a massage therapist from Maine, was at Liberty Square one of the early October evenings I spent with the occupation. I asked her what she felt about the American dream.
“Do you believe in it?” I asked her.
“Oh wow, that’s quite a question.” She paused. “I have my own. I don’t care for careers, retirement in the traditional sense… I never want to work in a cubicle, and I never want to retire. I want to love my job. I don’t want to wait ‘til I’m old to live and do what I want to do.”
This rejection of the traditional linear narrative seemed a compelling twist on the traditional “dream.”
Another occupier, a 22-year-old who went by Ketchup, said, “I think I’d like to live in a world where if you work hard, you reap the benefits.”
Both Becky and Ketchup agreed that the American dream has become mutated to focus solely on financial gain. “There’s so much promised in an advertisement,” one said. So much can be bought, but to these occupiers, those are not the focus of their dreams. “Not only do I not want that, but there’s no chance that it would make me happy,” Ketchup said.
I spoke with Aron Kay, 61, also an occupier down at Liberty Square. I asked him how he felt.
“My parents came from Europe; they were holocaust survivors,” he said, looking me in the eye. “They came here believing that this country could give them a better life. They believed in it, this dream.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“I believed in it once. I had the ranch house in the suburbs, the two-car garage, the whole thing. Then I was homeless for six months. It’s gone. The American dream is gone.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “I’m not done though. The government’s done, but we’re not done fighting.”
His words struck me. This dream we have been taught to strive toward has failed him, yet he hasn’t given up on the dreaming part. Kay’s enthusiasm for his country wasn’t about his own economic well-being anymore. It involved governmental reform, and a better society. The Occupy Wall Street movement seemed to be born of the mentality that the institutional obstacles creating class disparity should be removed. We all deserve an equal chance to work hard.
I thought of my own upbringing, the foundation of my own perspective on American society. I had the great fortune of growing up with two wonderful parents. My mother is a nurse. My father works construction. Both have worked hard to get where they are, and have certainly made sacrifices along the way. They live in suburban Massachusetts, far from Occupy Wall Street, and far from the liberalism of the city that I sometimes take to be the norm in all parts of the country. I decided to ask my father (Kevin, 58) how he felt about the American dream.
He was careful to have me define my premise before the interview. “Now what do you mean by the American dream?” he asked me. His question was a good one. My other interviewees had burst into their own definitions or assumed the conventional ones to be the unspoken and agreed upon one.
“Well, I guess one version is to be financially comfortable, have a family,” I answered. “What do you think it is? ”
“Isn’t one definition of it to own your own house?” he asked me.
“Well, I don’t know. That’s the definition I’ve always heard. There’s more to it than that, obviously. Achieve your potential. The desire for the next generation to be better off than your own. Do you think that’s happening?”
“That the next generation’s going to be better off? Well I’m 58 and you’re 23. I don’t know where you’re going to be at age 58, but I think you need a base line here. The way it was always done in my particular lineage is we always have had family helping family. That’s part of the traditional American dream.”
He described his own parents’ careers, how they helped their sons through selling their extra land to them for a lower price so that they might own their own homes and start their own families. His own American dream was founded in a far more immediate reality; work hard, help others, and get by.
It seemed simple enough, almost in line with the society my students had believed to be true, and the world that Becky and Ketchup dreamed to come into fruition, where you might reap the benefits of the work you put in, where success isn’t an impossibility if an individual is determined enough.
My father did not shy away from the importance of privilege. “I had the most privileged upbringing,” he told me, recalling his stable household and safe suburban community This, of course, did not imply that his own success was handed to him; on the contrary, he said that the sacrifices he has made have been important and worthwhile in the building of his family and livelihood. His “privileged” background has afforded him the opportunity to work hard and earn a living, and to find a bigger purpose for his work.
But, these sacrifices, this work, they all came from the foundation of the traditional family unit, and the opportunities afforded to a middle-class, white American. What about the rest of society? Not everyone is born into the middle class, and this has been the problem nagging me since the day my class discussed the topic.
“But what happens when you’re not given that foundation?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how people do it. I can only tell you what I know.” This was a telling moment. How can we measure the success of others on our own if they don’t share the same advantages?
A Not-So-Level Playing Field
Looking for a perspective that is rooted in statistics rather than perspective, I found a book by Jennifer Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream. In it she describes the theoretical ideal candidate for American-dream success as “‘everyone regardless of ascriptive traits, family background, or personal history’” (18). This aligns well with the beliefs my students had grasped for, but, as with their arguments, falls short when considering a plurality in the American experience. One’s traits, background, and history are what place them in this society, and what shape their success within it; they are the very factors that my father has thanked for his own opportunities.
My students aren’t alone in the assumption that the ideal American-dream candidate is the norm. Hoschchild states, “31 percent of Americans agreed that in their nation ‘what you achieve in life depends largely on your family background,’ compared with over 50 percent of Austrians and Britons, and over 60 percent of Italians” (23). She cites a study that determined that half of American adolescents in 1972 believed that poverty was a direct result of not working hard enough as compared to one-fourth of British adolescents.
Says Hochschild, “The emotional potency of the American dream has made people who were able to identify with it the norm for everyone else” (26). I thought back to my own students’ arguments. They tried to convince me of the equal opportunities in this country. Could this also mean that they, too, believe that poverty is a result of not working hard enough? It’s a logical side-effect of the belief that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed, and that the standard is held by the most fortunate of the pack. If you’ve fallen behind, it must be your own fault.
What I can say is that, in my observation, the belief in a greater ideal–the need for a world in which everyone is given a fair shot to work hard and make something of themselves–that’s what ties these dreamers together. Is this ideal a reality? No, of course not. Could it be in the future? I hope so.
The danger of this ideal is in its application; we cannot pretend that the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers is a steadfast rule in all aspects of life. We can’t measure one American’s efforts by the financial success he has accumulated from it. What we can do is take this dream and hold onto it as a goal for the future of the nation, not as the current standard.
The revolution in Egypt took place because the citizens of a nation questioned the state of their country and decided to work toward its greater potential. A revolution need not be in the streets (though it can, and is, both here and abroad). Revolution is in changing the citizens‘ mentality, adopting a new belief that there can, and will, be a better society, and a dissatisfaction with the status quo. It’s in a dream for the future, an American dream. —Megan McCormick
Well-said. I wonder what the ‘dream’ of other countries would be compared to America’s? What is the collective Chinese Dream?
I also think it’s interesting that the ‘equal opportunity’ American Dream seems to bypass the idea of Darwinism. Privilege can be translated to ‘fitness’, which then naturally selects certain humans to be effective, driving an evolved, adaptable community. Can we evolve without traditional natural selection?
Interesting article –
Also Mariah brings up a good point. Imagine a world in which it really was a level playing field – in which case people would naturally gravitate to positions that reflect their innate tendencies. In such a world, those who’s only innate abilities tend toward the menial would become the lifelong janitors and retail clerks. CEOs, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, would be those who were just better – smarter, harder working, more capable of thinking under pressure, etc
Of course, in such a world, discrimination would be quite justified. If CEOs REALLY were just better people, of course they should be treated with more respect, valued as human beings more highly.
I think the idea of a non-level playing field (and no one believes it’s completely level – it’s all just varying degrees of tilted, less or more-so) is a way that liberals deal with the problem of innate tendencies : allow them to be expressed fully and on a totally equal playing field, and the society is a caste one. Stifle them completely and you have some form of oligarchy or aristocracy, where being in the ruling class is merely an ancillary effect of being born into such a class. I think I would rather choose something similar to our current society (doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement, I think the table could be less tilted). But take away the tilt completely and there is no “luck factor” to account for success – if our jobs ACTUALLY reflected our worth as humans, not in a somewhat general way, but in a specific and axiomatic way, then our society would be far more Darwinian than it is now (something most liberals don’t think about, I imagine).