Thursday, May 31, 2012

NPR: American Dream Faces Harsh New Reality

When even National Propaganda Radio begins to notice that the American Dream is on its last legs, its probably time to sit up and take notice. The following is a story that appeared on NPR's website this past week:
The American Dream is a crucial thread in this country's tapestry, woven through politics, music and culture.

Though the phrase has different meanings to different people, it suggests an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation.

But three years after the worst recession in almost a century, the American Dream now feels in jeopardy to many.

The town of Lorain, Ohio, used to embody this dream. It was a place where you could get a good job, raise a family and comfortably retire.

"Now you can see what it is. Nothing," says John Beribak. "The shipyards are gone, the Ford plant is gone, the steel plant is gone." His voice cracks as he describes the town he's lived in his whole life.

"I mean, I grew up across the street from the steel plant when there was 15,000 people working there," he says. "My dad worked there. I worked there when I got out of the Air Force. It's just sad."

Uniquely American

The American Dream is an implicit contract that says if you play by the rules, you'll move ahead. It's a faith that is almost unique to this country, says Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center.

"When Germans or French are asked the same questions about whether it's within all of our power to get ahead, or whether our success is really determined by forces outside our control, most German and French respondents say, 'No, success is really beyond our control,' " Dimock says.

In the wake of the recession, that sentiment is now growing in this country.

"I think the American Dream for the average man doesn't exist any more," retiree Linden Strandberg says on a recent visit to the Smithsonian American History museum in Washington, D.C.

The Strandberg family story has been repeated millions of times in the last century. His parents immigrated from Sweden in the 1920s for economic opportunity. Linden grew up and worked at the phone company in Chicago for 35 years.

"I wasn't smart enough to go to college, so I wanted to get a steady job with decent pay," he says. "With my overtime I was able to buy a house, take trips to Europe and visit relatives there. I don't think a young person — woman or man — coming out of high school now could ever achieve that."

This sense that the contract is threatened intrigued political scientist John Kenneth White of Catholic University. "We have a lack of confidence by many Americans in the future of the country," says White, who edited a collection of essays called The American Dream in the 21st Century.

This crisis of confidence is not just because the economy is bad. In fact, the American Dream flowered at a time when the economy was at its worst.

"If you go back to the Great Depression where the American Dream originated as a concept, strikingly enough, there was still hope and optimism about the future," White says.

A Long History Of Optimism

In 1931, author James Adam wrote a book with the working title The American Dream. Ultimately it was retitled The Epic of America. Historians say that text marked the American Dream's emergence into the spotlight.

Yet the underlying themes had been bubbling up through the American psyche for much longer. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald opened his iconic novel The Great Gatsby with these lines:

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.

The American motifs of growth and optimism even stretch back as far as the Constitutional Convention.

"The chair in which Washington sat had a sun, and the question was asked, is it rising or setting?" White says. "And the framers answered that question by saying it's a rising sun."

At that time, the American Dream was not available to everyone in the country. Black people were kept as slaves. Women were not allowed to vote or own property.

The story of the 20th century is one of the American Dream gradually being extended to more of the population.

Composer Aaron Copland, a gay Jewish son of immigrants, captured the expansive optimism of the American Dream in 1942, in his "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Six years later, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson expressed her faith that blacks will "Move on Up a Little Higher." The single became an overnight sensation — the best-selling gospel record to date.

In 2009, President Obama looked back across those decades as he took the oath of office. He described his inauguration as a fulfillment of the American Dream, where "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

While Obama embodies the American Dream in a powerful and specific way, this is a theme that every president and would-be president adopts in some fashion.

On the campaign trail, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks about how his father grew up poor. "Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of a state where he once sold paint from the trunk of his car," he says.

"Only in America" is a universal phrase in domestic politics. The challenge for politicians today is to convince Americans that the phrase still applies — that hard work and dedication still guarantee success.

Skepticism Grows

That faith is faltering, especially among the poor, says pollster Dimock. "Lower income whites and lower income African-Americans are more skeptical about the American Dream. Higher income blacks are pretty optimistic about the American Dream, as are higher income whites."

As cynical as this may seem, the numbers suggest that the people most likely to believe in the American Dream today are those who've already attained it.

"There's a certain truth to that," Dimock says. "There are people struggling. And what you're seeing especially right now are people who feel like they played the game the right way, like they did what they were supposed to do, and the rules they thought they could play by and be OK have changed on them somehow."

Economic statistics validate those feelings. According to the Census Bureau, an average man working full time made 10 percent less money last year than he did a decade ago.

The question for this country is, can the dream be restored? And if it can't, what does that mean for our identity as Americans? Or, as the poet Langston Hughes put it, "What happens to a dream deferred?"
The answers to those last two questions the NPR reporter asks are of course, no, and we're fucked. That ought to be plainly obvious to anyone who is really paying attention to what is going on in this country. At this point it really is only hopeless optimism combined with the endless media propaganda and the atomization of our society that is thus far keeping the lid on as far as the eruption of mass social unrest. As this article indicates, that optimism is slowly fading for a whole lot of people.

Bonus: From my You Tube channel, a backhanded musical tribute to the American Dream


  1. Several yrs ago, I had a conversatin with a Canadian at a wayside rest. We talked of the "slide of things" and how the level would creep upward to us. That's what I'm seeing now. The American Dream never existed for tens of millions. It was a "dream" for those who had it better than they knew. The level is just creeping higher as it has been for decades. It's now to the people that bitch. The lower levels just buckled down and lived. They did with less, no health care, crap meals,worked two jobs, even older cars and, in some cases, simply turned to illegal activity to survive. Petty drug dealing is a good income enhancer.

    My suggestion: learn to do as the poor have always done. Learn to repair, do without, no bigger house when a kid comes along (I slept on a cot in the living room until 12), etc. In other words, downsize you lifestyle.

    1. Zeke--wise words. It has been my contention that in many cases the poor are better suited to deal with what's coming than are the working and middle classes. If you've never had anything, you won't waste your mental energy lamenting the loss of it.

    2. I second that - the "upward creep" reminds me of Charles M. Kelly's (The Great Limbaugh Con, Class War In America, THE DESTRUCTIVE ACHIEVER: Power and Ethics in the American Corporation) contention about what constitutes disposable work; it follows a similar path...

    3. Another piece of advice:

      Choose to live where there is a high walkscore, and you can thus go to work, the store, school, the doctor, etc. without needing an automobile. Living car-free is possible in the USA if you do your research. It's a way to save $10,000 a year, and keep fit at the same time.

  2. "As cynical as this may seem, the numbers suggest that the people most likely to believe in the American Dream today are those who've already attained it."

    "Cynic, n: a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be." - Ambrose Bierce

  3. Once true, and sad. My son who is 21 even realizes that he can't move out, move up or do anything with a salary from a grocery store. My Mother was a humble clerk in an insurance company, no college, now I'm (an "evil" public school)teacher with a Masters Degree and my pension is in jeopardy (Illinois Land of Corruption). My wife with a BA is an aide in a school. All I can think is WTF happened? (rhetorical Q...I think we all know, at least the ones who are tuned into DWS or the non-MSM. You said it all..."and we're fucked."!!~~

  4. I sympathize Eyepilot. Unless a kid plans on entering a lucrative engineering field or eventually go into medical school, University is NOT worth the cost anymore. Even my friends in the sciences are slaving away as low wage researchers and TAs at their institutions. Hell, I know someone who graduated from an Ivy League law school with huge debt and earns a pitiful salary doing paralegal type work. Don't let your son fall into the trap of higher education.

    These days I wish I could turn back the clock. I started University in 2003 and graduated in 2007, just as the economy entered meltdown mode. Even with a Masters degree I'm struggling to find a basic teaching job. I feel like I wasted the last 9 years of my life.

    I finally found a part-time job last month as a work at home search engine analyst for an Irish partner company of Google and as a copywriter for a trashy fashion site. I still don't feel happy about my situation though. No medical benefits and fairly meager wage. I'm probably earning what a high school graduate made during the tech boom. On top of that, none of the work I do for either job feels meaningful. It's just adding to the shit-pile of invasive internet marketing gimmicks.

    What the hell happened to this nation?

  5. Man! That sucks! Growing up in the 80s and 90s, even though I hated Reagan...I never thought this would happen. It's hard to get into teaching and the "Race to the Top" requirements outBush Bush even... It's all about standardized testing. My 8th graders next year will take "MAP" tests three times a year. Imagine kids going through this. I never did anything like this...maybe CAT tests in the Spring. Business and Government need to get out of ed. Yeah, like that's ever going to happen! Hang in there!