Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Death of the American Dream

Most Americans from the outset have imagined their country as a place where dreams come true, where one can realize almost any possibility one wishes.

This comes across clearly in early representations of America. In the 17th-century, Puritans from England came to this country in hopes of establishing a religious utopia, a place where they could establish heavenly bliss here on earth. In the eighteenth-century, American capitalists translated religious dreams to economic ones, claiming that America is the sphere where one can, through efficient labor, realize happiness through wealth. Many Americas in the 19th century believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that this nation is blessed by God and thus should spread its democratic ideologies to the ends of the earth--removing all "obstacles" (such as entire Native American tribes) along the way.

Such visions suggest that Americans should be the happiest people in the world. Many have translated this idea into a prescription: Americans, because of their fortunate status, have a responsibility to be happy.

Now, of course, the economic crisis is shattering these dreams. While this is sure to bring sorrow, it is also, at least on some level, a positive development. Why? The American Dream, despite its seductions, has for hundreds of years blinded Americans to stark realities--not only to the suffering it has inflicted on those not part of the dream but also to the intrinsic tragedies in a world that falls far short of utopia.

The recession might disillusion us in a helpful way--wake us up to vital experiences we have heretofore ignored or repressed. Maybe in place of the old American Dream, always vaguely imperialistic in its reductions of capacious facts to narrow fantasies, there can arise a new one--a robust vision more sensitive to nuance and complexity, to heterogeneity and conflict, to the brisk and exhilarating interplay between joy and sorrow. Such a dream--it need not be American--might pull us from our self-serving reveries and place us firmly on the shared land.

For a thoughtful meditation on the American Dream and its possible demise, see this recent article in Vanity Fair:

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