Has the dream of freedom and opportunity declined into a hopeless pathology?
by Mark Kingwell
â€œ[P]erhaps Paulâ€™s sudden elevation from schoolmaster to millionaire struck a still vibrant chord of optimism in each of them, so that they said to themselves over their ledgers and typewriters: â€˜it may be me next time.â€™â€
Decline and Fall (1928)
American societyâ€™s greatest sleight of hand, the persistent belief that it is classless, suffers periodic cataclysms. Sometimes, as in the dislocated images of Katrina-chased black refugees begging for water or clambering onto buses, they are impossible to ignore. Other times, the media conspires to make them almost invisibleâ€”if more telling. …
Sternâ€™s invocation of the American dream is a useful reminder of the instability that lies at the centre of the United States. A tension persists between two versions of the dream, a difference frequently elided for reasons both innocent and sly. One dreamâ€”the older one, as it happensâ€”is about a society that takes justice seriously and offers a structure of mobility, what John Locke called â€œthe career open to talents,â€ combined with care or compensation for the least well-off.
Kruger, Buy Me, I’ll Change Your Life 1984
The other dream is a vision of acquisition pure and simple, though often romanticized in ways belonging to an American television comedy of the 1950s, where the median income of depicted households was, in todayâ€™s dollars, less than a third of what is seen in televisionâ€™s current ten most popular shows. Even idealization is subject to the laws of inflation, apparently, and dreams get priced out of their own market when material success overpowers all other values. At that point, they are naturally subject to the massive debt-financing characteristic of the current domestic economy. After all, the idea that one might have to wait to realize the dream is unthinkable. The dream is, in a familiar paradox of human desire, both demanded immediately and deferred constantly.
Kienholz, Room 17 1969
The two dreams are in fact contradictory, but substituting the latter for the formerâ€”making the enjoyment of material goods a governing virtue of American life along the wayâ€”has, in effect, created a third, hybrid American dream: the hallucination that a country where poverty is more widespread by the year, and where the gap between rich and poor is growing with the aid of tax cuts and low-cost inheritance, is actually both wealthy and just. Between 1979 and 2003, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent of American households rose 129 percent, to more than $700,000 (all figures US); the income of the middle fifth enjoyed just a 15-percent lift, to $44,800; and the income of the poorest fifth struggled with a 4-percent rise. Despite its vast gdp, poverty is growing in America, not declining: the United States Census Bureau reported last year that 12.7 percent of the population lived in poverty in 2004, up from 12.5 percent in 2003. The US now ranks twenty-fourth among industrialized nations in income disparity; only Mexico and Russia rank lower.
Thiebaud, Cakes 1970
Everybodyâ€™s getting richer, after a fashion, but the super-rich are pulling ahead even as the majority fall behind. This can be hard to see: sleek durables, leisure activities, and cheap credit are easy to come by. This is comfort without reflection on comfortâ€™s conditions of possibility: the diminishing marginal urgency of leisure goods generates a diminishing marginal urgency of the questions leisure is supposed to allow. …
The idea of an American dream is so firmly planted in the loam of national consciousness as to appear chthonic, primeval, originaryâ€”a natural property of the whole democratic experiment. But like most ideologies, the dream is a construct with human, not divine, provenance. Nobody can claim utter certainty when it comes to the proverbial, indeed mythic, language of a nation; nevertheless, most historians credit popular chronicler James Truslow Adams with coining the phrase â€œAmerican dreamâ€ in his 1931 volume of dewy optimism, The Epic of America. Adams was no apologist for the current arrangements. The American vision, he wrote, 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.”
Haring, Frog Legs 1984
Do you hear that, dear friends and neighbours? Not motor cars. High wages … No, not them either. For that matter, the passage does not even mention the houses, Chevrolets, and white picket fences that feature so centrally in homespun versions of the dream circa the post-war boomâ€”the rhapsodic appreciation of the breezeway and the bungalow so deftly skewered by Don DeLillo in Underworld. No such things of any kind. Richer life, yes, but in the sense of fuller; a dream of order and self-actualization. Indeed, by todayâ€™s protracted ideological standards, where US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is considered a moderate, Adamsâ€™ rhetoric is nothing short of hard-left looniness, socialism in all but name. And yet, the position is here espoused not merely as viable in America but as the essence of the American project. Indeed, his talk of â€œopportunity for each according to ability or achievementâ€ must help explain that enduring irony of American high-school students consistently attributing quotations from The Communist Manifesto to the Declaration of Independence. From each according to his ability! …
“Americanism,â€ Martin Heidegger wrote, â€œis something European. It is an as-yet uncomprehended form of the gigantic.â€ Current readers can be forgiven for thinking there is a typographical error: surely the European thing is anti-Americanism But this remark was written in 1938 and, as was often the case, Heidegger meant something not quite what we are inclined to expect: first, that judging anything technological or â€œfastâ€ to be American is a naive European tic; second, that the New World inherited an aspiration that is stalled and thwarted in the old. There is a truth lurking in the routine charge of Americanism, already a continental pejorative in the 1930s.
Gursky, San Fransisco Hotel 1989
Though we must take care not to be hasty in understanding it, Americanism as a world pictureâ€”as a construction of thought, not polityâ€”is a metaphysical reaction to modernity organized in the form of scale. Americanism, if it means anything, signifies that largeness is all. Pace well-meant documentaries or op-eds, this truth cannot be seen from within American self-regard any more than it can be judged from a position of Euro-disdain. The reason is that this truth conceals itself in the form of use, effect, or purpose. â€œThe American interpretation of Americanism by means of pragmatism,â€ Heidegger goes on, â€œstill lies outside the metaphysical realm. The gigantic has a deeper meaning than blind mania for exaggerating and excellingâ€; it is a flight into the incalculable.
Flack, Marilyn 1975
Contemporary eyes may discern here routine condemnation, perhaps more Gallic than German, of the gigantic food portions, obese bodies, hulking suvs, and vast wastelands of box-store and monster-home common in recent cultural criticism. Americans, making up just 5 percent of the worldâ€™s population, consume a quarter of its energy. Thirty percent of Americans over twenty are clinically obese, a dramatic increase from just 14 percent in the 1970s. The associated medical costs of obesity were $75 billion in 2003â€”almost as much as tobacco. Even sexual attraction seems to be shifting with the growth of double-wide America. In 1985, 55 percent of US adults said they found overweight people less attractive than others; in 2005 only 24 percent said this. Talk about the American gigantic.
Captains of Industry
We make a mistake if we reduce the gigantic to mere symptoms, however, especially if those symptoms are understood only as expressions of greed. A better statement of the American gigantic is probably the Empire State Building, that total mobilization of technology and labour which opened its doors in 1931â€”the same year Adamsâ€™ Epic of America was published. The skyscraper, with its embodied desire for transcendence through height, is an American invention, a fantasy building of the New World. Such a dream may have obsessed Le Corbusier in France or the Futurists in Italy; it may be, now, a property mostly of East Asiaâ€™s surrealistic skylines, but it was born on the streets of Manhattan and Chicago, the boulevards of dreams where Depression-era economics bought exceptional skill for pennies a day….
Read the rest of the article here.