The Democratic Convention is underway, which means that the election campaigning is now going to switch into overdrive, and for outside observers like myself the real fun is going to start. One thing has become quickly clear. The ‘American Dream’ is again at the heart of both the promises and the warnings both parties are hinging their campaigns on.
Last week I was caught out expressing my default exasperation at this dream. 'What' I was challenged 'did I have against dreams?'
A great question. After a fair number of years teaching predominantly left-wing American drama a fundamental opposition to the American Dream becomes almost a given. However, when even some of the most forceful proponents of liberal ideologies can candidly confess a sea-change in some of their most deep-felt political views it is worth reminding ourselves that any views we hold need constant appraisal and re-valuation.
David Mamet's ripping asunder of corporate ideologies and corrupted dreams in plays like Glengarry Glen Ross has made him one of the most fun writers to explore, but in 2008 he openlyacknowledged that his views had changed. He was no longer a 'brain-dead liberal'. In his article Mamet cited (with, I can only presume, a knowing sense of irony) John Maynard Keynes' famous line "when the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?"
So – I will go back to the question. What do I have against dreams?
Dreams of a better life? Dreams of a better world? A playground of the imagination, from which can spring new inspiration? A metaphysical paradigm, within which we can connect to a more spiritual reality?
You would surely have to be some kind of killjoy to be opposed to that. Even politically, it is surely our capacity to dream which makes us capable of change? We live in a world where population explosions and the entrenchment of political powers seem to persuade us of our own unaccountability. Why else is the turn-out at elections so low, unless people somehow believe that their views, even their lives, are somehow insignificant? Unless we can dream of a better world, we will never believe we can change this one.
How, indeed, could I possibly have anything against dreams?
Unless they are bad dreams. Unless those dreams are what prevent us from being able to make the world a better place. Unless those dreams entrap us, instead of freeing us.The American Dream is a rather specific idea about dreams – but at the same time it is something which is often rather hazily defined as something primarily material:
The American Dream is a legend, a mythology, a hope, a manifesto. Jim Cullen eloquently writes that this Dream:
has long since moved beyond the relatively musty domain of print culture into the incandescent glow of the mass media, where it is enshrined as our national motto. Jubilant athletes declaim it following championship games. Aspiring politicians invoke it as the basis of their candidacies. Otherwise sober businessmen cite achieving it as the ultimate goal of their enterprises. The term seems like the most lofty as well as the most immediate component of an American identity, a birthright far more meaningful and compelling than terms like “democracy,” “Constitution,” or even “the United States" (Cullen, 2003. p. 5)
Crikey. ‘Aspiring politicians invoke it as the basis of their candidacies’ – this is certainly something we can see even today. When Michelle Obama opened the Democratic Convention she drew on her husbands past as a testament to the American Dream:
Barack knows the American Dream because he's lived it, and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we're from, or what we look like, or who we love.
Cool. So everybody gets the chance to be President then?
Well, no. Mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro clarifiedthis a little. The opportunity is not to be President – or even Mayor – but to make a ‘great journey’ and to ‘go forward’:
My family's story isn't special. What's special is the America that makes our story possible. Ours is a nation like no other, a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward.
I kind of like this idea of a journey – but when we look at the context of this statement (a polished and smart-suited Mayor talking about his migrant family background) it is easy to interpret the ‘journey’ as one from poverty to success, and ‘forward’ as moving from insignificance to significance, or up some kind of promotional ladder – and in either case a sense of material reward is implicit. After all, you could not really imagine the same being said by the poor parents a Mexican who died trying to cross the border into the US.
Both Obama and Castro use their own stories to talk about the American Dream as one of political and material success. The Republicans have been on the American Dream bandwagon for some time though, and typically their interpretations seem to focus more on ideas of wealth, and ideas of patriotism. Republican senatenominee Connie Mack has praised;
Mitt Romney's plans to restore America's promise and purpose will be realized and the American Dream will once again be available to all her children.
Interestingly, Mack’s illustration of this Dream involves a Cuban refugee who comes to America to start a business. According to Mack then, the Dream is currently not available to Americans – but Romney is going to make it suddenly possible for refugees to… what, exactly? Oh, yes. Start a business.
Romney’sown website touts the American Dream as a right for the country’s veterans – claiming that “they deserve the dignity of pursuing the American Dream”
Again, rather neatly, Romney has here hit on an important factor. Veterans have the right to pursue the American Dream. It is not an opportunity they have an outright right to. This could actually be a rather noble expression of the Dream, but it is frankly a little like the late Robert Maxwell declaring (miraculously) that the pensioners he defrauded have a right to the dignity of finding their own damn way to pay the rent.
Of course (please excuse this 'American History 101'), the term ‘American Dream’ was not a commonly used one until 1931 when the popular historian James Truslow Adams attempted to use it as the title for his short history of America. Adams defined the American Dream as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank” (Adams, 1931 ).
This Dream, according to Adams, was something in which happiness is inextricably linked to material prosperity. He is in effect linking this Dream not only to the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence (‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’), but to a specifically capitalist notion of the condition of Mankind as imbued with an innate instinct to accumulate personal wealth. It is both aspirational, and individualistic.
America’s current cultural identity emerged from a time in history when it was striving to assert the rights of the individual over the rights of the State – and that State was Britain. It drew much strength from the work of English philosopher John Locke, who in his Two Treatises of Government declared that:
Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power … to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate
Indeed, it was directly from this document that Jefferson drew much of the text which eventually became the Declaration of Independence. Harking back to the 1717 complaints of New England clergyman John Wise that the government should be about promoting “happiness for all”, and “life, liberty, estate and honor”, the Declaration included the passage now more indelibly burned into the minds of Americans than, perhaps, any other:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, than among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The rights of the individual over the State are enforced, together with the implication that individualism brings us closer to God – or at least, closer to the original purposes of humanity itself. Individualism brings with it certain rights, and those are the rights to life (you do not have a right to kill me), liberty (you do not have a right to enslave me) and the pursuit of happiness (you not have a right to… erm…stop me being happy?).
It’s the happiness bit that gets a little confusing though. For example, what if killing people makes me happy? How is that happiness defined, and what is the nature of that happiness?
The origin of much of the Republican free-market idealism (and the Thatcherism of the 1970s-80s) is founded in the idea that this happiness is primarily material. The state does not have the right to stop me becoming as rich as it takes to make me happy. So stuff your taxes, and scrap the idea of welfare – because if there are people without the determination to make themselves rich it is not for the state to interfere.
Abraham Lincoln certainly hinted at this in 1859, when he offered this clarification of the ‘rights of Man’ indicated in the Declaration:
This progress by which the poor, honest, industrious, and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account, and hire somebody else, is that improvement in condition that human nature is entitled to, is that improvement that is intended to be secured by those institutions under which we live, is the great principle for which this government was formed (Lincoln, 1859)
“In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of chance, and shall sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Notice, Lincoln is here talking about it as an improvement which ‘human nature is entitled to’. It is an improvement in condition, and again the contexts suggest that this improvement is a material one. Everybody is entitled to ‘raise himself’ to be so successful in business that they start employing other people – and the principal role of government is to ensure that everyone has that entitlement.
This already seems rather materialistic compared to Jefferson’s more idealistic reflections. Jefferson’s views seemed somehow closer to those of the Pilgrims who first travelled to American seeking to build a New World. It may be a little incongruous to think of these travelling puritans – a people famously described by Richard Rorty as “self-flagellating sickies” – as a people following a dream. But implicit in the notions of Puritanism was a belief that a New and better world was possible and that this New and better world could be made in America, by individuals free of State control and communing directly with God:
The Puritanical version of the American Dream, it could therefore be said, was one in which they freed themselves from the bounds of a corrupt world, and found the freedom to construct a New (puritanical) one. The quality of this dream was one of genuine attainability, rather than far off, and unrealistic, vision. The echoes of this dream can be seen in the attitudes and mythological status afforded to the frontier lands in the modern mind – a wild a lawless place, a blank slate in which to give birth to a utopian society. (Cullen, 2003, p. 5).
Martin Luther King appeared more interested in this utopian view of the American Dream. In his most famous of speeches, in 1963, he sought to return to the first of those two ‘inaliable rights’ promised by the Declaration:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)
All me are equal. All have a right to life and to liberty. Implicit here is the idea that happiness comes from that equality. It comes less from the idea that everyone has the opportunity to become President, than from the idea that the President is simply not better than anyone.
Of course, if the President is not better than anyone else, the idea of aspiring to become President is nullified. It would be like me aspiring to be my next-door-neighbour: Not necessary bad but hardly an epic aspiration. Not only is the aspiration to be the President nullified, but the President cannot hope to make any decision on behalf of a nation which is not questioned. The notion of equality is one which inherently opposes that of authoritarian governance. After all, if my next-door-neighbour told me that he was dismantling the NHS, I would have every right to ask him 'who do you think you are?!'
Finally, we get to the point. Of course as Marx tells us, any system of government or political control will develop defence mechanisms to protect itself against the masses (or the proletariat). If the ideas of equality in the American Dream challenge the notion of authoritarian control, then that idea needs to be controlled. The simplest way to do this is to turn the Dream into something which has the people dreaming about bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger offices – all the time believing that it is their own sole responsibility to achieve these things, and that only be achieving them can they be happy. If you can convince a nation to follow that Dream, then you can convince a nation to not only generate wealth, but adopt an unchallenging attitude towards government and only blame themselves if they fail.
This is the world which Mamet so expertly drew in Glengarry Glen Ross: A world in which individuals have no values except the right to accumulate wealth, and in which those individuals pursued personal gain with an exclusivity which meant that they never stopped to question a system which had enslaved them to a cut-throat materialism.
Because not everybody gets to be President, and not everyone gets to be either rich or successful – even if they are ‘honest, industrious, and resolute’. In 1840, Alexis De Tocqueville madethis very point:
The same equality which allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes, renders all the citizens less able to realize them: it circumscribes their powers on every side, whilst it gives freer scope to their desires
In other words, the American Dream is like the lottery. We all might dream about winning it, and we all might have an equal chance to do so – but only 1 in 14 million ever will. The Dream of it though, becomes an opiate. It makes us think about happiness as something which only money can buy, and turns our eyes inwards in self-absorption and intensified desires that merely serve to increase dissatisfaction.
This kind of Dream is one which I have a problem with. Because I think we can be better than this. I think we can dream better dreams, and that better dreams can make us better, make us happier – and the world a better too.