You are here

Thoughts From America 2: The American Dream

This is the second post in a series of musings I had during, or on my return from, my recent trip to America. The first one is here and the third one is here.

The American Dream

The American Dream has always been held up as a kind of generic golden ideal of hope for the common man: "Whatever your mind can conceive and believe it will achieve". However, what the American Dream actually is seems to be somewhat ambiguous, and has changed somewhat over the history of the nation. The original concept comes from the actual Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

In other words, where you were born, what race you are, and what your immediate circumstances are, should not affect the opportunities you have to strive for greater things. Everybody should have the same freedoms to pursue their goals without prejudice or bigotry. This is a noble ideal, and one that I think any rational human should agree with.

Devolution of the dream

However, the American Dream seems to have evolved somewhat, recently. The form it now takes in a large part of the national consciousness seems to be more along the lines of "there is the possibility for anybody to become rich and powerful, regardless of their circumstances", with a definite emphasis on material wealth. This, again, is not a bad thing, if you retain the implication (taken from the declaration of independence) that your success should rely on your innate abilities, hard work and determination, instead of on your class, race or gender. However, I think that this implication is increasingly disappearing from the Dream that pervades the subconscious of the American people. Now, there is a simple belief that anybody can become rich and powerful, if... What? They deserve it? They believe it hard enough? They try hard enough? I don't think that there is even a condition attached any more.

Celebration of Mediocrity

This has become especially apparent in the recent presidential campaigns: Obama has been accused of "elitism", and Sarah Palin has been joyfully accepted by "Joe Sixpack" as "one of us". In many of the adverts I saw on TV while I was there, there was a constant undertone that whatever product was being sold was one that suited the common man, the everyday person on the street, the masses. It seems that being intelligent or qualified or educated is starting to become socially frowned upon, because it is "elitist" and "snobbish".

It is my opinion that the reason for this celebration of mediocrity is this latest evolution of the American Dream. Or rather, the reason being excellent is unfashionable is because it goes against this latest evolution of the American Dream. Being intelligent, or otherwise well qualified for something, is not something that just anybody can achieve, no matter how much they want to, or believe they can: seeing somebody who is actually really great is an uncomfortable reminder that you can't be good at some things, no matter how much you want to be. I don't think that this is an explicit thought in people's heads, but the reason they prefer a pathetically mediocre candidate like Sarah Palin, because they "can relate to her", and "are comfortable with her", is that she doesn't scare them or break the comfortable notion that they can achieve anything.

As this newsweek article puts it:

Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?


Another aspect of this is a phrase that has also always been associated with America: "rugged individualism":

The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") end of the spectrum (the term "Rugged Individualism" is a cultural imprint of being the essence of Americanism), whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness"

This "I got mine" attitude also dominates the American sub-conscious. "I worked to get where I am, and I deserve it, and I will fight you if you try to take it away from me". Obama has been vilified as a "socialist" because his tax program will slightly increase taxes on the richest 5% of America, so that he can give tax cuts to the other 95%. In his now famous talk with Joe the Plumber, he used the unfortunate phrase "spread the wealth around" - meaning that everybody would be a bit more prosperous if we just slightly penalised the richest 5% of America. That phrase, to your American Rugged Individualist, means that he is going to take what you worked hard for, and give it to somebody else who clearly didn't work nearly as hard, because they are not as rich as you.

Get what is yours

The whole time I was in California, there were adverts offering people a way to get hold of the money that was "locked up in pension plans". "This money is yours, you have the right to do whatever you want with it!" they crowed - as if saving it for your old age wasn't fulfilling one's potential. Then there were the lawsuits: "Have you been in an accident recently? You deserve to be compensated! Phone us and we will sue for you!" One advert I saw actually spoke about personal income in terms of "pension plans, trust funds, or lawsuit payments" - as if being litigious was a valid career option.

The whole atmosphere was one of "it's yours by rights, and nobody else's, and you must have it now". I was frankly flabbergasted that I was seeing adverts offering pension cash-ins and easy loans in a country that had recently been crippled by an economic crises brought about by bad lending, but it fits with the idea that an Individual can do What He Wants, and if he tries hard enough, he will achieve Great Things.

A bad dream

Like I said at the beginning, the American Dream is a noble ideal when applied right, but to remove the rationale behind it (that one should not be unfairly prejudiced by irrelevant things like race and gender), and add to it an individualistic attitude that makes you fight for what is yours, even if it's to the detriment of others, seems to me to have had a very bad effect on American society.

South-Africans, Awake

What about us, here in South Africa?

We have our own version of this problem, you know:

Thabo vs Zuma

If you haven't read Thabo's excellent letter to Jacob Zuma, do so now. In it, he warns strongly about people developing a cult of the personality, based around just this "common-man appeal". I've always liked Thabo Mbeki, the pipe-smoking, Yeats-reading, eloquent intellectual, who failed to survive against the sharks of politics, but who went out with a quiet dignity that I really admire. Yet the same accusations of "elitism" have started to be thrown about on the South African political scene. Suddenly, being intelligent and speaking in a certain way, reading certain books, using certain words, and so on, qualifies you to be labelled "elitist".

When it gets hard to tell whether this article is satire or not, the warning bells should start ringing. South Africa has a high enough education rate that we should be able to see past populist rhetoric and party lines and start choosing based on the actual issues. Democracy is meaningless if the vote that we all so proudly have gets given to the guy who can toyitoyi the fastest.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should always pick the intellectual. Don't forget that in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is the intellectual with seven university degrees and fourteen honorary degrees, and Morgan Tsvangirai is the populist union leader who struggles with public speaking. Being biased against somebody because they never had the chance to get an education is almost as bad as being biased against somebody because they did.

I think there's a good chance for this country, as a relatively young democracy which is still very much finding its feet and struggling with working out how it should be doing things, to define its own national consciousness and make its own South African Dream, rewarding those who deserve it, but not punishing those who didn't manage to achieve their goals.

Remember, we have our own founding fathers, and they also had a vision. I leave you with the words of Nelson Mandela:

We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Update: Bizarrely, Ze Frank posted a blog entry about the American Dream at almost the exact same time as I did.