NPR's Talk Of The Nation had a segment today on the fading of the so-called "American Dream," our collective sense that a person can live in this country and improve their lot with industriousness regardless of their station of birth or, later, of their sex or racial background. Apparently a recent ABC / Yahoo poll shows that only half the country believes that dream is still alive. That is, half the people in this country do not believe that they are able to get ahead here with hard work.
Neal Conan's guest was L.A. Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez, who wrote a column for today's paper about this idea. I don't know that I buy his premise that this dream exactly is the glue holding us all together. I think there must be a sense of justice in society, and there must be a path for self-improvement, and maybe this is all he's referring to; but I think these things hold true in most every civilized society. My shirtsleeve sense from visiting Europe and Australia and China and other places is that all the citizens of these places believe they have a pathway available to them for self-improvement, especially young people. It's one of the things which marks a place as civilized. (I think of India, say, with its rigid caste system, as a place where people do not have a bedrock sense they can get ahead with hard work; and it seems a less civilized place to me.)
One of the callers to the program--the first caller--was a woman in her mid-30s who finds herself unemployed with the economic downturn and unable to find work despite, as she put it, having "done everything right:" got good high school grades, worked hard at college, pro-social views, a lifetime of concern for others, etc. For her and her husband (whom I presume is employed; she didn't say they were both unable to find work) the legitimacy of the American Dream is up for grabs.
A couple things come to mind. First, I suppose it's prudent not to read too much into a sample of one. The very nature and definition of a recession will involve people failing to find the rewards which, in better times, would have been expected given certain antecedents. This certainly doesn't invalidate the model. And while I wouldn't deny the difficulty the caller is living through--I would surely be mortified and frustrated in her shoes--I have to wonder whether in the back of her mind she really thinks life would have been better if she veered from "doing everything right." And if so, what would not doing right entail? Getting more for me? Doing what it takes to get ahead no matter what? And isn't that exactly the quick-fix, Wall-Street Insider mentality that brought us to the recession the caller is suffering in the first place?
It's always seemed to me that we should try to live a good life not exactly as a means of getting ahead but because society at large needs a positive input to progress. If we take more than we give, everything positive and beneficial that stems from collective action will vanish. We have no society without a sense of social responsibility. So you can "do all the right things" for purely selfish reasons if necessary (and I suppose most of us do). I didn't have the sense that the caller was whining or that her call was not germane to the discussion; and I understand that the premise of the discussion was that one is supposed to work hard and get ahead, and this game plan was at least temporarily derailed in the caller's case. But implicit in the discussion is the possibility that working hard is NOT the way to get ahead. What then? Advancement by heredity? By patronage? If not industry, then what?
But the larger impression I had was that this mass ennui is exactly what we should expect from a couple decades of Rupert Murdoch's noise machine and institutionalized right-wing apocalypticism. What works for talk radio will clearly work with talking-head TV: the goal is to make people angry and paranoid and convince them that the world is going to hell. And voilá! it works! If you tell people for decades that social meltdown is right around the corner, it shouldn't surprise us that their outlook is hopeless. This is precisely the disaffection I find every time I go to work. I say it again and again: I work with guys who by every objective measure are living the American Dream to a degree that 99.99% of the world's population can only imagine, and yet these guys are angry as hell. And when we discuss politics they reveal, almost to a man, that they get their news from Fox--they like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, W. They loathe Barack Obama.
And how many of the angry, anti-Democrat protesters have lost faith in the American Dream? I'd bet most of them believe the present government is killing the dream. But I can't help wondering what the world will look like for the bulk of the angry protesters if they managed to achieve the Tea-Bagger world their signs and slogans foreshadow. There's a reason the billionaire Koch Brothers are pouring millions into this political movement, and it's not the Brothers' concern for the little folks that comprise the bulk of the nation's citizens.
In the meantime what they are achieving is nothing less than the rending of the fabric of societal good will and the sense of the benefits of collective action.