Monday, September 27, 2010

American Dreamin'

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.


Malaise Inc said...

I am somewhat sympathetic to libertarian ideology, but I find most libertarians insufferable bores.
They are so sure that they are smarter than the rest of us and so confident that they are right that they are impermeable to any kind of suggestion of faults in their logical premises and have, without exception, failed to really think through what their desired society would be like in practice.

They talk about how government has no right to force people to pay others bills, but that is the very definition of government in a representative democracy. Citizens pay taxes that the government uses to provide services, even though not every citizen consumes every service. But, when you scratch the surface, you find that these so-called libertarian purists are okay with some government services. Not coincidently, it is the services that they themselves benefit from, directly or indirectly. It basically comes down to the fact that they are more than happy to get theirs, but to hell with the rest of us.

Frankly, in what little international travel I have done, the countries that would be libertarian paradises of limited government regulation and no social safety nets are, by and large, shitholes.

wunelle said...

Hear, hear.

It has driven me crazy for years that the guys I talk to at work seem incapable of separating their thinking on political principles from their own personal desires: "this MUST be right because it's what I want!" It's the old working-backward-from-conclusions business.

I think my own ambivalence toward libertarianism stems from not being able to see how its implications would play out. It seems reasonable to me to say that not everything is in the domain of government to effect, and surely in our multi-buzillion-dollar budgets there is much that could be cut. But because I have no plan as to how it should be done, and (as you so rightly say) because I'm happy to defend the things that touch me directly, I'm skeptical about the wisdom of my promoting anything too far afield from our present circumstance.

I guess this is where political leadership comes in!

dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, "... 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." -- Well said. Years and years of conservatives and libertarians spouting (and largely misinterpreting) Adam Smith and Ayn Rand has made it fashionable and some believe, patriotic, to be greedy and to have no concern for others. What people don't understand is that these principles assume a perfect free market (which we don't have) and players that don't willfully and wantonly damage the environment and employees for short term gain. How is this possible? When the "corporation" was given person-hood, those that ran companies were afforded protection from the things they do. Until this person-hood is removed, libertarianism is largely academic.

wunelle said...

I think back to Kennedy: "...Ask what you can do for your country." How far the political right seems to be from this sentiment. When the golden eggs don't come right on schedule, our first instinct is to cut the bird open.

We forget all the good that comes to each and every one of us because of collective action, because of our commitment to each other and to society at large. I contribute my little part, but most of what I contribute to society (apart from doing a job that needs doing) is in the form of taxes. And from this we get roads and schools and police and fire protection and child labor laws and safe drinking water and a billion things. Do I want more money for me? Sure, who doesn't? But not more than I want all the things that society provides for me and for us; and I must be wise enough to recognize and value these things before they're gone and I realize too late what a fool I was to take them for granted.

Government is messy and imperfect; but the apocalypse is NOT nigh. The wholesale house-cleaning that is being clamored for by this little group of malcontent loudmouths is childishly utopian. If we want our government to be different, then we should vote our conscience and be patient. Small steps.