The American Dream

Not very well written.  I wrote it really quick on a message board.  But I figured I'd post it here anyway.

brother and I lately have been wondering about an American mythology.
We were inspired by a talk Junot Diaz in which he talked about how
Americans don't really look back on the past. The way he put it, and
I'm paraphrasing, is that no one in Kansas ever really stops and asks
themselves "Wait, why am I in Kansas? Where's the ocean?" The point
stands. We don't look back on our past to guide us into the future, and
my brother and I decided that it's because te past for America is
nothing but racism, genocide and exploitation. Therefore, it's
impossible to make a myth about the founding of America, since it's
impossible to paint those events in a good light."

point. There's also the fact that we have inherited so many other
mythic systems from the cultures out of which we were born. American is
*literally* littered with shattered mythic systems. Just look at our
advertising. Symbols abound, but they've lost their power and their
meaning. Ideas and myths that once structured society lie in ruins all
around us. And they are built into us, and they affect everything we
do. But you're right, we don't look back. We don't look within either.
We have so many fragments inside us, many of them outright conflicting.
But because we don't look back and in, we assume that it all fits and
works and we don't look at where it came from.

We're a jumbled conflicting mess. smile.gif

that's part of why we don't look back. It's too confusing, and it
doesn't hold together. Maybe we're afraid to find out that it's all
inconsistent? Or maybe we just don't care to know what's really
motivating us and coloring our perception of ourselves?

the entire idea of an American Dream is just another way to keep people
down. And not just minorities, but everyone, since it's not about
oppression so much as it's about an illusion. Anyone can reach for the
American Dream, but so few reach it. The ones that seem to embody it
are idolized and are placed above others, so that others will try and
reach that status. It all perpetuates itself and eventually we're
caught in this dream from which we never have to wake up."

I can't tell you how many people I heard coming out of movies like the
Pursuit of Happyness saying see!? It *is* possible to rise up! We
*don't* have to feel sorry for the homeless! They *could* do it if they
wanted! He did!

Another huge aspect of the American Dream, I
think, is our concept of individualism. I think it stems from our
political and economic theories, and then when combined with our
somewhat warped idea of freedom it becomes even stronger. Anyone who's
studied American History has studied social contract theory. It's a
thought experiment, but it seeps into our conceptions of ourselves and
our relation to everyone else.

The idea is this. In a state of
nature we are separate individuals. We choose to come together to form
society because it is mutually beneficial. We maintain that we are
separate self-interested individuals. And everything is constructed
around this individualism. Then, add in the fact that American freedom
is a freedom from obligation…so we tend to think of freedom as a
state of being able to be separate and autonomous. We define liberty
based on what we do *not* have.

This creeps into *every*
aspect of our lives. Politically, we don't want anyone stepping on our
toes…which is a good thing. But it's there in our personal lives too.
We don't like relationships because of their obligations. It's too hard
to make it work and it feels restrictive. We're always feeling like
we're being limited and restricted and held back. We just want to
escape. Get away. Take a vacation.

And I find this particularly
interesting within religion. How do you reconcile this distinctively
American notion of separateness and individualism with Christianity?
Christianity is not about separateness, it's about interconnection and
reliance and love. It's about accepting and *loving* the limits placed
on us, not trying to escape them. It tells us that limitation is a
blessing, and the only true way to join with God. But we are Americans.
Limitation is the worst thing for us.

So how do these
conflicting messages interact within us? Most of the time, being
American wins. Christianity changes to fit the American ideal of
hyper-individualism. We interpret Christianty through that lens.
Everything bigger is better, and Christianity is an *escape* from
limitation, not an embrace of it. Megachurches and commercialization
abound. We think of the message of Christianity and how we can tailor
it to appeal to as many people as possible. Grow, succeed, shed
limitation. Feeling horrible? God is there and he will save you.

do you think American Christianity has so much emphasis on salvation
and getting into heaven? We want escape from limitation, we want the
American Dream. What better escape is there than telling people they
don't have to worry about this life and all its pain? There's a better
place where you'll be *free.* Even look at people's conceptions of what
Heaven might look like. Oh it would be the same as earth, only you
could have whatever you want. There wouldn't be pain or suffering, we'd
be free of it! You could get back everything you lost in life, see all
your family and friends, but you wouldn't have fights with them or feel
obligated anymore because everything is perfect!

It's all an
escape into separateness, independence. And it makes sense with
American history, not just American politics. Isn't that what we sought
when we wanted freedom from England? A freedom from obligation, a
freedom to be self-determined.

The American Dream is an
illusion, exactly how you say. But it eats at us in *every* area of our
lives, like a poison. But we love it, because escape is so much easier
than reality.

"It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

[Note: the person I am quoting is Pete, view his blog here]

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  1. American freedom is a freedom from obligation
    Where are you getting this notion? I can see how you could define American freedom as this, but is this really what American freedom is? We didn't want freedom from England because of obligation. We wanted freedom because, "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
    He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
    He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
    He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only…"
    -The Declaration of Independence.
    American freedom is grounded in a freedom from injustice, tyranny, intolerance, negligence of the common good, unfairness, etc.
    Maybe American freedom is *now* a freedom from obligation, but it shouldn't be, and I feel most American's wouldn't agree with such a definition. America has become an extremely individualistic society, but I don't think it was ever supposed to become such a thing. American society is definitely in need of a change.

    P.S. Nice Krishnamurti quote.

  2. Yes, but see…the key is that it's a freedom *from.* American liberty is always a freedom *from.* It's a negative freedom. Defined by what it is *not* attached to.

  3. I think its important to discern the difference between the American Dream of the "Greatest Generation" and the American Dream of the Generation of today. I think that those are stories our parents told us were basically true. I think that there used to be that opportunity in the times after the New Deal and FDR re-invested in our middle class. While the American Dream didn't necessarily mean we'd all have the opportunity to be Richard Branson it did offer the opportunity to be happy and economically independent.
    Thats gone now though, isn't it? Its gone because of a wealthy ruling class that in the last 30 years changed the rules to benefit the ones with the wealth already. On top of that, the marketing genuises of Madison avenue changed the American Dream to mean something other than the independent, happy, successful and upwardly mobile american to mean something like "Gap Kids" and "Ralph Lauren living" The American Dream became about having the money buy what Oprah and Martha Stewart told you. That killed the American Dream far more than religious movements.
    The American Dream was about collective movement to the middle and about happiness. It was about unions and fairness in lending, it was about trusting the institutions to make their money off of helping others succeed. Now our American Dream, when America is threatened by terrorist attack our President tells us to go shopping. When our houses are foreclosing its telling us to spend our paltry 600 dollar tax credit on shoes or televisions.
    The best metaphor is a trough of food in a pig sty. The American Dream is every pig moving up to the trough and getting a tasty morsel. Today there are just too many hogs taking up too much space, squeezing out people and using some Darwinian justification against the collective good.

  4. And this type of freedom is bad because?

  5. Because when translated to our existential lives…it has us focus on escape and avoidance.

  6. So, are you saying all freedom is *bad* because it only allows us to focus on escape and avoidance? Should we do away with freedom?

  7. No, I'm saying that the American definition of freedom is not a good one…at least when it comes to our personal lives. But we've let the myth of the social contract and the myth of the formation of america penetrate to our relationships and hearts. This doesn't mean there isn't a good definition of freedom. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Perhaps this author is a bit too pessimistic? People live their their lives by stories, they are always participating in a myth…that there are so many symbols doesn't necessarily mean they are discarded or broken…

  9. So how do these
    conflicting messages interact within us? Most of the time, being
    American wins. Christianity changes to fit the American ideal of
    hyper-individualism.Don't religions (almost) always lose the battle with the culture it finds itself in (i.e. lose the battle against current cultural values)? That is, religious beliefs–or at least Christian beliefs–have always had to adapt to survive. It is one of the ultimate memes. Early Christianity adopted certain pagan beliefs and symbols to survive, such as the virgin birth. Later, during the enlightenment, it slowly began losing the battle against science. Now Christianity, by and large, accepts a Sun-centered solar system and even, at times, the theory of evolution. It no longer takes the metaphysical claims of the Bible literally. And ever since the Reformation Christianity has lost the battle against individualism. So is it really any surprise that Christianity has adjusted to Americanism in order to survive?Why
    do you think American Christianity has so much emphasis on salvation
    and getting into heaven?I think for much of Christian history a very strong emphasis has been on salvation and getting into heaven. Perhaps American Christianity has had this emphasis for different reasons than the past, but I think it is safe to say that such an emphasis is nothing new. It is one of the main themes flowing throughout Christian history. And this is probably because the scriptures do emphasize salvation and heaven quite a bit, I think. And I'm interested in what sort of alternative there is to the sort of individualism that has developed in the West (certainly it is not just America)? Personally, I very much prefer such individualism–at least as far as it has to do with privacy, the live-and-let-live mentality, and consumer convenience…such convenience you will not find here in the UK. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Is this the sort of individualism you see as problematic or is there something else?

  10. True. And I guess I am a little jaded. ;)But it is also very true that there *are* shattered symbols everywhere. The reason I call them shattered is because they aren't whole anymore. Many of the ancient myths and symbols that used to structure society and people's imaginations are now just bits and pieces. They are there, and they influence us, but not in a complete way. It's like there's a huge pot and we threw them all in there to make an American stew. Not that that's a bad thing, it's just that they don't always mix well. And we end up being conflicted on a deep level without really realizing it.

  11. It's really not a surprise. It's expected, just as you said. Of course, that doesn't always make it good. You're also correct in saying that this isn't just an American thing, it really is a Western thing…although nowadays it flourishes most strongly here in the US…at least I think. Perhaps your trip overseas gives you a different perspective. :)Also keep in mind that I am not speaking on a scientific, political or a even a high level social plane here. I'm talking more on an existential level. And yes, Christianity has always had an emphasis on salvation and getting into Heaven, but the differing reasons for that are important. And the way we think about what salvation and heaven *mean* are different as well, I think. It's the undercurrents that shape us without our knowing it that I am interested in most. So what is the alternative?Well I admit that western individualism is a good thing as far as political and legal areas of our life are concerned. Considering people as individuals when dealing with the minimum requirements for a functioning society is great and wonderful and awesome. Quite a useful thought experiment.The problem comes when we look at relationships with each other, and in our religious mindsets. We are isolated individuals with no connections. But that is just not the case. I hate to sound like a sap, but we are all much more deeply connected to each other than we care to admit. To be is to be related. We aren't isolated.And the whole goal of religion (when viewed from a global perspective), is to reconnect and overcome the sense of separation that is inherent (ie original) in the way we think. By that standard, our western individualism is completely counter-productive to that goal. And because the culture outweighs the religion, the whole purpose of Christianity is lost.The sense of separation is artificial. We impose it on ourselves. The truth is we are not separate, we are not isolated. The more we learn that on as many levels as possible, the better a life we are able to lead.

  12. I would agree that there are many narratives that have been discredited, Communism and Modern Progress being just two of the most recent and obvious. Yet take a look at popular culture — movies like "Star Wars" and "Juno" are contemporary myths, as are most of popular music — each is a short narrative describing norms and mores of a band representing their subculture, their small community. Religion does the same thing, and it is alive and well in America. A new poll shows those who call themselves as Atheists at just 1.7% of the population. I think a lot of confusions happens when many different narratives compete to be the authoritative, cultural narrative the majority use to interpret their lives by – a cometion for popular consensus. Right now, there isn't any single narrative that has a consensus for Americans…

  13. I agree. I think that's the point I was trying to make. Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Is this "sense of separation that is inherent" within us the insider-outsider distinction often discussed by psychologists? If so, I am very skeptical that overcoming such an instinct is possible. If that's not what you mean, then I am afraid I don't follow what you mean exactly. And I suppose another question would be whether you think it is possible to have the benefits of western individualism–perhaps those I mentioned earlier or something else–without thereby gaining this sense of self-separation? It just seems that much of the problems you speak of are causally related to that which makes Westernism so great (or is there no necessary connection here?). Is it a matter of picking and choosing the good and accepting the bad that comes with it, or can we have the cake and eat it too? Oh and just as a side question: what is the American Dream? I generally know (or think I know) what the term means, but it does seem a bit vague. And then I recently looked at the Wiki article and confirmed my suspicions that there are, as is often the case with terms like this, various meanings and interpretations.

  15. What's a good definition of freedom?

  16. I think one of the main ideas you have to distinguish goes back to Hobbes and Rousseau. If you think people are inherently bad then Western individualism is about providing freedom from the collective, that government is there to prevent bad things from happening to you from being around other bad people
    I tend to think the American Dream though is the opposite, that people are inherently good, and that what lightandstorm is saying is true, that we are drawn together out of a desire to be benevolent to each other. The rising tide that lifts all boats.

    I think we need to talk about things not in some sense of "individualism" but mostly in the sense of "protectionism". These days its not about the freedom to be who you are but the protection to keep others from encroaching on you. A very "people are inherently evil" notion.

    • a
    • March 30th, 2008

    Interesting as always! Just a thought based on one of the first comments – there is a subtle but very huge difference between obligation and commitment that people miss. I was just recently engaged in a discussion about something similar and this was one of those obvious realizations that had never been obvious to me before. Obligation is based on duty. Commitment is based on trust. I think it is probably true that people want freedom from obligation. But it is not true that they want freedom from commitment. I think deep down all of us want commitment (and to commit) because we recognize the freedom inherent in it.But what's happened is that obligation has gotten confused with commitment/doing our duty has gotten confused with placing our trust in one another. We do something because we should, not because we recognize our unity. Obligation is based on an idea of separation and separation limits. Commitment recognizes our connection which frees us.I think we could create a fantastic myth out of the diversity of American stories.

  17. American is *literally* littered with shattered mythic systems.

  18. Yep. Literally. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  19. Yes, Laura, this is exactly what I wanted to get at. Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

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