Dream of a Better Dream

The American Dream as Rod Dreher depicts it would be a sham, or the ideological manipulation of the credulous masses, or perhaps a lie we willingly tell ourselves:

The American dream is a lie. This idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything — that’s very individualistic. Who’s that really about? Who is that serving? Who is that for? It’s for me. It’s a pursuit of happiness that doesn’t create happiness. There’s nothing with any substance at the end of that. So, if you work hard enough, are you going to defeat cancer? If you work hard enough, are you going to be happy with your job? If you work hard enough, and get a big bank account, does that create happiness? No!

I will not call Dreher a liar, but he is offering a false or exaggeratedly simplistic definition of the Dream that happens to suit his polemic.

Our working definition of the “American Dream” apparently goes back to one James Truslow Adams writing in the Depression year of 1931. We could speculate about the discovery of optimism from the depths of despair, or we could instead note the longer tradition within which Williams was writing.1 Either way, that the Dream arose within a culture of individualism, and may in some forms serve an individual interest, does not justify the assertion that “to achieve anything” must equate with some egotistical purpose. It seems almost a little ridiculous, because the idea is such a cliché, to note that the Dream in its common depiction is  actualized via self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence; that it is said to be undertaken for the benefit of the dreamer’s family or children or kith and kin; and that it is celebrated as a response to opportunity that also creates opportunities for many others, even very great benefits to all.

Whether and to what degree there is any truth to these claims would be secondary, except possibly in regard to those who proclaim the Dream without actually believing in it: Maybe the earnest immigrant is wrong to think the pursuit of happiness is a pursuit also or mainly for the happiness of others, or a higher happiness in their happiness and so on, or we are wrong to recognize the still revolutionary principle that all work is in principle work for others. If so, then those engaged in the pursuit may be wrong, but they are not in the wrong.

In the second series of questions, Dreher generalizes on the basis of a restrictive definition, interpreting the phrase “achieve anything” with a forced literalism suggesting either naivete or feigned naivete. Again, we are forced to point out something that ought to be obvious: The word “anything” in the popular motto will be interpreted by adults pragmatically. Adults will understand, and, if required by smart alecks will point out, that “anything” means “anything actually achievable“… as if you didn’t know. The typically exceptional American dreams up an achievable project, not a personal victory over cancer by “hard work” alone. The goal is typically improvement or progress, the merely and for many benumbingly merely possible dream of college-educated progeny, or suburban homeownership, or greater social-cultural or legally reflected acceptance.

The more enduring criticism of the American Dream is that it is banal. The more direct one is that circumstances at any time may make achieving it more difficult than it ought to be or than, it is thought, it used to be. There is a paradox or tension within any notion of a generally realizable, ordinary extraordinary dream, the one dreamed by each of the all above average kids of Lake Woebegone. The contradictions re-appear when Elias Isquith, following James Fallows and echoing Dreher, suggests that the American Dream might be a “Noble Lie” – i.e., a noble mediocrity – then decides it may not be. Like Dreher, Isquith and Fallows stumble over their own presumptions. For Isquith, “[i]t’s a shitty deal,” but he seems aware that it’s shit in, shit out in this instance: “If the Horatio Alger myth of rags-to-riches is all the American Dream’s got going for it…” Because the dream is really more an ethos than a fantasy or disprovable account, and not reducible to a set of economic indicators, it survives irony. Its paradoxes have been discounted ahead of time: You are free to make your Dream the Dream of a better Dream. The motto offers edifying advice, not a final descriptive totality, advice that Fallows’ admirable career may exemplify, and that one suspects Isquith re-adopts before every blog post.

The merely progressive rather than magical “If you work hard, you can get ahead” puts the Dream in an adequately flexible and resilient form. No great feat of the will or imagination will be required for us to adapt “getting ahead” to the same aspirations that receive Dreher’s approval: His late beloved sister’s personal, apparently very superior pursuit of a very superior happiness stands for another kind of “getting ahead,” an “ahead” ahead of the others, of a work wrought within, while the disappointment that accompanies or follows many or most or all worldly successes, perhaps even the triumphs of the spirit, serves in Dreher’s own argument as a stage on the way to a something better, even the progress of all pilgrims together. The American Dream must always be inherently of its own self-surpassing, the impulse to associate the good with our own increase in security, power, or things, the possible dream, impossibly harmonizing with the derogation or hatred of a world to be ended, or, in Dreher’s and his magazine’s case, of American identity at all.

Notes:

  1. An amusing quotation from the Wikipedia article: As noted by earlier observers of nascent Americanism as a progressivist ideology: ” If [Americans] attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.” []

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