American dreams and nightmares

Apr 3, 2011 by

American dreams and nightmares

In several recent BBC articles, journalists argue that the American dream is dead,  that it has dreamt itself out. Such conclusion could only be drawn from a partial definition of the American dream as one of economic success, a path from from rags to riches treaded by Great Gatsby and people alike.  If you perceive the American dream as solely the possibility to purchase a new house, then it is obvious that in  contemporary America there is little of a dream left, and a lot of immigration nightmare in its place.

But the dream is both less and more than economic reality and the Great Gatsby did more than amass a fortune – he recreated himself (albeit unsuccessfully). American dream specifically is not just about the possibilities of American economy, challenged by the current crisis, but also about American mentality, developed across centuries and weathering the economic crisis. Mentality is the link between dream and reality – the link that in America is stronger than in any other country. Why?

America did not have the Middle Ages when people looked up to heavens for advice and approval of their human schemes. It was set up by the pirlgrim fathers who came to the shores of this country with set notions of  liberty, equality and individualism. Without individualism,  the belief that a human being is at the centre of the universe and has a capacity for self-determination, there would be no notions of subjectivity and no dreams. Even pragmatic American dreams.

Is the American dream still alive? In some situations it is. I went for coffee with an American friend of mine recently. We sit by the window and chat. A homeless woman is standing outside the café, asking pedestrians for money. She looks young. I ask my friend if he thinks she has a  family. “She probably does, why?” He seems surprised. “Would you not live with your family if you had the choice: family or the street?” “Probably not. She got herself there, she needs to get herself out now.” As simple as that. No allowances made for outside conditions, skyrocketing unemployment rates etc. No excuses allowed. Americans are sereve in their judgements both toward others, but primarily toward themselves. The American dream has got another side to it: an acute sense of responsibility for one’s actions, both successes and failures, and a sense of dignity. If I failed, I need to pay for it and live the nighmare. If I dreamt and put my dream into reality, I have all the right to praise and carry on dreaming.  These are two sides of the same coin and the concepts of dignity and rightousness, chilvalrous and outdated as they might seem, are very much alive in the mentalities here.

Dreaming the American way carries with itself many obligations. Take: mobility. America’s society is very mobile: part of the American dream is the possibility to change a place “in pursuit of happiness” (to follow the Constitution.) Mobility if often associated with freedom. You are free to leave, to experience, to drive across the country in pursuit of adventure and oneself (which is what I’ll do soon:) But there is a dark side and a paradox to this freedom. Take American graduates: there is an unspoken rule here that you should do your undegraduate degree at a different university than you did your graduate degree and  than change again for your phd, post-doc, etc. Moving is part of the academic (and any ) career. It is a freedom ingrained in the system, a freedom that you cannot escape.

While other nations may see themselves constrained, and at the same time enriched by place, family attachments and traditions , Americans are bounded by themselves, constrained by their very individualism. This constraint,  mixed with self-centredness and lack of empathy, frequent in this country, often makes Americans unhappy and lonely. This is the other, nightmarish side of this cosmopolitan dream of America  – uprootedness, confusion, free access to mental health services. Some people pay a high price for following their dreams, their talents, for seizing  opportunities that are huge in this country.

Again, not for all. Inequality is a big problem,and in fact  I think that the dreams of American elite are bought by many a sleepless night of the majority of the population here,  but this is a topic for another blog post.

1 Comment

  1. Baran

    the American’s dream collapse is reference to the fact that people are losing their jobs and homes. However, as you say, it shouldn’t only be bound to being wealthy or not, I believe this dream was obviously built upon freedom. By being free, Americans have historically been able to pursue their own interests without fear of government intrusion. As Chris Guillebeau, author of the art of Non-conformity, comments that American dream itself is an entrepreneurial quest, which makes America an entrepreneurial country, founded in opposition to a foreign government that restricted freedom. Thus, Americans have learned to revere independence, ambition, and sacrifice. The question is whether many people in this country could have harnessed this knowledge to see the connection between dream and reality.

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