If you punch "American Dream" into Wikipedia, you get this fairly-sensible opening: "The American Dream is a phrase referring to the freedom that allows all citizens and all residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice (see Immigration to the United States)."
This is pretty much the way I've always seen the American Dream: you buckle down and get with it, and as Mick Jagger once noted, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need." That song has been interpreted in a number of ways, but the truth of the matter, it seems to me, is self-evident. A couple of weeks ago, I quoted James Truslow Adams, who popularized the very term "American Dream," thusly:
"...that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement."
One friend at the table pointed out that it used to be that the American Dream was about the concept of having rights and the opportunity to own things, which was an anomaly in countries where only the wealthy or ruling class would, for example, own land. Essentially, it was the promise that, with hard work, a person could achieve much and even move up from their current economic level because the playing field was leveled as far as rights and opportunity (in theory). It wasn't necessarily about the dividends (a nice home, their own business, paying for college for children) but about the freedom to pursue and achieve the things that allowed for that.
In which case, this is the second time I've seen a new definition of the American Dream, the first being in the 1960s, when everything was subject to redefinition, whether it needed it or not. Ostensibly, the Sixties were about a turn away from materialism, from suburbia, from the conventional, and toward some sort of spiritual plane, though not one of those irritating old-hat religions. You remember them: they stood steadfast against the way of the Prophet Stephen, who had declared: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." Inevitably, this meant that you'd be with rather a lot of people, some of whom you'd never even met, but that wasn't so important, and besides, most of your STDs a term we didn't use back then had been beaten down to relatively-controllable levels. Besides, sex was a religious experience in and of itself; just listen for a moment, and sooner or later (usually later, I suppose) someone would call out, "Oh, my God!"
After buying into that questionable premise, switching to "Whoever dies with the most toys wins" must have been relatively easy: instead of counting orgasms, you count possessions. It helps, I suppose, that possessions are harder to fake.
I admit to being somewhat baffled by this. I have, I think, probably all the stuff I need: an occasional gadget pushes my Covet button, but I don't have any legitimate reason to complain that I'm somehow deprived because I don't own a [fill in name of putatively-desirable object]. I suppose it would have been nice to have had more sex along the way, but it didn't happen then, and it's not going to happen now, and besides, the diseases are much worse today.
If I sound somewhat complacent about this, there's a reason for it: unlike some people you probably know, I don't have an exaggerated sense of entitlement. I wrote in 2003:
I don't automatically assume that I have X coming to me by dint of Y; it has always seemed to me that my only legitimate and unassailable birthright is death. And this, I suspect, is not a commonly-held belief; on the contrary, the world seems to be largely filled with people who think that on the basis of some Y or other, they deserve all the X they can get.
By no coincidence whatever, $3 out of every $5 in the bloated federal budget each year will go to "entitlements." Some folks are evidently persuaded that the American Dream is the responsibility of the American government. As it says in the meme, they're doing it wrong.
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Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill