by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 19, 2004
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- At my uncle's funeral last week, we were talking about our grandparents and great-grandparents and how they came to this country to make a better life for their children.
We agreed that their sacrifices had paid off. We are safe from persecution for our religious beliefs. We are educated and employed. We have cars and televisions. We have more than enough food and clothing.
In truth, we are shining examples of the American dream, which says that every American has a chance to "make it," to get rich, to be president of the United States one day. If we have intelligence, diligence, beauty, talent or luck, if we work hard enough, we can succeed.
But the dream has changed since our ancestors' time, and the change goes a long way in explaining the biggest conundrum of our time: why Americans continue to vote against their own economic and social interests.
What hath a Republican president, a Republican Congress and a Republican Supreme Court wrought? No Child Left Behind attacks good teachers, wastes classroom time, and strips schools of their funding. The train wreck that is the Iraqi war daily kills and maims American soldiers and Iraqi citizens alike. The numerous recent tax cuts, which mightily please the rich, are leaving our grandchildren with an enormous national debt. The newest Medicaid bill, which gives a tiny prescription benefit to seniors, mainly protects drug companies from one of the purported benefits of capitalism: high demand keeping prices low.
You'd think the American people would rise up against being played for suckers time and time again, but instead they keep electing more Republicans, the avowed party of the wealthy, the corporate, the special interests and the endless war. Although these elected officials give lip service to great ideals, they are not interested in helping the poor and the middle-class - the majority of Americans - thrive and grow. Their actions, which are visible to anyone with eyes, speak far more loudly than their words. Yet they get voted into office again and again. Why? Are the majority of Americans morons?
It would be easy to say yes and bury our heads back in our glittering celebrity culture. To care about Janet Jackson's nipple or A-Rod going to the Yankees. To pretend that it's just too complicated to read the fine print. To say they're all crooks, so why vote?
But maybe, just maybe, we allow ourselves to be screwed over and over again because we expect that one day, we will be the ones doing the screwing.
The American dream still seems obtainable because some people actually attain it. Jennifer Lopez, speaking of nipples, has parlayed an astonishing lack of talent into a full-scale career. Nobody blinks an eye when sports figures routinely earn $20 million or more a year. CEOs of large companies are paid millions of dollars, get caught with their hands in the till, receive a slap on the wrist, and then enjoy the good life with their stolen money. Politicians leave office and suddenly become millionaires.
We don't rise up because we closely identify with these people.
Identification is a tricky thing. A good play or movie can sweep you into the story and make you feel as if it is happening to you. You may be old, fat, poor and ugly, but in a darkened cinema you are Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise.
Television ups the ante. We unconsciously identify with a large number of people, everyone from Katie Couric to the cast of "Friends" to our flyboy, flyspeck president. "Reality" television makes it even easier, because those people seem even more like us (if you think having spiders crawl over your face or trying to please Donald Trump is a good way to spend time.)
Entertainment and politics are both carefully contrived fictions. As George Burns once said, "If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made"
Identification with the wealthy, the beautiful and the powerful is the underpinning of the American Dream as well as its biggest weakness. We don't complain about injustice because we believe that at any moment we can become part of the class that imposes it. This is a particularly American conceit. After all, no matter what the English think of their monarchy, they don't fantasize about the time when they will crowned Queen.
For the majority of Americans, $10-million-a-year success is far out of reach. Many of the traditional pathways to advancement are disappearing. Public schools are being defunded. Financial aid for college has been sharply cut.
For those not on the college track, the factory jobs that once paid enough to afford a nice house, a nice car, a fishing boat and a snowmobile have gone off-shore, replaced by $8-an-hour service jobs.
Financial insecurity is now spreading to the white-collar class. People who once looked down on the blue-collar class, who thought their computer training or accounting degrees would keep them safe, are shocked, shocked to see their jobs being exported. The Bush Administration thinks this is a good thing, because it cuts costs and increases the profits for corporations. Corporations are important, not people. Hence, a jobless recovery.
This is supposed to be a classless society, where anyone can succeed. But American society is about nothing if it's not about class, and the lines are becoming more rigid. The divide between those who have and those who don't gets wider, yet we keep electing members of the oligarchy, because we admire them and aspire to be them. They respond by increasing the separation between themselves and the Americans they are elected to serve.
The brutal truth is that the seeds of destruction of the American democracy might be inherent in its most precious jewel, the American dream.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.