Thursday, August 18, 2005

American Dream: Dead

The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley asked the question, is the American Dream still alive? His findings: no. We have become a social darwinist society of winners and losers, with little interchange between the two classes.

In a low-ceilinged eating hall, maybe 100 men sat side by side along trestle tables.

They had queued up since five, registered in case there was any work, then ate while security guards watched over them in case there was trouble.

In Europe or just across the border in Canada, they would get social security, but this was America, where society is starkly divided into winners and losers.

Weirdly - and I have always found this weird too - Hawksley finds little resentment amongst those relegated to the dregs:

Strangely, though, there seemed to be little resentment or blame of government. American culture is about self-reliance and the individual fighting a way through.

"The American dream," said one of the men, his eyes dartingly alive, his nose so skewed it must have been broken many times in different fights.

"I guess you are talking about a home, wife, children and all that."

"Do you have it?" I said.

"No. No. I don't. I had my opportunities, but I lost."

Just up the road in a small print shop, a fit, thoughtful former air force officer, Bobby Ray Forbes, was slotting calendars into envelopes.

His life collapsed when his marriage went wrong. He had ended up on the street, but recently had managed to get a job and keep it.

"Oh sure, I have had the house, picket fence, two cars," he said.

"But I put myself in a position where the government could take control. Right now I am happy just being back in control. You see, what a lot of people do not know is that the key is not getting the American dream. It is holding onto it."

In Europe, the government is entwined with a lot of what we do, yet in America, I felt a sentiment that the more say the government has over you, the more you carry a sense of failure.

Which of course is what we could call the "Republican Dream," their weird concept of modern humans being like mountain men, making their own rules, making their own success, sneering at the distant government. The results are pretty similar to the American frontier or medieval Europe: the superpredators won, everyone else became a peasant (a pretty good illustration of the "Ownership Society:" the rich own everything, including you).

All in all, the American dream, that if you work hard and persevere you too can become rich or at least comfortable is dead. Really, except for a brief period after World War II, it was always a dream for most people.

"Why do you want to live here and not in Europe?" I asked a young woman from Ethiopia, who tipped back her Seattle Mariners baseball cap and looked at me as if I were completely mad.

"Europe," she said disdainfully.

"What do they ever hope for in Europe? Here they have a law that you can dream to be happy."

It would be easy to laugh at that woman if the whole thing was not so sad and unnecessary.

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