Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The American Dream and its critics

Dear Hannah,

Because I was in college I've done several things I wouldn't do now, at the top of the list being a beer bong with more than seven types of hard alcohol (which resulted in me blacking out and doing horrible things), voting as a Democrat, and reading Michael Moore.  The latter of these took place in small apartment after I decided to stop snorting cocaine and picked up some Chomsky, and involved a book much longer than it needed to be about something like Oprah Winfrey becoming president.  It was brilliantly titled Dude, Where's My Country?  One of the chapters has stuck with me more than the one about Oprah being an ideal presidential candidate, however, and it had to do with the fraudulence of the American Dream.


All of us are tired of hearing that saying that was probably considered very brilliant the first time it was uttered and was almost immediately relegated to the trashbin of tired old jokes: the saying about how the American Dream has become the American Nightmare.  The most that this saying does for us is reinforce the truth that the extreme form of disdain known as eye-rolling is something meant for more than just teenagers; and that if it has been abused by them, maybe even enough to warrant violent retaliation, that maybe their sin lies more in the abuse of it than in the use of the eye-roll itself.  And whether Michael Moore said The American Nightmare or not (and I seem to remember him saying it sometime), he finished the chapter with a statement that the American Dream was a cruel joke and that low taxation was the result of a delusion; that the only reason millions of Americans were interested in not taxing their neighbors to death had much less to do with their understanding of economics or even just fairness, and more to do with the idea that they might someday make it.

The truth of the matter is that Michael Moore (God bless him) was partially right; but as liberals have a tendency to do, he wasn't right in the way that he wanted.  Nobody, since the beginning of the world, has ever said that a dream must come true; but they have always known that we had dreams, and that some dreams are more possible and helpful than others -- even if they never materialize.  And the American Dream in particular was never that you were guaranteed to make it or that everyone was likely to make it, but that you could possibly make it because nobody was physically or legally restraining you from making it.  Michael Moore (who happens to be filthily rich and apparently uninterested in sharing) said it was dangling a carrot in front of a horse, leading him to work without getting anything out of it.  And in a certain sense he's right.  Many people and all horses have one thing in common, and that is that neither has the mental capacity to make themselves rich (although the latter more frequently has the work ethic).

But maybe the carrot (even in this age of fiscal inequaliity) was a dream in a different sense.  Maybe it was the idea that even if you never made it, you always had the possibility of changing things for yourself; that even if you really lacked the talent and the ideas to make yourself rich, you never felt restrained by a legal aristocracy or a corporate charter or a fiefdom of any sort; and that if you one day were to pack up your bags (or leave them all behind) and start a new life, you could do it in the blink of an eye.  The American Dream, in other words, was maybe even an unfounded hope in change itself; and the pursuit of happiness was exactly what it literally pretended to be -- not an arrival, but a heartful pursuit.  America is different from all the countries that preceded it in this.  We are less tied to land than almost anyone before us.  We are less restricted to any kind of trade than almost any Englishman before us.  We are less restricted to any kind of religion than almost anyone before us.  And we are tied less (for better or for worse, as even Toqueville pointed out in the 19th century) to family than anyone before us.  The dream may even be said to lie less in the positives of our position, and more in the lack of restrictives.  The American Dream is a happiness as only a philosopher or a playboy could see it -- in the almost unbridled ability to chase.

Almost comically, those of us who complain loudest about the falsehood of the American Dream are often responsible for fostering the illusion in our children, and fostering it most predominantly in our little girls (see: Disney's Mulan or their sanctimonious Zootopia).  Without knowing them and thus without any kind of personal assessment, without checking to see if Billy is a dunce or Madison is a weakling, they fill kids full of a feeling that they can do anything without checking to see whether the children are even good at something.  And the reason they do it is obvious.  Because you never really know what a child is going to grow up and do until he eventually grows up and does it.   

Even our liberals are implicitly aware that it doesn't so much matter if 90% of our children dream impossible things and then screw it all up and come back to their teachers and say they'd been lied to.  They know that at the bottom of the matter, very few people (if any at all) get everything they want, and that what we said was really for the 10 or maybe even 5 percent of them really thinking things we'd never thought and capable of doing things we'd never done; the geniuses and transcenders and fighters and naturally born charismatics and masters of self, who yes needed coaching and teaching and books and examples, but more than any of this needed a) to think that success would be rewarded and b) that nobody was standing in the way.

Low taxation (of course) plays a part in this delusion we give to our children, that they are the people who'll keep an extra hundred thousand because they can do things.  But for the people responsible for doing the things that only geniuses and movers and shakers can do, can we ever really say that the delusion was a delusion?  And if they are carrying us further than we were ever personally capable of going ourselves, and giving us opportunities that never existed before, do we really care if the rest of us were "lied" to?  Limousine liberals such as Michael Moore, without sharing their money, frequently tell us we have to share more.  They seem to have forgotten to remind us that when we join a company we never could have started ourselves, we are sharing more than just a profit.  We are participating in somebody else's dream, and reaping unprecedented benefits for sharing in it.

Your father,
-J

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