The Painful Collapse of Empire: How the "American Dream" and American Exceptionalism Wreck Havoc on the World
Continued from previous page
So, we might consider critiquing the American Dream by contrasting it with another widely embraced idea, the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity, which says we should treat others as we would like to be treated. That principle shows up in virtually all religious teachings and secular philosophy. In Christianity, Jesus phrased it this way in the Sermon on the Mount:
 So whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
One of the best-known stories about the great Jewish scholar Hillel from the first century BCE concerns a man who challenged him to “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel’s response: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”
This is echoed in the repeated biblical command, in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” [Lev. 19:18] In Islam, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s central teachings was, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” In secular Western philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative is a touchstone: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
On the surface, the American Dream of success for all appears to be an articulation of the Golden Rule, of equal opportunity for all. When I suggest that the two ideas are, in fact, in opposition, it gives me a chance to make the case that the Dream is based on domination and, therefore, a violation of that core principle. How can we reconcile our commitment to an ethic of reciprocity while endorsing a vision of society that leads to an unjust and unsustainable world? How can we face the least among us today, and our descendants tomorrow, knowing we turned away from the moral commitments we claim to be most dear to us? A critique of the American Dream can open up that conversation.
Telling the tale: Epic or tragic hero?
The American Dream typically is illustrated with stories of heroes who live the dream. But the larger story of American Dream casts the United States itself as the hero on a global stage. The question we might ask, uncomfortably: Is the United States an epic hero or a tragic one?
Literature scholars argue over the definition of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win.
A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of the protagonist becomes his downfall. Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others.
This distinction is crucial in dealing with the American Dream, which people often understand in the context of their own hard work and sacrifice. People justifiably take pride, for example, in having worked to start a small business, making it possible for their children to get a college education, which is one common articulation of the American Dream. I can tell you a story about a grandfather who emigrated from Denmark and worked hard his whole life as a blacksmith and metal worker, about parents who came from modest circumstances and worked hard their whole lives, about my own story of working hard. That story is true, but also true is the story of domination that created the landscape on which my grandfather, my parents, and I have worked. Pride in work turns to hubris when one believes one is special for having worked, as if our work is somehow more ennobling than that of others, as if we worked on a level playing field.