The Painful Collapse of Empire: How the "American Dream" and American Exceptionalism Wreck Havoc on the World
Whether celebrated or condemned, the American Dream endures, though always ambiguously. We are forever describing and defining, analyzing and assessing the concept, and with each attempt to clarify, the idea of an American Dream grows more incoherent yet more entrenched.
The literature of this dream analysis is virtually endless, as writers undertake the task of achieving, saving, chasing, restoring, protecting, confronting, pursuing, reviving, shaping, renewing, and challenging the American Dream. Other writers are busy devouring, recapturing, fulfilling, chasing, liberating, advertising, redesigning, rescuing, spreading, updating, inventing, reevaluating, financing, redefining, remembering, and expanding the American Dream. And let’s not forget those who are deepening, building, debating, burying, destroying, ruining, promoting, tracking, betraying, remaking, living, regulating, undermining, marketing, downsizing, and revitalizing the American Dream.
We are exhorted to awaken from, and face up to, the dream, as we explore the myths behind, crisis of, cracks in, decline of, and quest for the American Dream.
My favorite book title on the subject has to be Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream, which explores the comedian’s career “within a broader discussion of the ideology of the American Dream.” According to the book’s publisher, the author “brilliantly decodes Kaufman in a way that makes it possible to grasp his radical agenda beyond avant-garde theories of transgression. As an entertainer, Kaufman submerged his identity beneath a multiplicity of personas, enacting the American belief that the self can and should be endlessly remade for the sake of happiness and success. He did this so rigorously and consistently that he exposed the internal contradictions of America’s ideology of self-invention.”
As we can see, writers are eager to dive deep into the American Dream to find strikingly original insights, bold new interpretations, previously unexplored nuances. I will take a different approach: I want to skate on the surface and state the obvious. It’s a strategy seldom employed, I believe, because such a reckoning with our past leaves us uneasy about the present and terrified of the future. That strategy leaves us in anguish.
I believe that to be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of a broken world. My anguish flows not from the realization that it is getting harder for people to live the American Dream, but from the recognition that the American Dream has made it harder to hold together the living world.
So, our task is to tell the truth about the domination that is at the heart of the American Dream so that we may face the brokenness of our world. Only then can we embrace the anguish of the American Dream and confront honestly our moment in history.
The epic dream
James Truslow Adams appears to have been the first to have used the phrase “the American Dream” in print, in his 1931 book The Epic of America. This stockbroker turned historian defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” But he didn’t reduce the dream to materialism and emphasized U.S. social mobility in contrast with a more rigid European class system:
“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Adams was, in fact, concerned about the growing materialism of U.S. life, and he wondered about “the ugly scars which have also been left on us by our three centuries of exploitation and conquest of the continent.” He was writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, coming off the go-go years of the 1920s. So, not surprisingly, his list of those problems will sound familiar to us: