The American Dream, unique in its’ definition, or perhaps its’ ability to be continually redefined, is if nothing else an amazing anomaly on the stage of human history. A constant companion of civilized culture since the beginning of time has been a clear and unquestioned acceptance of one’s place. From the ruling nobility to the slave, generations came and went without moving more than 10 miles from their place of birth. Many factors contributed to this including literacy levels, wealth, and the class system itself. This reality held true until the seventeenth century and the beginnings of the permanent settlement of America by Europeans. To identify this point in time is not to say the American Dream was performing at full capacity at this time, there were still many obstacles to upward economic mobility. Though only a humble beginning, what began as a grand experiment soon gave way to what is now popularly referred to as the American Dream. The following will be a simple layout of its’ origins and a more focused examination on what may be its’ downfall. The sometimes happy but often sad part to dreams is that in the end, everyone wakes up.
One could argue that the dream began with the first knowledge of an unclaimed land. The vision of the first explorers, once they discovered that their trek was not in fact to the Indies, was something of a great unknown. The possibility of great success or of great failure, must have held some appeal to men tiring of intercontinental war. The prospect of raising one’s social status through untested venture was one they deemed worthy. For that reason I sit on this specific location (North America) writing this and except for a few, you sit reading it.
The dream began to take on a more recognizable form after the British colonization. Indentured servants would sell themselves to a master and sign a seven year labor contract in exchange for passage to the colonies and the chance at a new beginning. This version still fell short as the reality for many servants became either death (many died within a few months or a year of arriving) or a renege of their original agreement. As painful an outcome as these two options were, they were nonetheless another furthering of the idea that hope resided in America. Yes you could fail, but at least you had a chance.
With the revolution of Britain’s American colonies came a new version of the dream. The relatively small minority of wealthy landowners in favor of rebellion saw America as their chance to break free from the mother country and to maximize their potential in a self-sustaining system. Less than one hundred years later the War of the Rebellion would bring one of the final additions as slavery was slowly eradicated from the American economy. At this point in time people, at least in theory, were free to make of themselves whatever they could manage and were not bound by law. Up until that time whether it was slavery of blacks or voting restrictions on everyone except wealthy land owning white males, the law had clearly restricted who could improve their lot and who could not. That had begun to change. Around the turn of the twentieth century America became widely recognized as the destination for oppressed and disenfranchised people everywhere. Immigrants flooded America in hope of a future with no limit. Virtually all of them came not for their own betterment, but for their children’s and grandchildren’s. They came knowing the hard, demanding work they would be required to do. This attitude of delayed gratification, of unselfish sacrifice for the next generation, came to define the American Dream. If it wasn’t a dream of personal prosperity, it was a dream that your children would one day live a better life than you did. This type of Mosaic fortitude, seeing the promised but never actually entering, is the very basis of the American middle class. Ironically it is also comparable to Moses’ Israel in its’ disappointing outcome.
Behind the beautiful and commendable nature of the American Dream is one simple problem: What happens when the dream is realized? Generation X succeeds in giving generation Y a better life than they themselves knew. This is all well and good until the quality of life after successive improvements reaches a level that doesn’t seem to need improving. The saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” seems pertinent. Why work hard to improve yourself when you’re happy where you are? Or at the very least feel like you’ve been given it. Motivation, not universally but for a large number, disappears when quality of life reaches a certain point. I’ll use my generation (18-30) as an example. We, again for the most part, have not fought in a war or been forced to do so. We have grown up with cable tv and the internet being if not mainstays, seemingly absolute necessities in daily life. We have never gone hungry and felt the need to ration our intake. We have been given the luxury of questioning everything and being accountable for nothing. We are the entitlement generation. This certainly has multiple causes, but the fact that so much has been handed to us has played a large role in the absence of initiative and goals. It is perhaps, the latter portion of a blessing and a curse. Now after saying all this I certainly don’t mean to say that initiative is dead. The world continues to produce leaders, both good and bad, and in any civilization there are those continually seek to improve. But by and large, we as a people have lost something of what made America great. And I’m unconvinced it will ever be seen again. Every civilization has its’ end, it’s simply a matter of when and why. Given our unprecedented rise, perhaps our fall will mirror it. I hope this is not the case but in order to avoid mass disintegration some vital steps must be taken. Parents MUST pass on a deep seated work ethic. Without an appreciation for work a society collapses. Parents must pass on an appreciation of history. Another post should and will be devoted to this because it cannot be overstated. Second only to a lost work ethic and an entitlement mentality in destructive nature, is ignorance. An uninformed, and I’ll add non-discerning, electorate is at the very heart of a failing society. To beat a horse I already killed, willful ignorance is complacent evil! I’ll conclude with a quote from the late George Carlin. George was, like most comedians, wiser than anyone cared to admit.
“Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain’t going to do any good; you’re just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it’s not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here… like, the public. Yeah, the public sucks. There’s a nice campaign slogan for somebody: ‘The Public Sucks.” – George Carlin.
To agree with him is not to give up. This type of wake up call should re-ignite a lost flame. Will our generation be held to account for our flagrant violation and mishandling of all we’ve been entrusted with? Lets resolve to make that final judgment not a condemnation but a commendation.
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