For reasons I can’t explain I have recently been reading a number of articles about the American dream. Given the chaotic political and social situation in America over the last few years there has been a deluge of writing on this topic and, with the chaos set to rise further and given that it is July 4th, American independence day, such articles will continue to be written unabated. Interestingly, pretty much all of these articles talk about the imminent death or the slow decline of this most cherished of American ideals. The American Dream, this mantra of self-improvement that has driven the US through its glory days, is now looking, according to many, decidedly tarnished.
Initially conceived of by Thomas Jefferson as each citizen’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the American dream is ingrained deep into the American psyche. It has been talked about by Martin Luther King Jr in his 1963 Letter From A Birmingham Jail. Playwright Arthur Miller refers to the fruitless pursuit of it in his seminal play Death Of A Salesman. Even Barack Obama used the phrase in 2006 when, as a then US Senator, he wrote a best-selling memoir called The Audacity Of Hope: Thoughts On Reclaiming The American Dream. If Obama’s book is an endearing narrative of hope then books such as Requiem For The American Dream: The 10 Principles Of Concentration Of Wealth & Power by Noam Chomsky, and American Dream, Global Nightmare by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, both present a much darker alternative.
The world of literary fiction also plays on the American dream theme. Recent examples include the brilliant Exit West by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, and The Golden House by controversial writer Salman Rushdie. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Rushdie commented that:
There’s not much left of the American dream. If you live in New York, the recent issues and politics are so alarming. It doesn’t feel like a city on a hill or a New Jerusalem. – Salman Rushdie, Jun 2018
Perhaps the best literary example of the American dream in fiction came in 1925 when F Scott Fitzgerald wrote his classic novel The Great Gatsby. Set in 1922 the novel is about the breakdown of the ideals behind the American dream. There are few books that capture the pursuit of, and utter disenchantment with, the American Dream as well as The Great Gatsby, so much so that the book has been adapted for the stage hundreds of times all over the world, and it has also been turned into major Hollywood movies. Gatsby has been played on the big screen by Robert Redford in 1974 and more recently by Leonardo Di Caprio in 2013.
There are plenty of other major Hollywood movies that have the American dream as a central plot line, movies such as Citizen Kane, American Beauty, The Godfather, Rocky, Bonnie And Clyde, Wall Street, Titanic, Idiocracy, and The Hunger Games, to name just a few. And musicians such as Childish Gambino also rely heavily on this notion, with various subtle comments being made about the American dream in his controversial music video This Is America, something that caused a bit of an online stir earlier this year.
Stand ups also rely on the American dream for material. The legendary American comedian George Carlin famously said that “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” a sentiment also made by the British comedian Al Murray:
I love Americans. You’re beautiful people. I love them. I love Americans because the world needs people like Americans because you’re dreamers. You’re dreamers because you’ve got that AMERICAN DREAM! The American dream! You’re an American dreamer dreaming the American dream. Now, the fact is that we don’t ever dream in Great Britain. We don’t. There is no British dream. This isn’t because we lack some sort of sense of moral purpose. This isn’t because we haven’t got a sense of guiding destiny taking us towards a better tomorrow. No! We don’t have a dream in this country because we’re awake! It’s that simple. – Al Murray
I also found a short but interesting clip featuring the American Muslim comedian Hasan Minhaj with his take on the American dream:
Politicians have also spoken about the American dream. Richard Nixon, in his first inaugural address in January 1969, famously said that “The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep.” And if talk of the American dream was good enough for that scoundrel then it’s good enough for the scoundrel Trump. Trump has used the idea of the American dream to propel himself to the highest office in the land. There is even a 4-part Netflix documentary series released earlier this year called Trump: An American Dream. Documentaries tend to humanise their subjects, even if they paint them in an unflattering light. This series, however, paints a grim picture indeed as it reads more like a supervillain origin story instead of something more humanising.
One can argue that the origin took place in June 2015 when Trump descended a golden elevator and announced his bid for presidency. In the subsequent speech he made there were many crazy sentences uttered, including the following:
Sadly, the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again. – Donald Trump, 16 Jun 2015
True to his word he has indeed brought this great American institution back to life, according to himself anyway. Some 18 months after declaring its death, Trump announced the glorious rebirth by tweeting the following in early 2017:
And, as if to hammer home this point, in June of this year vice president Mike Pence, speaking at the annual meeting of the Faith & Freedom Coalition in Washington, said:
After eight years of the Obama nightmare, president Trump has renewed the American dream. After eight years of a static economy, stagnant wages and being told that no growth is the new normal, this president kick-started a great American come back. After eight years of retreat, America’s advancing because president Donald Trump has restored American strength at home and abroad. – Mike Pence, Jun 2018
A quick Google News search of the term “American dream” will reveal dozens of articles recently written by various academics, historians, social commentators, and journalists, all of them putting forward their propositions as to why there appears to be a decline in this national ethos.
I find it intriguing that we live in such an advanced technological age, with America arguably the most advanced nation on earth. But yet tens of millions of Americans still seem to suffer such personal ailments as anxiety, depression, substance addiction, and mental health issues. Why is this paradox the case? I guess if you really want to know what is going on in America at the ground level then the following articles will hopefully provide some much needed valuable insight. As always selected quotes are presented and the articles are worth reading in full. As much as one can given the subject matter, enjoy!
An Autopsy Of The American Dream
Sean Illing, 28 Jun 2018, vox.com
A conversation with “Tailspin: The People And Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–And Those Fighting To Reverse It” author Steven Brill.
Over the past 50 years, lots of things have changed in the United States. Here are a few examples.
1) A child’s chance of earning more than his or her parents has plummeted from 90 to 50 percent.
2) Earnings by the top 1 percent of Americans nearly tripled, while middle-class wages have been basically frozen for four decades, adjusting for inflation.
3) Self-inflicted deaths — from opioid use and other drug addictions — are at record highs.
4) Nearly one in five children in the US are now at risk of going hungry.
5) Among the 35 richest countries in the world, the US now has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy.
These facts, and many others, are cataloged in a new book by Steven Brill about America’s gradual decline over the last half-century. Brill has been writing about class warfare in the US since 2011, and the picture he paints is as depressing as it is persuasive. The book argues the people with the most advantages in the American economy have used that privilege to catapult themselves ahead of everyone else, and then rigged the system — to cement their position at the top, and leave the less fortunate behind. I spoke to Brill about how this came to pass, why the American dream has vanished, and what it will take to undo the damage that’s been done.
The key distinction in the book is between the protected and the unprotected classes. Why is this so important in American society? I think it’s a much more relevant distinction than saying people are Democrats or Republicans, or that they’re conservatives or liberals. The unprotected are all the people in this country who rely on the government in some way to provide for the common good. They actually need public education to be good because that provides opportunity to their children. They need mass transit. They need a fair tax code. They need someone to answer the phone at the Social Security Administration when they get their Social Security check.
And what’s happened over the last three or four years is that big swaths of the unprotected people in this country have gotten very frustrated and angry that basically nothing is working for them — whether it’s the economy, or the highways, or the power grid, or the tax code, or job training programs, or public education, or health care. They basically have the sense that the government’s responsibility to provide for the common good is gone. It’s evaporated. This is why they reacted, or at least 46 percent of them reacted, the way they did in the 2016 election, which was really an effect of severe frustration — “Let’s just elect this guy who’s promising all this stuff. He seems really unconventional, but at least he says exactly what’s on his mind. Let’s try this.”
And the protected class? Well, they’re the “winners” in our system who don’t need a good system of public education because their kids go to private school, who don’t care about mass transit because they can afford to drive anywhere, and they don’t need public health care because they can pay for private coverage. In short, they’re not invested in the common good because they’re protected, and the system is rigged to keep them that way.
The core promise of the American dream has always been that you can do better than your parents. “If you work hard and you play by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to say, “you can make it in this country.” For a large swath of the country, the majority of the country, that’s just not true anymore.
In many cases, the people doing the most damage aren’t breaking any laws or consciously trying to hurt anyone else. They’re simply doing what they were told to do — go to prestigious law schools, get a job at a prestigious law firm, and make lots of money. But the end result of what they’ve done is increase the gap between the protected and the unprotected, and to create a country that is more unequal and less fair.
I think we need to redirect our old values. The values that were hijacked — the First Amendment, due process, meritocracy, the financial and legal engineering — they need to be redirected to undo some of the damage that’s been done. We have to demand leaders in Washington and state capitals who unite us, who will tell the frustrated middle class that they have more in common with the poor than with the protected class. If we can’t do these things, we’re in trouble.
I conceived the book as an autopsy of the “American dream” when I started, but I also realized that there was another part of the story. In the course of trying to collect all the facts for the autopsy, I started talking to the people who were tackling campaign finance or infrastructure or income inequality, and I realized that there were a lot of people out there doing really important work, really good work. So yes, things are very bad, but the patient isn’t quite dead yet — there are some cures that are still possible.
Suicides Have Increased. Is This An Existential Crisis?
Dr Clay Routledge, 23 Jun 2018, nytimes.com
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released startling new statistics on the rise of deaths by suicide in the United States, which are up 25 percent since 1999 across most ethnic and age groups. These numbers clearly point to a crisis — but of what kind?
Many argue that this is a crisis of mental health care, that people are not getting the services they need. The proposed solution is better therapies, more effective antidepressants and greater access to treatment.
This assessment may be correct. However, the suicide rate has increased even as more people are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, and even as treatment for those conditions has become more widely available. An additional explanation seems to be needed.
As a behavioral scientist who studies basic psychological needs, including the need for meaning, I am convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaninglessness. Fully addressing it will require an understanding of how recent changes in American society — changes in the direction of greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging — are increasing the risk of existential despair.
Like other organisms, humans are in the survival and reproduction game. We have a strong orientation to live — that is, to avoid death. However, the neurological machinery that has helped us survive has also rendered us distinctively ruminative. Our capacity to reflect on ourselves, to think about the past and the future and to engage in abstract thought has given us access to some uncomfortable truths: We know that we and everyone we care about will age, become frailer and die. We recognize that life is uncertain. We understand that pain and sorrow are part of our destiny. What is the point of it all?
In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful. We are a species that strives not just for survival, but also for significance. We want lives that matter. It is when people are not able to maintain meaning that they are most psychologically vulnerable.
Empirical studies bear this out. A felt lack of meaning in one’s life has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety and — yes — suicide. And when people experience loss, stress or trauma, it is those who believe that their lives have a purpose who are best able to cope with and recover from distress.
How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? There are many paths, but the psychological literature suggests that close relationships with other people are our greatest existential resource. Regardless of social class, age, gender, religion or nationality, people report that the life experiences they find most personally meaningful typically involve loved ones.
Critically, studies indicate that it isn’t enough to simply be around or even liked by other people. We need to feel valued by them, to feel we are making important contributions to a world that matters. This helps explain why people can feel lonely and meaningless even if they are regularly surrounded by others who treat them well: Merely pleasant or enjoyable social encounters aren’t enough to stave off despair.
All of which brings us to the changing social landscape of America. To bemoan the decline of neighborliness, the shrinking of the family and the diminishing role of religion may sound like the complaining of a crotchety old man. Yet from the standpoint of psychological science, these changes, regardless of what you otherwise think about them, pose serious threats to a life of meaning.
Consider that Americans today, compared with those of past generations, are less likely to know and interact with their neighbors, to believe that people are generally trustworthy and to feel that they have individuals they can confide in. This is a worrisome development from an existential perspective: Studies have shown that the more people feel a strong sense of belongingness, the more they perceive life as meaningful. Other studies have shown that lonely people view life as less meaningful than those who feel strongly connected to others.
Something similar is at stake in the decreasing size of the family. Americans today are waiting longer to marry and have children, and are having fewer children. This may be a desirable state of affairs for many people (though evidence suggests that American women are having fewer children than they want). Nonetheless, researchers have found that adults with children are more focused on matters of meaning than are adults who do not have children, and that parents experience a greater sense of meaningfulness when they are engaged in activities that involve taking care of children.
As for religion, which has long provided the institutional and social scaffolding for a life of meaning, it, too, is in steep decline. Americans these days, especially young adults, are less likely to identify with a religious faith, attend church or engage in other religious practices. But as my research has shown, the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings: When Americans abandon traditional houses of worship, they increasingly search for alternative religious-like experiences (including those involving ideas about ghosts or space aliens) in order to feel as if they are part of something larger and more meaningful than their brief mortal lives.
There is even reason to think that America’s existential crisis may be contributing to our rancorous political divisions. Studies show that when presented with existentially threatening ideas (such as reminders of their mortality), people respond with increased bias toward their own worldview, particularly if they are not finding meaning in their life through other sources. In this way, our fractious political culture may be fueled not just by ideological disagreement, but also by a desperate search, common to all lost souls, to find meaning anywhere we can.
The Fading American Dream May Be Behind Rise In US Suicides
Andy Coghlan, 27 Jun 2018, newscientist.com
Shrinking life chances plus lack of a social safety net may have left middle-aged Americans more vulnerable to suicide than peers in other rich nations.
Sobering statistics published earlier this month show that the annual rate of suicide in the US has risen by almost 28 per cent between 1999 and 2016. A number of explanations have been put forward, including the 2008 economic crash, the upsurge in addiction to opioid painkillers and the migration of manufacturing jobs to other countries. But none alone explains why the suicide rate is rising so fast in the US as it falls in other rich countries. Is something uniquely American at work?
One of the key drivers could be the American dream itself – the idea that you can work hard and climb out of poverty. A growing mismatch between the life expectations this brings and the increasingly bleak reality for many US citizens could lead to hardship. This may be particularly felt by middle-aged white Americans, who have the highest suicide rates and the steepest rises. The American dream is deeply ingrained, but it no longer seems to be true for working class, middle-aged people.
Unlike the US, governments of rich nations such as Finland, France and Belgium promote healthcare through non-medical support, including housing, education and social insurance. “The US spends plenty, but we spend differently,” says Laudan Aron at the Urban Institute in Washington DC.
This rejection of the state and the prioritising of individual rights, no matter the potential costs, runs right through US culture. It explains why people in the US are more likely to indulge in risky behaviours such as overeating and gun-related activity, and tend to defy safety-based but restrictive norms such as wearing seatbelts. So could this attitude also be behind US suicide rates?
Deborah Stone of the CDC agrees it may have played a part. “It is possible that the culture around individualism and stigma around seeking help does leave people vulnerable, perhaps more so than in other Western countries.”