Thursday, September 12, 2013
The American Dream
A decade ago, I was interviewing high school freshmen who were reading at the elementary school level for a remedial reading class. The students only entered the class if they agreed to it. I interviewed one young man named Tim whom I will not forget, though I only talked with him for that one hour or so. Tim, I suppose, held on to the mythical American Dream.
Tim, probably five foot seven and a bit gangly, came into my office with the weary look and the dirt so deep in his skin's creases that I guessed he was homeless. The reading assessment showed that he was reading comfortably at the kindergarten or first grade level, but uncomfortably and without comprehension on any texts more difficult than that. Tim's Language Arts teacher had already noticed his difficulty and had asked that I talk with him.
Tim knew that he struggled with reading. (Some students didn't: they said, "I can read. I just can't comprehend.") When I asked him if he'd like to enroll in the course, however, he declined. This was unusual, and I asked him what his vision for his life after high school was.
"I'm going to play in the NBA," he said.
I was new to this community, so I was surprised that someone of his physique would imagine such a future for himself. "Do you play on the school team?" I asked. He did not. "Why do you want to play professional basketball?"
He told me that his dream was to be rich one day, and--again being new to this community--I told him that being rich didn't necessarily make a person happy. I told him that I knew people who were wealthy who didn't seem happy to me, and that maybe it was more healthy to have a middle income and a meaningful life.
This dirty child looked at me as if I had three heads. Whereas there had been a softness about his brown eyes when he told me about his dream, he now looked at me hard, as if his eyes were made of glass. He did not believe me, and I think my statement made him angry.
I believe I first started hearing about this dream of excess, "The American Dream," when I read The Great Gatsby in college. At first I thought of "The American Dream" as some literary device, a fiction that explained Gatsby and his opulent lifestyle. I remember Gatsby (It's been thirty years since I've read it, so I may not have the details right) as a dark, shadowy figure, his excessive wealth linked to some unknown, international badness. I remember him as lonely amidst the crowds that gathered at his mansion to eat and drink and dance.
It wasn't until a discussion my senior year in college that I noticed that people spoke of this dream as "The American Dream" outside of the Gatsby context. They spoke about this dream as if every American knew and had this dream. This perplexed me. This was not my dream, and I didn't know when these classmates of mine had come to agree on this American Dream as THE American Dream.
A child of the seventies, I thought of "The Dream" as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream, and when Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream," I don't think he meant Gatsby's American dream. I think he meant a dream of economic prosperity but not excess, a dream of justice, of a fair police system, legal system, educational system, penal system and political system. A dream of a place where whites, the descendants of former slave-holders, and blacks, the descendants of former slave-holders and slaves, would be as brothers and sisters to one another. (You can read the entire text of MLK's "I have a dream" speech at the Fox News--yes, Fox News--website http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/08/27/transcript-martin-luther-king-jr-have-dream-speech/#ixzz2ehbI3cj2 )
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s yearning still stirs my hopes, over fifty years later, as we are still in a land of economic haves and have-nots, where blacks and other people of color are systematically discriminated against in our penal, legal, educational and political systems.
The economic divide continues to grow. A front page headline in yesterday's Seattle Times, announced, "Top 1% take a record share of U.S. income," and the lead reported, "The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country's total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting such data a century ago."
The disparity in income suggests to me that Gatsby's dream has taken hold in America more than Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. There is much sadness in this, both because the dream of incredible wealth means that some do not have enough while others have too much (yes, too much for their own happiness), and because Gatsby's dream does not lead to happiness and fulfillment, but rather to the kind of loneliness that Gatsby himself experienced.
In my sadness, I return to Martin Luther King, Jr, who admonishes me, "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." And I go now to a different dreamer, John Lennon, and I seek with John to imagine:
Imagine no possessions.
I wonder if you can:
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people,
Sharing all the world.
You may say I'm a dreamer,
But I'm not the only one.
John and I aren't the only ones. Eleanor Roosevelt, another dreamer, said, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
The most beautiful dreams, it seems to me, are not the empty dreams of extravagance, but the dreams for all of us to pursue happiness.
Sound too sappy? Thomas Jefferson adapted the phrase, "life, liberty and the pursuit of property" from the 17th century philosopher John Locke, who wrote of government's role in protecting, "life, liberty, and estate." Jefferson envisioned something bigger, a government that protected a person's pursuit of happiness. The owner of an estate himself, perhaps he saw the folly of thinking that an estate is more important than pursuing happiness.
Now, don't get me wrong, I think that students like Tim are right to want a world where their needs and rights, including the right to pursue happiness, are met, and that includes having sufficient funds to lead a healthy life. But excessive funds for a few and inadequate funds for most others? This dream is unhealthy for wealthy and poor alike, for individuals and for our country.
So I hope that like Martin Luther, John, Eleanor and me, you dream bigger than luxury...
I hope someday you will join us,
And the world will live as one.