The Herald Bulletin

November 8, 2011

Primus Mootry: The American Dream -- a reassessment

By Primus Mootry
For The Herald Bulletin

“Everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned;

the best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.”

— William Butler Yeats (1919)




W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” captured the global despair that followed World War I. Millions, including over 100,000 U.S. soldiers, were killed or wounded. Europe was in turmoil.

New countries were formed. New ideologies were taking root across the globe. Disease, specifically a new strain of the flu virus, eventually killed 50,000,000 people in a grim footnote to one of the bloodiest wars in human history.

Through the Great Depression and World War II, astride powerful new industrial and technological engines, a relatively young United States drove itself into the richest, most powerful nation on earth. It became the lamp-lit Promised Land for teeming masses of dispossessed people from every corner of the globe.  

Although not without bumps, bruises and outright brutality, America absorbed countless millions of these immigrants into its factories, schools and neighborhoods.

They came in search of The American Dream. Many found their definition of it. Now, however, we find ourselves in a time where that Dream, even simply defined, is being called into question.

In my view, the concern is appropriate, not so much in relation to America’s military and economic might, but in terms of its position as a world leader in a time far more complex and dangerous than the period after World War I.

As simple terminology, “The American Dream”is code. It is the simplification, or oversimplification, of more complex ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. As such, the phrase is limited in what it can convey.

A research center at Xavier University annually conducts a State of the American Dream survey “to gauge what [the Dream] is and to whom, to measure America’s confidence in itself and its future, and to understand the aspirations and values likely to directly impact current and future economic, political and cultural decisions.”

Here are some of the findings from the survey:

♦ The American Dream remains remarkably resilient despite a continued wave of bad news, enormous economic challenges, international uncertainty, and institutional distrust.

♦ While confidence in the economy and optimism about America’s place in the world have significantly declined, respondents are nonetheless still confident in their own personal ability to achieve their American Dream.

♦ Currently, the four most prominent definitions of The American Dream are “a good life for me and my family,” “financial security,””opportunity,” and “freedom.”

Although I do not know how many respondents participated in the Xavier University survey or anything about the social and economic status of those who did, I found the responses somewhat troublesome.

As to the first response, it does not surprise me that the American Dream remains resilient. It is, after all, an article of faith, like Scripture.

That aside, more and more, economists and researchers are finding that, as it is defined here, The American Dream may be out of reach for massive numbers of citizens, including new immigrants.

In the second point, respondents apparently make a distinction between The American Dream as a shared possibility for all, and a possibility for at least one. People play the lottery with the same idea in mind.

The last point is particularly troublesome in that it runs to the very substance of how, I suppose, most Americans define The American Dream.

To the point, its definition is interpreted in ways that are basically materialistic or self-serving: my family (my house, my car, my job), my financial security, my opportunity, and even my freedom.

These ideas, no doubt, have underpinnings in the “rugged individualis” that is so much a part of our national historical narrative, but do not reflect a vision of the future: 21st century requirements for shared learning (problem solving); shared work; personal responsibility; shared sacrifice; and shared resources.

As I suggested earlier, the term “The American Dream” is code for a larger set of ideas set down in part by the Founding Fathers. There is nothing wrong with that.

But there is something wrong if today’s adults — whether teachers, parents, or others — teach our young people an American Dream that only prepares them for obsolescence in a complex, changing world.

Have a nice day.

Primus Mootry is an Anderson resident. His

column is published each Wednesday.