What exactly is the American Dream? Does it still exist? Is it a concept or a moniker for the lives of those who possess a certain amount of material possessions? Certainly, most of us wake up every day faithful that we will be able to improve our circumstances or maintain them if they’re already good. Does the American Dream affirm or merely incite this call to faith in what Ronald Reagan once called, “Our way of life?” For those of us who do not hail from wealthy or financially comfortable families and have not experienced any of the advantages that come with such privilege, an accurate and current understanding of the American Dream is essential, lest we exhaust ourselves and all of our resources in the pursuit of a delusion.
Having been born in America, I can’t precisely characterize its appeal as a recent immigrant might, but I can discuss the America that I, a child of the 80s, was raised to believe in. Ronald Reagan, my parents, and my teachers “sold” me on the idea that my country was a land of opportunity, freedom, equality, justice, and morality. I don’t fault them for “selling” me their version of America, because in many ways, that was the America in which they grew up. Reagan witnessed, first hand, the patriotism, unity and prosperity that followed World War II. My parents grew up in the 50s, which was arguably the only recent decade in our nation’s history in which the average working man could single-handedly provide what is now considered a middle-class life for his family: a purchased home, a family car, regular vacations, etc. My father once told me that the 50s generation was known as the “we” generation for its sense of nationalism and community.
As I write this, I’m unable to align the America described in the last paragraph with the America in which I currently live. Can we still call it a land of opportunity when, for the average person, the pursuit of basic material needs requires financial enslavement? People do not risk their lives to come to this country hoping to live from paycheck to paycheck and under the burden of tremendous financial debt — but that is precisely what they get. The American system seems to be deliberately designed to benefit banks, other financial institutions, and the wealthiest 1% at the average hardworking citizen’s expense.
The average American cannot acquire the material trappings of the American Dream without enslaving himself financially. If he wants to own a home, he must sign up for thirty years of debt. If he wants a college education that leads to a profession, he must accrue student loan debt. Twenty-somethings starting their adult lives one-hundred grand in the hole may never achieve financial freedom, and, these days, may never land jobs that compensate well enough to justify that debt. Another problem is that debt can and does lead to more debt. When one is already financially burdened by student loans, mortgages, and car payments, one is far less likely to have enough available money when unexpected and costly life situations arise. When needed money is not readily available, one must borrow it. The system is deliberately designed to place people in such situations so that parasites at the top of the wealth pyramid can feed off of the average citizen’s hard work and sacrifice. How can one say that all of us have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when the majority of our lives are spent working to pay debts to which we are absolutely enslaved? To anyone with a rational mind, this scenario represents the antithesis of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In an interview, the poet, Charles Bukowski, revealed that the path to happiness requires a complete abandonment of status quo thinking. According to the poet, if one sees three lines of people, one should join the shortest line. The assumption here is that the crowd always gravitates toward the worst circumstances under the misguided belief that what is popular is “the best”.
About the majority, Bukowski says, “All you do is reverse the totality of their thinking, and you have the heaven they’re looking for.” I would advise all young — and even older — Americans to assume Bukowski’s perspective when drafting and/or adjusting their life goals.
Simply put, the material version of the American Dream has not existed for the majority of us since the 50s, yet people still line up in droves to get it. They still pay college tuitions that do not and cannot promise a prosperous future in return for the hefty investment; they still mortgage themselves up to their eyeballs, despite the fact that they cannot say for certain that their financial status will remain consistent for thirty years, and they will always be able to make their mortgage payments; they still drive cars they can’t really afford and indulge their children with possessions they don’t really need. It’s almost as if the average American sees the stereotypical middle class life as a birthright that he or she will do anything to secure. It is so tragic that Americans will trade life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the material veneer of success.
The American Dream isn’t and never was a promise to supply each American with the material trappings of the stereotypical middle-class life. My grandfather, Antonio Corvino, arrived here from Naples as a stowaway on a boat that docked in Connecticut. Why did he come here? For opportunity. That was it. No one here had promised him any level of material prosperity. All he wanted was a chance to control his own destiny. The Puritans came here seeking religious freedom — the opportunity to control their own spiritual destiny. So, it’s time to answer the original question posed at the start of this discussion: what is the American Dream? It’s a concept, not a material inheritance. Each of us is permitted to construct a satisfying life for ourselves. In order to do so, we must base this construction on an accurate perception of reality.
In order to accurately perceive reality, one must distinguish fact from fantasy. Upon first hearing this directive, it seems quite simple, and most of us would instantly claim that we have a firm grip on reality. Upon closer scrutiny, this may not be the case.
Not long ago, my brother took a long hiatus from watching television. When I asked why he did this, he said, “I realized that television’s main goal is to make me feel bad about my life so that I’ll buy stuff.” Some may consider this statement to be extreme. However, the media does constantly drill us with images of people who are far better looking than us, material goods that are far better than those we own, and lavish lifestyles that we are expected to envy. At the same time that the media creates dissatisfactions with our lives that might not actually exist, it sells us alleged cures for those dissatisfactions, and these remedies always cost money.
How do we participate in the actual American Dream, the promise that we can commandeer our own lives and make them as satisfying as is possible?
Be introspective. Take regular breaks from your busy day and from the internet, radio, television, and anything else that feeds you fabricated images and ideas. Use these breaks to get in touch with your true feelings and desires. What do you really need in order to be happy? Are these needs emanating from your true self, or have you been taught to have these needs? Learn the difference, and let go of or at least control any desires that aren’t organic in nature.
Be skeptical. Whenever I receive a message from a media source or from an individual who has obviously been hypnotized by it, I consider who might stand to profit from my willing receipt of this message. In other words, when assessing the validity of anything I’m being told, I follow the money. The media isn’t your mother. It doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t want to make you happier. It only wants your money. View media as you might view a telemarketer or a con man on the street. Would you allow such a person to control your destiny? Of course not.
Be progressive. The 1950’s epitomized the material version of the American Dream. Our consumption culture exploded at this time, prompting artists like Andy Warhol to glorify supermarkets and their products. These days, we are surrounded by signs that consumption is destroying our planet, our societies, and our personal lives. Simply put, humanity is beginning to realize that it will self-destruct should it continue to exploit rather than nurture its resources. Tune into this reality. Pursuing the consumption model of the American Dream is like investing in a dying business. Many of our nation’s most brilliant people are downsizing. People with PhDs and lofty professions are rejecting the consumption and greed model for existence and involving themselves in the tiny house movement and sustainable living. Perhaps the new American Dream is emancipation from the bonds of materialism. Maybe the new “millionaire” is the individual who is debt free and able to provide for himself without being overworked and debilitated by stress.
Philosophically, America is an amalgam of transcendentalism and pragmatism. The former school of thought would have us dream big; the latter school of thought would have us think practically. If the average citizen adheres to the best parts of each philosophy, he or she cannot justify complacency with the current system, nor imagine any possibility of real and lasting success within it. The successful American of tomorrow will be the individual who deals creatively and critically with his or her life and doesn’t conform to the status quo expectations placed upon it.
Simply put, if one can’t afford something, one can’t have it. If one decides to have it anyway, one has the absolute right as a freedom-loving American to suffer any and all of the consequences that one might invite as a result of that decision. Not surprisingly, George Carlin was right. The material version of the American Dream doesn’t exist — at least not for most of us.
What does exist is what I will call the American Reality. What does this country promise? It promises simply the right to pursue happiness. If one’s definition of happiness demands the possession of a house, a car, a spouse, and a sizeable family, that’s fine, but neither the country nor the universe owes those things to him. Finally, insofar as the country enjoys masquerading as a truly democratic society, freedom-loving Americans also have the alleged opportunity to educate themselves about the current system, decide whether or not it is treating them fairly, and respond accordingly. After all, it was dissatisfaction with the system that gave birth to this land of opportunity.
What does “The American Dream” mean to you? Let us know in the comments below.
By Vincent Corvino
About the Author:
Vincent Corvino’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, among them The Quarterly, New Letters, The Crescent Review and The Blue Moon Review. He is currently the lead singer of the New York City hard rock band, Urbansnake. He is a former student of Zen Buddhist Roshi, Rich Hart, and has trained as a boxer under former WBO Middleweight Champion, Doug Dewitt. He possesses an MA in Education from Columbia University and a Post-Graduate Certificate in School Leadership. He has been an English teacher since 1996.