January 22, 2012
THE INSTABILITY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931) (Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, 2001) (By the 1930s, "[w]e had got tired of idealism and had been urged to place our destinies in the hands of the safe realists, hard-headed business men who would stand no nonsense about 'moral issues,' of which we were told we had had enough, and who would be practical. . . . As the successful business man would consider himself the best interpreter of good economics, he thus set himself up as the best judge of national morals. Long ago we noted the beginning of the confusion in the American mind between business and virtue. The confusion by 1930 had gone full circle, By then it had become complete. If what was economically right was also morally right, we could surrender our souls to professor of economics and captains of industry." "But, having surrendered idealism for the sake of prosperity, the 'practical men' bankrupted us on both of them. We had forgotten, though no post-war leader dared remind us of the fact, that it is impractical to be only 'practical.' Without a vision the people perish. . . ." Id. at 400. "But there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. . . . " "No, the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves." "It has been a great epic and a great dream. What, now, of the future." Id. at 404-405. Now, as then, a good question: What is the future of the American dream? "Just as in education we have got to have some aims based on values before we can reform our system intelligently or learn in what direction to go, so with business and the American dream. Our democracy cannot attempt to cur, guide, or control the great business interests and powers unless we have clear notions as to the purpose in mind when we try to do so. If we are to regard man merely as a producer and consumer, then the more ruthlessly efficient big business is, the better. Many of the goods consumed doubtless make man healthier, happier, and better even on the basis of a high scale of human values. But if we think of him as a human being primarily, and only incidentally as a consumer, then we have to consider what values are best or most satisfying for him as a human being. We can attempt to regulate business for him not as a consumer but as a man, with many needs and desires with which he has nothing to do as a consumer. Our point of view will shift from efficiency and statistics to human nature. We shall not create a high-wage scale in order that the receiver will consumer more, but that he may, in one way or another, live more abundantly, whether by enjoying those things which are factory-produced or those which are not. The points of view are entirely different, socially and economically." Id. at 408. Is there any doubt that late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America is essentially a consumer culture, a culture where men and women are view primarily as consumers, and far much less as human beings?).