the american dream

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Under the banner "Save the American Dream," Jobs with Justice has called for a rally at 5pm, Tuesday, March 15 at Terry Shrunk Plaza in downtown Portland at southwest 3rd and Madison. The rally is in solidarity with Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, and the Jobs with Justice website explains, "Though millions of Americans are out of jobs, corporate-funded politicians are attacking worker rights and slashing public services, instead of addressing the jobs deficit."

"Saving the American Dream" was also the slogan of rallies held last month nationwide by a wide coalition of progresive groups "to demand an end to the attacks on worker’s rights and public services across the country, to demand the creation of decent jobs for the millions of people who desperately want to work, and to demand that the rich and powerful pay their fair share."

Clearly we on the Old Mole support workers' rights and publc services, and think the rich and powerful should be paying a bigger share than they are.

But the Old Mole might also want to ask what is meant by this familiar phrase, the American dream, and to question not only the viability of what the dream might mean but also the limits of what it dares to dream.

America has always been marked by contradictions between the radical promise of democracy and the actual practice of american institutions. Founded in a call to liberty but tied to the persistence of legal slavery, the nation has always been, as poet Langston Hughes suggested, a dream deferred.

The term "the American dream" was popularized in a 1931 book by historian James Truslow Adams called The Epic of America, in which he described it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of 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."

It is perhaps telling that Adams was writing during the great depression, and that the phrase has reappeared with new force now in the Great Recession, when economic life is especially hard for most of us. That it is not a dream of "motor cars and high wages merely" also tells us that the notion of the american dream is much about material fortune, and the reference to "opportunity accordng to ability or achievement" tells us it is often about an ideal of meritocracy and social mobility, about a rags to riches, Horatio Alger story. The 2003 American Dream Downpayment Act tells us its often about home ownership. The DREAM act blocked last year indicates that it's often about immigration.

Courtney Martin, in an essay on Alternet titled "Is the American Dream a Delusion?" tells us "You know the story: Once upon a time there was a hardworking, courageous young man, born in a poor family, who came to America, put in blood, sweat and tears, and eventually found riches and respect." But is this how it really goes? Comedian George Carlin observed that "it's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

America has never been as equal or as socially mobile as many of us believe, and economic inequality has risen sharply in recent years. A 2008 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that this trend is widespread, but the United States is one of the places it is most acute. They note, too, that poor people in rich countries are not necessarily better off. The poorest 10% in Sweden have higher incomes than the poorest 10% in the US, even though average incomes are higher in the US, because inequality is also higher. Work alone is not sufficient to avoid poverty, indirect taxes (on goods and services) widen inequality, and societies with greater income inequality have less mobility. Moreover, wealth is distributed even more unequally than income.

According to US census data, between 1979 and 2008, the top 5% of American families saw their real incomes increase 73%. Over the same period, the lowest-income fifth saw a decrease in real income of 4.1%. Adjusted for inflation, the average wage in 2008 was still lower than it was in 1979.

Martin's essay on Alternet notes that her immigrant and working class students at Hunter College in New York want to believe in the American Dream. "As if by gut survival instinct, students hold up their favorite uncle or a distant cousin, or …, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as evidence that the American Dream is alive and well."

"Many of these students' parents -- some of whom have left behind mothers, friends, respect and status in their countries of origin -- have sacrificed their lives on the altar of the American Dream. Some of [the] students are recent immigrants themselves, so relieved to have made it out of violent and poverty-stricken places like Haiti and Colombia that they aren't ready to criticize the country that is their haven. Others, American as apple pie, are the first to go to college in their families and believe ardently that this guarantees a better life."

But Martin wants them to see that "their wholehearted belief in the American Dream is actually doing more to benefit people far richer and whiter than they are"; wants them to see "how one success story is dangled in front of a struggling public so they won't get angry enough to revolt against an unfair system. How oppression can so easily be mistaken for personal failure"; wants them to see that "As long as they are distracted by their own dedication, they won't stop to question why the richest people in this country pay far less in taxes, proportionally, than the middle class. They won't have the time to organize against elitist candidates because they will be too busy working dead-end jobs. [Maybe] "The proletariat didn't rise up like Marx predicted because [they were] too tired after work. All [they] wanted to do was watch TV and have a beer."

But it's not just that the dream is mostly a delusion. It's also that it's a fairly limited vision. In a speech last year to the Congressional Black Caucus, about "saving the American dream," Barak Obama suggested that "putting the American dream within the reach of all Americans" means "giving every hardworking American the chance to join a growing and vibrant middle class and giving the middle class ladders and steps to success."

That view is in line with the Democratic Leadership Council's 2006 American Dream Initiative, which they call "an opportunity agenda for the middle class and all who aspire to join it." Among other things, their initiative involves the "opportunity and responsibility" to "save for retirement" and "buy health insurance."

But these goals move us away from a vision where, for instance, Social Security provides even for those who have been unable to save for retirement, and single-payer health care insures the well being of all without requiring payments to the wealthy CEOS and stockholders of insurance companies.

What we should be dreaming of is not the chance for all to move into the shrinking middle class, but the opportunity for all of us to work toward a society not divided by class.

In the meantime, we can show up at Terry Shrunk Plaza to "join the fight for Full and Fair Employment, quality public education, good jobs, strong communities . . . a green economy and … the American Dream[?]"


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