My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Amercan What?

I woke up to NPR this morning talking about how one sign the Democrats are in a big hole going into the fall elections is that polling shows that a record number of Americans don't believe in the American Dream, especially the non-professional working women who have been the backbone of the party's support the past decade or so. To me, this just shows how out of touch NPR is. The American Dream? Really? When was the last time you heard anybody talking about the American Dream? Do you even remember? I do:

Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission,
Ignorace, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite
All of which are American Dreams
All of which are American Dreams
All of which are American Dreams
All of which are American Dreams

Rage against the Machine! That was, what, nineteen years ago. It was still a culturally relevant concept back then. People longed for it or mocked it, but there it was. But now? What does it even mean, a house with a white picket fence in the suburbs? Like I could ever dream about owning a single family home anywhere that I'd actually want to live. The fact is, the precious housing bubble that left all these speculators "underwater" upon its partial collapse put owning a decent home beyond the reach of most of the younger generation by pushing up prices at a pace far faster than the paltry to nonexistant rise in wages we've seen the past decade. And the government wants to re-inflate it! If prices don't fall, eventually there would be no one able to buy any of these properties, since baby boomers can't keep selling them to each other forever. Eventually, they will want to downsize and sell their homes to . . . somebody. Not me, because I can't pay those prices, and we have a six figure household income, so if we can't afford them, who exactly can?

Or by the American Dream are they talking about getting ahead through an honest day's pay for an honest day's work? How are we going to do that? Real wages are stagnant or worse for the majority, while the top 2% just get richer and richer. But Republicans are arguing that the way to get people back to work at miserable low paying jobs is to give these 2% another big tax cut.

Let me take a stab at what has replaced the American Dream: taking a gamble and winning a big payout at longshot odds. Either literally, through winning the state sponsored lottery, or figuratively, through winning on Reality Television or getting a fat contract with a giant entertainment corporation to churn out insipid pop or hip hop albums. Working hard and playing by the rules gets you nowhere in the new scheme of things, you have to get lucky and if a fortune falls in your lap, be prepared to take advantage of it:

I wanna be a billionaire so fricking bad
Buy all of the things I never had
Uh, I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

But that wasn't what the American Dream was all about, it was about a broad swath of society, not rich but not poor, that everybody who did their homework, got a decent job and worked hard at it could join. I don't want to make it sound to idyllic. A big part of it was about moving out into dreary fake plastic suburbs and leaving the old neighborhood a blighted segregated prison for the non-white underclass, who were never really invited to participate in the American Dream. But for the majorit, it was an attainable goal that you could get to by working hard. Or that's the way I remember it. Like I said, I haven't heard anybody talking about it lately.

Personally I'm pretty well traveled and after making a few trips across the pond I must say I think this vision doesn't stack up very well with what I'd call the European Dream - that is, well tended cities with cohesive communities in an enviromnment with higher taxes and unemployment, but in which no one is permitted to fall below a certain floor in terms of access to social goods (food, medical care, education). This kind of arrangement removes some of the fear of failure that I believes clings to and twists around so many things in American life. In Maslovian terms, being unable to permanently resolve the survival needs at the base of the pyramid of needs means that many of us are stunted by fear and don't really get a chance to work on higher order needs and development (creativity, moral imagination, self actualization etc). The right may feel that fear is motiviational for little people, but it isn't healthy.

This European Dream too is exclusionary, based on ethinic solidarity and leading to a hostility to immigration. I suspect that's why a similar vision is not more popular here - indeed, I have heard Tea Baggers complaining that Obama wants to turn America into Europe. That's a problem for some people in our country precisely because Americans don't share an ethnic solidarity - and if extending a safety net for the poor means redistributing money from "us" to "them" the many whites are dead set against it. Hence the dream based on individual effor rather than national solidarity. But since that isn't working too well, at this point we can either decide to be a "we" after all, or all get left further and further behind in our separate little individualistic shacks, waiting for the big windfall to fall in our laps.

I am not optimistic about the American people wising up over the next few weeks, but I am reminded of one of the first things I ever learned about statistics: "The Lottery is a special tax on people who are bad at math."

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