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Opinion

The evolution of the American dream

There's a sense of skepticism about it now.

By / September 29, 2008



Baltimore

What is the American dream today? It's a fair question in these times of financial and economic disorder and a less than harmonious political scene. The general election has stimulated references to it throughout the country. I want to know what all this dreaming is about.

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Promises to revive, live up to, or simply abide by the standards of the American dream seem to flow more fluidly off the lips of people in high places, those who are already enjoying its supposed benign effects.

Many ordinary people, I've found, refer to it reluctantly, and often with sarcasm. It's as if they regard it as a phrase with little concrete meaning, or an ideal betrayed.

Take my barber, for instance. She's a smart lady, independent, with her own business: She's been around. When I put the question to her, "What's the American dream?" she responded immediately: "Pfaat!!"

Or something that sounded like that.

Then, she went on to talk about this land of promise, where people could, with hard work, obtain a home of their own, gather enough money to send their children to college, and expect, under the benign influence of the American Dream, to do better than their parents did, and so forth. She explained the dream as it has been for generations.

In other words, she believes in it, but believes also that its time has come and gone.

I don't know how widespread this feeling is, but I suspect that a lot of ordinary folks, and more than a few serious thinkers, would tend to agree with my barber about the fate of the American dream.

"Many social critics would argue that what millions of Americans are really embracing is not the American dream so much as the American daydream. The authentic American dream combines faith in God with the belief in hard work and sacrifice for the future," writes economist and social thinker Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The End of Work" and "The European Dream." He continues, "We have become, say the critics, a people who have grown fat, lazy, and sedentary, who spend much of our time wishing for success but are unwilling to 'pay our dues' with the kind of personal commitment required to make something out of our lives."

At some point in our national history, back when the Pilgrims slipped ashore, an energized cohort of fiery Protestant preachers emerged to press the notion that we Americans had been singled out for greatness by God himself, an idea that stuffed us with national pride. Thus patriotism and religion were cojoined from the beginning, and, to a certain degree, the link is still there.

Benjamin Franklin imbued in us the zeal to work and encouraged the inclination for self-improvement. Then a little more than two centuries on, the sociologist Max Weber observed how the Calvanist emphasis on hard work, once driven by Puritan religious aims, had, over the years, stimulated the growth of capitalism. The religious element has since faded, and getting rich has become nearly the sole purpose driving the dream.

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