Chapter II «What Happened to the American Dream?»
2.1 David Boorstin. «From the American Dreams to the American Illusions?»
David Boorstin remains a popular and relevant author whose books contain a sensible view of things and no veneration or hostility for the USA made for effect. His work Image, or What Happened to the American Dream is written in a level tone without unnecessary alarmism. The author reveals the main threats for the phenomenon of the Dream and also explains their origins at the same time.
From the very beginning people saw America as a land of great expectations where all the bravest hopes and dreams were achievable. The young State had been growing stronger with the assurance that «the impossible was (…) only slightly less attainable than the difficult» (Boorstin 1962: 240) From time immemorial all the great opportunities lurking in this country have been tempting its citizens to confuse visionary with real. America managed to avoid utopianism for the only reason that here dreams could be solicited and fulfilled.
The American nation has avoided the menace of the class war, ideology, deadly epidemics and of many other social evils, but instead a pure national calamity was born there. «It is the menace of unreality. The threat of nothingness is the danger of replacing American dreams by American illusions. Of replacing the ideals by the images, the aspirations by the mold» (Boorstin 1962: 240). Boorstin identifies the Americans as the first nation to have been deceived by the illusions. They (Americans) refuse to open their eyes and become disillusioned just because their dreams are so bright, earthy, and reachable that you can live comfortably in.
Why did it happen so that the Americans were trapped by their own Dream and came from the Dream to the Illusion? These questions thread the narration of the book. The author succeeded in combining renowned facts about rottenness of the Dream with interesting and logical theories of its appearance. Uncommon explanations and unexpected versions of connection between the problems of the Dream make readers look at the ideology and its tragedy from another aspect.
America is undoubtedly a unique country not only due to its wide opportunities. This is also a country which was built on nobody’s example or image. It refused from many of archaic European values unworthy of the free new world and used principles that were revolutionary for those days as basic. The experience of the formation of the USA is outstanding and could be positively useful and interesting for other nations. This experience is definitely the one to be proud of.
The USA has always been popularising its dreams and ideals. In many respects, they succeeded owing to Hollywood, the development of the film industry, the improvement of instruments for making and receiving images and some other accidental or special factors. As a result of all the attempts on «projecting» images to the world the American dreams appeared as highly pleasant and attractive shells whose inner content, though, was forgotten to be taken care of. At first these pictures were a kind of visiting cards of American life, and the Americans did hope to share their values with others by means of such images.
The development of various additional options of filming evoked the desire to make the image of America not only educational but also entertaining so that it would astonish others with the possible prospects and promises of the American dreams. Therefore the image began to improve itself in compliance with laws of perception. Its brilliance, simplicity and allurement had intensified in so much that the Americans at home started to believe that their Dream was a house with a green lawn, and work in a large city and a separate office in a successful company. Splendour and charm of megapolis and youth surrounded by luxury, or peace of the suburb and sweet serenity of a domestic idyll — that is how the new Dream looked like even for Americans. The images directed toward foreign countries were being applied at home in the USA to all its citizens.
For every piece of the American Dream inlay there was a product, screen character or any other thing of the three-dimensional world. None longer mused or recollected that actually all these pieces stranded for something more fundamental, profound and even global. Dreams, ideals and principles of the great country had covered themselves with images in nation’s mind and vanished quietly. That is why the USA, a nation explicitly built on ideals, was blamed for materialism. This seems bizarre but explicable and in many respects even natural to Boorstin.
When another regime had appeared in the world arena America changed its «image politics». Communism, curiously enough, had been attracting people, too, as well as free and democratic capitalism. The ambitious American nation decided to lock horns for the palm. Thus, the image had developed a new and more important task: to dominate. The USA was devoted to the elaboration of their presentable appearance and prestige. The national values were forgotten utterly and completely. Business, show business, film industry, music — every single piece of culture and life had to be bright, successful and flashy. The Americans had been plunging into their illusory reality deeper and deeper. How to make others follow? That was the question the nation was faced with.
Boorstin formulated the task differently, taking into consideration both sides of one coin. Americans needed to create credible images and real myths abroad but bring back the reality displaced by the illusions. America used the right tool for attracting attention. On the one hand, the image is a simple and clear symbol which can be decorated or exaggerated. On the other hand, though, it is a limited, concrete and narrowed phenomenon of the three-dimensional space. Its inner content is impossible to reveal and demonstrate hence, it may even absent at all. Thus the image is effective due to its attractiveness rather than positiveness. Boorstin claims that «images are the pseudo-events of the ethical world. They are at best only pseudo-ideals. They are created and disseminated in order to be reported, to make a favourable impression» (1962: 243). This, according to Boorstin’s theory, may be the key point in the problem of perceiving America abroad: «We suffer abroad simply because people know America through images» (1962: 243). Images are always more static, concrete and rigid than ideals. They do not have any connection with the past and lack useful pithiness.
It is no wonder that Americans «suffer more every day from the blurriness and the rigidity» (Boorstin 1962: 249) of their image-thinking. In this country «the making of images is everyday business» (Boorstin 1962: 249). Life becomes more and more illusory, and people in their turn are getting used to it. Improving options of demonstration does its bit. How to popularise happiness, calmness, harmony or support? The only possible way is to draw them, to contrive a beautiful plot and biting slogan. That is how these images appear: a happy family, smiling in the car, a relaxed couple reading in front of the fireplace or children playing on the lawn of a house. However, a natural shift takes place the minds of perceivers. They see not the implicit feelings and states but the explicit objects of reality. A car, fireplace, house etc. stand for happiness, self-actualisation and cosiness. Nevertheless, it is obvious that these objects and notions do not interrelate at all and have nothing common. It led to the wrong perception of the appeal of the image and its great aim. The images from America became the publicity for consumerism, a social scourge which has been torn to pieces in every Boorstin’s book.
People are searching, finding, buying and enjoying things, goods, and brands and so on. They mistake these purchased amenities for the real taste of life. Everywhere, as Boorstin says, everything has been substituted with prestigious, popular, tempting and artificial. The only key and support for this world is money.
Natural desire to project images and the development of the prestige do not exhaust the list of stamps made by Boorstin. What he also considers as danger to the American Dream and its vision abroad is the «devotion to status». Everything is done not for one’s sake, but in order to emphasise the process. «What we seek, we are told, is no longer wealth or glory or happiness, but a sociological concoction called «status’. We do not simply «believe’; instead we talk of «the values we hold’ we cannot do something in our spare time, we must cultivate it as a «hobby’» (Boorstin 1962: 253).
The American Dream, pure as it was, has disappeared. There are only artificial substitutes of it. Urged to be introductive and elaborated to astonish the others American images captured the thoughts of the Americans themselves. Boorstin calls it the «mirror effect» (1962: 255); all the efforts made redound upon their source. America, just as handsome Narcissus from ancient Greece, has fallen in love with its reflection. Boorstin believes that this is the diagnosis: «As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism» (1962: 257). At the same time, he tries to comprehend whether this ailment is curable. His answer is depressing in a way. «There is no cure,» — he concludes in the final abstracts of the book. However, there is still hope for this nation. Boorstin’s suggestions are reasonable enough. «The first step is to begin to suspect that there may be a world out there, beyond our present or future power to image or to imagine. We should not worry over how to export more of the American images among which we live. We should not try to persuade others to share our illusions» (Boorstin 1962: 260). The only solution here is to stop for a while and admit the disease. Boorstin calls it «the opportunity for discovery» (1962: 261). The time for seeking the forgotten truths in piles of materialistic objects will come later. For now the discovery of «where dreams end and where illusions begin» (Boorstin 1962: 261) would be enough. Having finished with this task everyone may look around and see where they are and where they would like to head to.
2.2 Geela. Watch out: the American Dream
Not only specialists and scientists meditate on the present and future of the American Dream. Average people are interested in «the national treasure’s» destiny as well. Though, their names sound unfamiliar in the world of publicism, the extraordinary and fresh way of thinking makes their views and conclusions valuable.
For example, a well-known female singer, awarded songwriter and successful columnist Geela has been studying the phenomenon of the American Dream for several years. The quintessence of her researches, titled The American Dream, has become the best-selling book in America. The true story of a girl from a small Middle East village who arrived to pursuit her American Dream in the Promised Land fascinated critics and readers. In a sense it was Bible for immigrants, support for hopeless and Ariadne’s thread for strayed. However, Geela refused to rest on her laurels and kept carrying out researches and making observations.
In her last article Whatever Happened to the American Dream? she is no longer optimistic and strong, though still a na?ve young immigrant as she explores not her personal Dream but the general tendencies, changes and sequences of it. According to her observations despite the high level of life «the overwhelming majority of Americans are now experiencing more stress and less true fulfilment and optimism then ever before» (Geela 2004: para.2). The notions that used to be honoured, like family, relationships, diligence, wisdom and moderateness have been fading. Geela also points to an open mutation of the Dream. Newly developed forms, senses and goals exert destructive influence not only on individuals’ minds but also on structures and institutions of the society on the whole. The first and most important truth about the Dream today is that «need eventually turned into greed» (Geela 2004: para.5). Previously prosperity which was based on hard work, efforts and intelligence gave people sense of true satisfaction and pride. The modern generation demands for much more, albeit is ready to spend much less. Life looks like the constant gains and prestige race whose aim is to become if not the best, then an outsider at least. Such mutation has created corruption, materialism, consumerism and the devastation of imperishable values. As a result in pursuing of new horizons of the Dream «anything becomes fair game» (Geela 2004: para.7). In this competition moral qualities are more of a hindrance than help. Those who have decided to pretend to the general standard of the American Dream compromise more often and in a romp. In the materialistic society the power of love is rarity; it is more common to find the love of power and money. The nation of producers has turned into the nation of consumers, as Geela states. The prevailing motto of the society, also mentioned by Jim Cullen and some other authors, is «Get something for nothing» (Geela 2004: para.9) and «Get rich quick». These appeals are being cultivated actively by mass media which demonstrate easiness and glamour rather than temperance and sacrifice.
Not only people’s minds but also many social structures feel the devastating effect of the American Dream. Geela assumes that in particular the family, the unit of our society, is in danger. In chase of material welfare parents do not devote much time to their children. Their mentors are street, TV or coevals. They are deprived of such crucial notions as family care and support, unity and sense of belonging to the group. All the values and benefits of family remain unrevealed and unperceived. This causes increase of violence at schools or on streets especially among youth. It also evokes serious troubles for the institution of marriage as today’s generation is rarely taught to build full-fledged relationships and comfortable and friendly home climate.
All the negative external manifestations and results of the American Dream adversely affect the internal state of the individuals.
«With growing personal and national debt (with no way out short of a miracle or winning the lottery), out of control violence and crime, environmental and spiritual pollution, extreme stress, frustration, hopelessness, rejection over lack of opportunities, lack of accomplishments, or control of their own lives, send more and more Americans straight to a shrink's office, take Prozac or worse, get hooked on drugs and other destructive substances as a way of coping» (Geela 2004 para.14).
So, the American Dream infects people, this is what Geela tries to explain in her publication. The American Dream is more like a disease nowadays. Moreover, she discovers another interesting and unexpected parallel: the approach to this particular Dream is definitely a state of mental enslavement. Hence it has become an obligatory part of every person’s life, and its variations are negligibly small, people do not use their right not to follow this Dream. This tiny aspect hints to the loss of freedom to dream personal dreams.
Furthermore, in the final abstract Geela puts a significant question about possibilities of existing of the fulfilled Dream and a mentally normal and healthy personality. Geela admits the promises of America and appreciates its great potential but shares Boorstin’s opinion about the necessity of certain changes in the perception and the image of the national conception. The Dream she herself achieved once today looks repellent at times. Besides, its yield does not bring the enjoyment of life and harmony. What she suggests is also to stop for a start and listen to one’s own heart. Invoking for basic knowledge of good and bad and clear conscience people will cope with restoring of the true pure spirit of the American Dream «which was based on perspiration, innovation, risk and reward» (Geela 2004: para.17)
Geela and Boorstin have gone to the heart of the problem of the American Dream and brought to light the pathology of the conception and possible consequences. Some other authors who have not given the Dream such a serious analysis also feel uneasy about the condition of «the national treasure». Their articles and observations are no less interesting and noteworthy.
2.3 Heather Boushey. «For Most of Us the American Dream is far away Fiction»
Heather Boushey is a famous economist at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research and a columnist of Centre for American Progress. Working in these non-commercial organisations she has been studying the various sides of life and phenomena of American society that provoke interest. (Heather Boushey: para.1) One of her recent publications is concerned with the American Dream as one of the most troublesome notions of interior. Being an economist and working with different numbers and statistics Boushey has noticed that one of the temptations of the American Dream, the opportunity of the upward mobility, is nowadays far harder to be achieved. While studying the state of the labour market in America, Boushey has reached the conclusion that there are serious problems with income in most of American families. There is something that produces growing inequality among the population accompanied by, as strange as it may seem, «economical growth and rising productivity» (Boushey 2005: para.5). However, the formerly economic growth used to benefit all the families, not few of them as it does now. People’s motivation in hardworking is decreasing for this is no longer helpful in heading toward better life. The combination of the deteriorating level of life on the one hand and unchanging work content on the other hand is rather puzzling for people. Moreover, it disputes many of constituent statements of the Dream and undermines the belief in the Promised Land. Boushey is sure that the economic problems of single workers are connected with the government politics. Before now it provided citizens with opportunity to live well and pursue their Dream whereas today destiny of every society unit is only in its own hands. The columnist discounts people’s ability to release their Dream claiming that «most Americans are struggling to make ends meet on less» (Boushey 2005: para.11). Thus, Boushey covers the economical failure of the national idea.
2.4 Tom Atlee. «The Conversion of the American Dream»
The criticism of Tom Atlee may be considered as one of most non-trivial and universal. He is the founder and co-director of the non-profit Co-Intelligence Institute that deals with developing humans’ ability to act in correspondence with a «wise democracy» (Tom Atlee: a brief biography 2003, para.1). «His social change vision is based on new understandings of wholeness which recognize the value of diversity, unity, relationship, context, uniqueness and the spirit inside each of us and the world» (Tom Atlee: a brief biography 2003: para.1). As Atlee has based his theory on lofty topics, his analysis of the American Dream includes many new points that have never been covered before. His reckoning touches upon not only consumerism and the destructive effect on individuals which were mentioned earlier but also its baneful influence on Nature.
Americans, continuing to be adherents of the conception, gradually destroy the future of the future generations. Atlee believes that the Dream in its present state is inexpedient and that wise society cannot be built upon such weak ideology. Firstly, this Dream requires «unlimited supplies of cheap and free resources to keep going» (Atlee 2005: para.4) which causes reckless and barbarian exploitation of nature and people’s being enslaved by the alluring idea of success. Secondly, this Dream demands «vast physical and psychological emptiness into which we can send things we don't want to deal with (from garbage and sewage to homelessness and the threat of nuclear war)» (Atlee 2005: para.5). Thirdly, this Dream allows some people to accumulate great (usually financial) power. Finally, this Dream is believed to be everlasting. However, it is obviously clear that at this rate there are limits «to how far we can push it. As people approach those limits they are getting worried the Dream may turn into the Nightmare» (Atlee 2005: para.7).
What Atlee suggests is to get rid of the existing Dream and elaborate a new one, free from the greedy individualism and desire to possess. This new conception should be orientated to «rich life of community, deep connection with ourselves and others, and real fullness of living» (Atlee 2005: para.10). The main tasks for the new Dream are, for instance, providing deep satisfaction and supporting a just, peaceful and harmonious society. Atlee thinks the first thing to do is to learn to consume once again. It is the common truth that people cannot exist without many things in this world. However years of taking without giving back have done their work and turned the nation into addicted to material. This has to be changed. Humans have to learn wise consumption which means taking only those things that are really vital.
The idea of Atlee is definitely valuable and correct also because it reflects not only one problematic aspect of the spiritual life of the society. It blends with the whole program of Co-Intelligence Institute following which all comers would be able finally to recollect the sense of proportion and, what is more important, to live with essentials and to enjoy this particular life style.
2.5 Muriel Gray. «Why the American Dream is one of the biggest lies»
The problem of the Dream is discussed not only on the American continent. The Old World is also trying to comprehend if not the origins and the very essence of the conception then at least its alarm signals.
The columnist of a Scotland independent newspaper The Sunday Herald Muriel Gray considers the American Dream to be one of the biggest lies mostly because it does not work. (Gray 2005: para.5) It is sad to admit that several centuries of the society development according to the Declaration, appeals of Franklin and maxims of Lincoln have not led to better life in the «city upon the hill». Social inequality still exists since statistically life of a representative of coloured race is less successful than that of a white man. Therefore most Americans suffer from material inequality as well. In many respects people are separated by huge gaps being settled on dramatically different levels of the economic pyramid rather than on one more or less moderate grade acceptable and achievable for majority. Living in highly private sphere, as Gray states, has been contributing to development and rise of selfishness based upon individualism. The American Dream was urged to help in building the society for equal and free men. Instead, its perverted interpretation has resulted in critical disparity, stratification and spiritual disharmony. At the end Gray states that the bright future promised by all the politics, is even more unattainable than two hundred years ago. (Gray 2005: para.6-8)
All the given opinions of Boorstin, Geela, Boushey, Atlee and Gray are analogous in some points.
- There is something wrong with the American Dream since not an ugly duckling has turned into a beautiful swan but a cygnet has grown into an aggressive and repulsive creature.
- The American Dream is dangerous and its influence can be felt upon many spheres of life.
- It is obvious that the time to make some changes has come. The first thing to do is to stop and admit the falseness of the chosen path.
However, not only these authors, but many others abroad, stigmatise the Dream of America. The question is why the national conception of the USA has been under such close attention only now? Does it mean that till the last years of twentieth century everything was all right and possible? The answer is «no». The alarm had been raised in the literary world long before scientific fraternity approached the Dream in their studies.