The American Dream: wanted dead or alive?
As we recently celebrated the life and works of Dr. King, and his powerful “I have a dream…” speech, you cannot help but wonder if and how the tenants of the American Dream have changed. From the pioneers and those who embraced frontier life, to the 20th century definition by James Truslow Adams, has the essence or meaning changed? And how do we tangibly see the American Dream being expressed and realized today?
Adams built upon the Declaration of Independence and defined the American Dream in his 1931 “The Epic of America” as where “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.
Words such as hope, possibility, freedom of choice, individual expression and equality are natural associations, that to me evoke a holistic type of fulfillment which is ever important today, (as opposed to that of material wealth and ownership). Adams’ grounding of “according to ability or achievement” causes me to pause. Is he referring to the entrepreneurial attitude, the commitment to hard-graft and/or is there a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” aspect?
Interestingly Marc Ian Barasch puts forth in Tom Shadyac’s “i am” documentary, that Thomas Henry Huxley who popularized Charles Darwin’s beliefs, placed emphasis on the selfish behaviors gene and the survival of the strong. As opposed to balancing with Darwin’s thinking published in his 1871 “The Descent of Man”, where Darwin believed that sympathy and the ability to co-operate is our strongest instinct.
So if Adams meant by having the capabilities of courage, belief, the will, and the desire to collaborate for mutual benefit — rather than the focus of individual fulfillment at the cost of others, then yes the meaning and essence of the American Dream, I believe, is intact and remains something we can still believe in and aspire to.
The symbols and the manifestation of the American Dream is perhaps where we have and will continue to see change. Consider the external upward mobility traits of the 20th century, of bigger houses, bigger and more vehicles, more stuff and the glamour of celebrity or VIP’y status.
In the 21st century, we are starting to see changes in what we value and how we demonstrate this. From the reducing, reusing and sharing of goods, to the badging of our community commitments — not just the number of friends or likes, to being vocal and taking on more responsibility to make things better for our collective future.
We still have a way to go. And I would be remissed not to the reference the realities today where our security is being threatened, rewards are uneven, rhetoric is more prominent than positive action. (Note: I believe that more violence does not shape a better society.) Overcoming these will be essential to enable us to realize the American Dream.
Watching the Super Bowl 49 we can clearly see the progressive businesses and brands, versus those who appear to be reinforcing 20th century symbols of achievement. But why do we need to reinforce violent behaviors so frequently in entertainment? When will celebrations become mainstream for those ideas which add something of notable value back to society, truly evolving the reality show blur of today? And when will economic growth be valued in measures other than GDP?
What if we redraw the 21st century symbols of the American Dream? Is it not time for us to move on from:
…the Great Gatsby era of abundance to one of responsible consumption
…individual ownership to shared ownership,
…healthy lifestyles for the few to access to healthier food and wellness practices for all,
…externally picture perfect relationships to more “realness”, both the highs and the lows,
…individual achievement to shared success, recognition of and commitment to.
Are symbols such as garbage reduction, cradle to cradle practices, adoption of local food systems, intellectual & emotional IQ scores, business & societal success intertwined, community participation and entrepreneurial community platforms, more appropriate to aspire to in this 21st century?
George Friedman in his book “The next 100 years” describes America as an “adolescent” given it’s comparative age in the world. As America grows into an adult I sincerely hope that we can retain the American entrepreneurial spirit, the positive attitude and hard work ethic, and cement into the cultural codes the importance of quality over quantity, togetherness over self, and a reframed sense of the possibilities available to us to tangibly improve our quality of life.
With this grounding, I believe yes, we want the American Dream alive and well!