Sunday, May 10, 2009

Whose American Dream?

The American Dream. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around a lot every day, although few people can tell you what it really means.

Wikipedia defines it thus:

The American Dream refers to the freedom that allows all citizens and all residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice.

Wow. Just reading that took my breath away. Well, not literally, but you get the idea. But since the phrase was coined in 1931, its meaning has been bastardized beyond recognition.

The next time you hear “The American Dream” used in the media, pay close attention to how it’s being defined. It’s usually used by a newscaster while footage of some housing plan loaded with ugly McMansions is being shown. The voice-over will say something like, “The cost of the American Dream just got higher today….”

That’s right—the American Dream has been narrowed down to owning a house. Where in the above definition does it say anything about owning a house? Why is it assumed that the goals in life are always material?

The need to survive being what it is, many goals are material, but does that mean the media should be in the business of creating false needs on top of the real needs that are already breaking people’s backs?

Perhaps it’s time to sit back and assess what this American Dream really is.

An idea that has become analogous to The American Dream is the “Horatio Alger story.”

The phrase “Horatio Alger story” comes, strangely enough, from stories written by Horatio Alger, which, allegedly, concern poor boys that become rich through hard work and clean living.

That’s how Alger’s stories are perceived today, mainly because few people currently living have actually read them. Most of the protagonists do not become rich, nor is hard work the main reason for their character development:

“However, it is not the hard work and clean living that rescue the boy from his situation, but rather a wealthy older gentleman, who admires the boy as a result of some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty that the boy has performed. For example, the boy might rescue a child from an overturned carriage or find and return the man's stolen watch. Often the older man takes the boy into his home as a ward or companion.”

So that’s what they called it back then…

Today many of us try to live out a “Horatio Alger story,” overextending ourselves in order to gain wealth or status—to live The American Dream.

Maybe this American Dream is nothing more than a misinterpretation of the works of a 19th-century pulp novelist.

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