I came across an article by journalist Stephen Gray titled, "The American Dream is Dying," and immediately recognized its utopic tone. He identifies Americans as having become "pessimistic despite being naturally optimistic", preventing them from obtaining the coveted American Dream. In short, he enlists feel-good general ideals, or reverse stereotypes.
Stating that Americans are inherently optimistic states that we have born in intellectual perspectives and belief systems. Because his statement affirms Americans, it's not viewed as a stereotype, yet as a valid evaluation of our capacity, proven by our history. Does history really have an owner, though? I didn't fight in the Civil War, neither did you. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, not me or you. Henry Ford created the assembly line production method, not me or you. And the Pilgrims annihilated the Native Americans, that wasn't me or you. That's America's national history. But since it's our history, it somehow ascribes our national identity. In short, it's become mythologized.
If certain statements don't affirm common/popular beliefs, they're labelled as stereotypes. For example, since it's socially acceptable to say that the American Dream is to work hard and be rewarded with upward mobility, it's not a stereotype. But has every American throughout history believed this? No; many are happy being complacent and receiving entitlements. And many are happy living off the grid, having nothing to do with society. But this statement still seen as the current American Dream, and not at all a stereotype.
Now what about this statement: Blacks are violent and sexually aggressive. Offensive, absolutely. But why? Because it's uncomfortable to make such statements in public. Even though many Americans still believe these premises, their outward declaration gets outweighed by the detrimental social impact; a la, shame and humiliation--social values. Racism is now popularly seen as negative, which qualifies it for the stereotype label, unlike the American Dream, which, due to its utopic positivity, makes it viewed as a beacon of hope and national identity.
Mentally orienting ourselves toward utopias achieves nothing but get us in trouble. Gray goes on to say that, "It took a certain faith in the unseen to settle an untamed land, survive the Great Depression, and push through the Civil Rights Movement. We see ourselves as resilient, and despite the last decade's economic chaos, remain a formidable force in the world."
I think of this type of thinking as cotton candy thinking. It sounds so sweet and wholesome and give you that warm feeling...especially the part about "faith in the unseen." The faith-based rhetoric is argumentatively useless because it demonstrates no evidence, therefore gives no traction to the argument of whether or not utopias actually have a bearing on the human world. In terms of the actual facts mentioned, they are biased.
Yes, there was an element of optimism in settling the untamed land, surviving the Great Depression, and pushing through the Civil Rights Movement. However, the Native Americans lived in balance with the "untamed land" for tens of thousands of years, both sides proliferating peacefully. When the Pilgrims arrived, they--and it's been heavily documented--were so incompetent in shelter construction and food/water gathering that they had to enlist the help of the Native Americans to survive. Many accounts were made of the Natives teaching the Pilgrims how to rebuild shelters, because the Pilgrims either broke them or couldn't maintain them. After the Pilgrims had learned how to be relatively self-sufficient, they destroyed the Natives. Myself, and many before me, have made the observation that this was genocide, plain and simple.
Surviving the Great Depression was no doubt extremely difficult, but FDR's New Deal stimulated the economy. Geniuses like John Maynard Keynes wrote him letters to advise him. Many Americans were unemployed, but due to the preceding economic prosperity, government-subsidized relief was given. Do you know how many countries are reduced to leaving their citizens to live in dirt holes for decades? America was stressed for a period of time, however the intellectual and political landscape, both domestic and foreign, rushed to the aid. To the average American, their suffering was paramount, and I'm not dismissing their experience, however, it wasn't the average American who got us out of the Great Depression, nor was American survival really in jeopardy.
The Civil Rights Movement was necessary, which is why I think a more apt title should be Civil Rights Response. Response indicates a reaction to an one entity which acts upon another. It wasn't just a movement, a cause, or a noble belief. It was necessary to demonstrate how human beings born with the genetic accident of dark skin are still just as human as those born with the genetic accident of light skin. And the statement that the Americans are resilient because we pushed through the Civil Rights Movement? If we did, then why did President Truman write in Executive Order 9981 in 1948, stating that the office of the President was to ensure the equality and opportunity of all Americans, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or origin? Because up to that point inter-American relations were brutal; where was the optimism in our fellow man/woman then? Gray's statement that we "pushed through the Civil Rights Movement" makes it sound like collective America dug deep to do the right thing. The Civil Rights Movement is thus not a testament of the quality of the human spirit, but the depravity of critical mass thinking, and how America will fight to preserve popular thought, no matter the quality of the thought.
This cotton candy utopic thinking is incredibly weak because it doesn't clearly interpret our past, nor does it predict our future. It just operates on unfounded ideals. Gray goes on to say: "The fundamental culprit for these [increasingly pessimistic] feelings is rising inequality. We all know that the very rich are getting wealthier, while much of what's left of the middle class is slipping into poverty." Do we all know that? Funny, because I thought he just reduced our pessimism to feelings of rising inequality. Is it a thought? Is it a feeling? This is what utopic thinking does to us; it muddies our analytical skills. It allows us to use such baseless, vague, and ambiguous terms as American Dream, without evaluating if our premises can objectively stand on their own or if they merely affirm our personal beliefs.
The American Dream has changed over time, and will keep changing according to majority/popular thought. What I find problematic is how the American Dream always represents the most popular ideal of American identity--the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time--not what Americans choose to be in the future. It's never about carving oneself out today to become the effective, desirable person of tomorrow. It's merely about observing popular trends and economic ebbs and flows, cross-referenced by the status of the most current social values and expectations.
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