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Has the American dream become our nightmare?
by Mary Sykes Wylie
For much of our history, we haven't felt any need to negotiate our national faith in unlimited upward mobility. To the great American middle class, the path forward and upward to economic comfort and security was clear, dependable, beautifully simple: you went to work every day, earned a little more money every year, saved what you could, and didn't radically overspend. In return, you were rewarded with your fair share of the most bountiful and productive society ever to exist on earth. You knew the value of money, you appreciated the value of money, and money thanked you, in its way, by allowing you to graze pretty freely throughout that fruited plain spanning the land from sea to shining sea.
True, there were always people having financial difficulties, but they were individual deviations from the norm, and most felt they could count on making more money than their parents. The default position in America was an implicit promise of perpetual abundance, as if an unwritten amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to several chickens in every pot and an SUV in every garage.
Within the last two or three decades, however, these relatively modest dreams of individual upward mobility exploded into grandiose and surprisingly widespread fantasies of striking it filthy rich in as short a time as possible. Getting money, always a significant leitmotif in American society, now became a major bass chord. As a people, we all seemed to go a little bats, thinking of ourselves, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, as canny financiers or budding real estate moguls. In a way, this collective money mania harkened back to a fond, old American myth of rugged individualism, capitalist style: the plucky, clever entrepreneur pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, valiantly defeats all competitors, and ascends, unaided and alone, to the heights of wealth and prestige. "My money, myself" could almost be the unofficial motto of this generic American go-getter, particularly this generation's Wall Street buckaroos.
Whatever the outcome of this financial crisis, if it had appeared in a recipe book, it would read: mix equal parts greed, blind hope, confusion, ignorance, arrogance, abracadabra; smother the whole in a heavy sauce of lunatic optimism; bake in an overheated economy until burned through and through.
Now, as we gaze over the smoldering ruins, the classic American dream begins to resemble a collective hallucination. Of course, the current economic crisis—the worst since the Great Depression—may be no more than a rather large bump in the golden road of endlessly self-renewing American prosperity. In the past, we've met and surmounted any number of threats to our safety and security. Each time, we've emerged, breathed a sigh of relief, and settled back, complacently assured of our national birthright to be fat, rich, happy, and impervious to the afflictions dogging so many other people in the world. Still, it's hard not to have a sense of foreboding that, this time, things really are different; that the old familiar mold is broken for good.
We look around us with varying degrees of anxiety and dread. What's happened to us? What will happen to us? And yet, and yet . . . might there not also be a faint, elusive glimmer of anticipation, even of hope, behind all the gloom? The United States is undergoing a severe trial—economically, politically, socially—and we have no idea how it'll all turn out. Maybe we are seeing a made-in-the-USA version of the End of Civilization as We Know It. Or, maybe, just maybe, we'll come out on the other side a fairer, more economically responsible, more genuinely democratic society.
In the meantime, like the threat of imminent execution, our current troubles concentrate our minds wonderfully, or at least enough to consider possible alternative meanings of "wealth," besides frenetic getting and spending. So, if for no other reason than to take your mind off your nose-diving portfolio, perhaps this is a good time to revisit some of our basic assumptions about wealth—what it means to us as Americans, how it defines us as a people, how it influences the way we think about ourselves, about freedom, success, and happiness, about what we really want from life and what the American Dream really means to us.