July 4th & The American Dream In Uncertain Times cover

July 4th & The American Dream In Uncertain Times

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There’s not much history in our holidays these days. For most Americans, they’re vehicles of leisure more than remembrance. Labor Day means barbecues; Washington’s Birthday (lumped together with Lincoln’s) is observed as a presidential Day of Shopping. Independence Day fares a little better. Most Americans understand it marks the birth of their national identity, and it’s significant enough not to be moved around to the first weekend of July.
Dreams have never been the exclusive property of any individual or group of people. But never had a place been explicitly constituted to legitimate human aspiration in a new and living way.


Rating: 3.3 out of 5 stars on 3 reviews

"If one "speech" can reveal identity far beyond the subject of the "conversation," then this srticle which promises to be history tells more about the author than about his supposed subject. (That subject might be somehow related to "the American Dream" or it could be comment on the founders of America, or about how we dont learn about them anymore. Or the subject coiuld be another thing entirely the subject doesn't matter!!! What matters is the Authors espousal(s)! HIS wordy wisdom! But Shakespearesaid it so much more succinctly,,, he is "full of sound and fury signifying,,, NOTHING."" 2 stars by




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July 4th & The American Dream In Uncertain Times

No History In Holiday

There’s not much history in our holidays these days. For most Americans, they’re vehicles of leisure more than remembrance.

Labor Day means barbecues; Washington’s Birthday (lumped together with Lincoln’s) is observed as a presidential Day of Shopping. The origins of Memorial Day in Confederate grave decoration or Veterans Day in the First World War are far less relevant than the prospect of a day off from work or school.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress.

The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.

Public Domain Image

Significant

Independence Day fares a little better.

Most Americans understand it marks the birth of their national identity, and it’s significant enough not to be moved around to the first weekend of July (though we’re happy enough when it conveniently forms the basis of a three-day weekend). There are flags and fireworks abundantly in evidence.

That said, the American Revolution is relatively remote to 21st century citizens, few of whom share ancestral ties, much less sympathy, for the views of the partisans of 1776, some of whom were avowedly pro-slavery and all of them what we would regard as woefully patriarchal.

American Dream

The main reason why Independence Day matters to us is that it commemorates the debut of the Declaration of Independence in American life.

(The document was actually approved by Congress on July 2nd; it was announced to the public two days later). Far more than any other document in American history, including the Constitution, the Declaration resonates in everyday American life. We can all cite its famous affirmation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because in it we sense our true birthright, the DNA to which we all relate. The Declaration gave birth to the American Dream — or perhaps I should say an American Dream.

Hard At Work

Hard At Work

This idealized depiction of (left to right) Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900) was widely reprinted.

Public Domain Image

Widening Circles

Dreams have never been the exclusive property of any individual or group of people. But never had a place been explicitly constituted to legitimate human aspiration in a new and living way.

Dreams did not necessarily come true in the United States, and there were all kinds of politically imposed barriers to their realization alongside those that defied human prediction or understanding. But such has been the force of the idea that US history has been widely understood — in my experience as a high school teacher working with adolescents, instinctively so — as a progressive evolution in which barriers are removed for ever-widening concentric circles that bring new classes of citizens — slaves, women, immigrants, gays — into the fold.

Mythic

This is, in 2015, our mythic history. (I use the word “myth” in the anthropological sense, as a widely held belief whose empirical reality cannot be definitively proved or denied.)

But myths are not static things; they wax and wane and morph over the course of their finite lives. As with religious faith, the paradox of myths is that they’re only fully alive in the face of doubt: there’s no need to honor the prosaic fact or challenge the evident falsity. Ambiguity is the source of a myth’s power.

American Dream

American Dream

Promotional photo of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).

Possible

Here in the early 21st century, the American Dream is in a season of uncertainty.

The myth does not assert that all dreams do come true, only that all dreams can come true, and for most of us the essence of can resides in a notion of equality of opportunity. We’ve never insisted on equality of condition (indeed, relatively few Americans ever had much desire for it, in stark contrast to other peoples in the age of Marx). Differential outcomes are more than fine as long as we believe it’s possible anyone can end up on top.

Typical

But the conventional wisdom of our moment, from the columns of Paul Krugman to the pages of Thomas Piketty, suggests that the game is hopelessly rigged.

In particular, race and class privilege seem to give insuperable advantage over those seeking to achieve upward mobility. The history of the world is full of Ciceros and Genghis Khans and Joans of Arc who improbably overcame great odds. But in the United States, such people aren’t supposed to be exceptional. They’re supposed to be almost typical.

Almost Typical?

Almost Typical?

© iStock

Less Prominent

One of the more curious aspects of our current crisis in equality of opportunity is that it isn’t unique in American history.

As those pressing the point frequently observe, inequality is greater now than any time since the 1920s, and before that the late nineteenth century. Or, before that, the antebellum era: for slaves, the difference between freedom and any form of equality — now so seemingly cavernous, even antithetical — were understandably hard to discern.

And yet the doubts about the legitimacy of the American Dream, always present, did not seem quite as prominent in those earlier periods as they do now.

Changed Expectations

Frederick Douglass, Horatio Alger, Emma Lazarus: these were soaring voices of hope during earlier eras of inequality.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby was a cautionary tale, for sure, but the greatness of his finite accomplishments was not denied even by normally skeptical Nick Carraway. What’s different now may not be our conditions so much as our expectations. Like everything else, they have a price.

Different World

Different World

© iStock

Not About Money

I don’t want to brush away serious concerns: it may well be that on 4 July an American Dream is dying, that we’re on a downward arc different than that of a rising power.

But it is perhaps symptomatic of our condition — a condition in which economic realities are considered the only ones that matter — whereby the Dream is so closely associated with notions of wealth. We all know about the Dreams of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.

But the American Dream was never solely, or even primarily, about money — even for Benjamin Franklin, whose cheeky subversive spirit lurks beneath his adoption as the patron saint of American capitalism.

Hopes And Faith

Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King: some of these people were richer than others, and all had their flaws.

But none of them thought of their aspirations primarily in terms of how wealthy they became, or measured success in terms of personal gain. Their American Dreams were about their hopes for their country as a better place. If we can reconnect our aspirations to their faith, perhaps our holidays can become more active vessels of thanksgiving.