“The American Dream” was popularized by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America (Little, Brown, and Company, Boston). My 2004 book, Killing the Natives, begins with a comparison of Adams’ ideas to the version of the American Dream articulated by First Officer Spock from the television series Star Trek (“live long and prosper”).
Since the historian James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase in 1931 until shortly before Mr. Spock’s eloquent catch-phrase became his signature line, the American Dream meant “life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Adams was clear to note that the American Dream was not about material possessions; rather, it was “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable … unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.” This was a dream in which all Americans would “devote themselves to the ‘Great Society’ …. We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share in it. It can never be wrought into reality by cheap people or by ‘keeping up with the Joneses.'” After World War II, as personified by Spock a scant few decades after Adams popularized the term, the American Dream came to mean something quite different: Increasingly, we seem to be “giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements.” We now spend our lives trying to keep up with the Joneses; in short, we have a burning desire to live long and prosper.
We want it all, and we want it for a very long time, and preferably forever, a concept that our deep-seated faith in technology, our fear of death, and our uniquely American vanity allow us to pursue. While seeking immortality, we want a big house with a well-trimmed lawn, new cars, plenty of grown-up toys, a prestigious job, frequent vacations to exotic (but safe, of course) locales, excellent restaurants along the way, and plenty of people at our disposal to care for the details, such as attending to the house and cars, planning the vacations, and serving the food at our favorite restaurants. Isn’t that what the pursuit of happiness, which is one of our unalienable rights, all about?
But we don’t want to pay for it, at least not all of it. When the bill comes due, we grudgingly pay a small portion of it. The remainder, which is often the largest share, includes the devastating loss of ecosystems, languages, cultures, and species. Our natural and cultural heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution, is threatened at a global scale by Americans pursuing the American Dream. The following chapters explain how we pass those costs to our children, their children, or, in the archetypal version of the American Dream, poverty-stricken people in other countries. Out of sight, out of mind is the perfect version of the Dream.
Adams’ book was published a couple years into the Great Depression. About seven decades later, a couple years into the Greatest Depression, U.S. President George W. Bush described his version of the American Dream. In a truly Orwellian turn, “the ownership society” was coined to rally support for tax-cut proposals. According to this view, ownership has become an American right, and the more one owns, the wealthier one is.
It’s no great stretch to suggest the new American Dream is indoctrinated in the uniquely American goal of getting something for nothing and calling it entitlement. Indeed, the apex of the new American Dream is to get everything for nothing and call it well-deserved.
I see it every day. People claim to be working hard, but they are working only at fleecing others. When one is successful, this culture heralds him as a genius and pities those he fleeces as “getting what they deserved.” It’s small wonder, as George Carlin pointed out, that idealism lies on the path to cynicism. I was an idealist for more than four decades before I was profoundly fleeced, a process that transformed me into a disappointed idealist (i.e., cynic).
At this point, the concept of ownership has been extended to every realm of industrial civilization. The financially wealthy own property, including land and water. They own homes and automobiles and yachts. They own oil and gold and ideas. They own corporations (i.e., people). The corporations, in turn, own everything seemingly not owned by other people.
The absurdity approaches that associated with denial of abrupt climate change. Or believing the tragedy of commons, which results from the concept of ownership, can be cured by ownership. Like fish in a river denying the water, normalcy bias is rampant.
Within the confines of this utterly bizarre culture, we have a word for this set of living arrangements: normal. But it’s not normal in any sense of the word. In early January 2015 my friend Keith Merritt posted the perfect descriptor of this arrangement on my Facebook timeline: “If you were on the train to Auschwitz, you’d consider a trainwreck … a Miracle.”