Thursday, April 9, 2009

The American Dream

I wondered how well the American Dream was doing last week. I was in one of the cavernous parking lots that comprise downtown Hampton when I heard shouts turning the air blue.
It was an unusual sound to hear in this part of Hampton. I'm not saying it's the kind of place where you overhear snippets of conversation about last night's performance of Madame Butterfly, just that it's close to the cop station.
I turned and saw a grizzled man in a motorized wheelchair making stuttering progress down the middle of the highway as if his power button was cutting in and out.
Two large American flags were flying behind his wheelchair and his head was jerking around as eratically as his contraption.
The object of his anger, a middle aged woman was strolling nonchantly down the sidewalk.
"#@**&&^^^," shouted the man, or words to that effect, casting aspirtions on his lady friend's fidelity.
A couple of cars swerved to avoid him, but otherwise this rather disturbing tableau diminished down the road, leaving Hampton to the peculiarly soulless silence of parking lots in the early afternoon.
Whiskery men in wheelchairs draped in America flags tend to conjure up one powerful motif; that of the aftermath of the Vietnam war, although for all I knew this character could have fallen out of a window.
In Oliver Stone's film Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, joins the Marines as a clean cut personification of the American Dream and ends up a mental and physical cripple.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Kovic - now a grizzled and angry veteran - has a wheelchair fight in Mexico with another veteran played by Willem Dafoe, in a performance that goes some way to expurging memories of Dafoe's excrutiating candle wax sex scenes with Madonna in Body of Evidence.
I'm not sure if any universities offer courses on the American Dream but if they do Vietnam is surely taught as the gloomy low point, discussed with relish by a Trotskyite lecturer in sandals whose one ambition in life is to spit on the Staute of Liberty.
If America went into World War II like the calvary coming to rescue Europe and Asia from the scourge of tyranny (the atomic bomb aside), it got pulled into Vietnam like a dazed rotweiler at a boistrous kids' party and left with the exteminator's gun to its head.
But although Vietnam threatened to tear America apart, the intangible dream has lived on. America remains the richest country in the world and the place more people aspire to live in than any other country.
The phrase "American Dream" was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America in 1931.
He said the American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
"It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
So, in other words it's a dream of a meritocracy as distinct from those class ridden Europeans.
This is interesting because I always thought the American Dream was about refrigerators, and large ones at that. When I was a child my parents almost bought a house from a mysterious character known as "the man in America."
The "man in America" had been sent there by his company and reports about the land of opportunity would occasionally filter back. The immesurable wealth, the cars as big as sideboards and inevitably the refrigerators large enough to hold a party in with all your friends, were greeted with wonder back in Blighty.
America in the late 1970s seemed like consumerism gone mad. It was the ultimate in luxury goods.
In the end the "man in America," who as kids seemed as exotic and distant as the man in the moon, returned to Britain and proved himself to be a total pain in the backside. My parents, in their wisdom, instead bought the house next door so as we could endure years of confiscated footballs from the former man in America.
The experience left me no closer to understanding the American dream, although there's a wealth of literature that points to its hollowness.
What, for instance, could be more marvelous than the Long Island of the 1920s as depicted in F Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby? There were big houses on the shore and jazz parties that went on until the early hours. And the self made Gatsby with his bright suits and his joviality, was the personifiation of the dream.
Except for the fact he was morbidly obsessed with someone else's wife, the fickle Daisy, who he tried to impress with his shirts.
"It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before," Daisy told him in a clear indicator that her case shallow waters didn't run very deep.
In the end The Great Gatsby merely exposed the dream as a sham as did the tragic descent of the handsome, wonderful and talented Fitzgerald himself.
Today nobody talks about the dream much. The news channels are more interested in the people being laid off, those working on minimum wage and working two jobs.
Yet many of us still drive cars the size of small tanks and own I-pods and other devices that would be unheard of in Chinese villages.
The dream's been shrunk a good deal but its's still here. Somewhere.

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