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The "American Dream": A Delusion?

It is impossible to live a week in the United States and not hear something about ‘the American Dream’. It is as much a part of our cultural mythos as is baseball, apple pie, rock and roll music and politics. Yet, few people really examine it closely and discover what it truly is. Is it a dream, or a vision? Or some callously advertised ideal foisted upon us by the corporate media, cleverly disguised as our own dreams?

What is the ‘American Dream’? It often presented to us as the idealistic vision of a married couple with two or more children, owning a home in the suburbs and driving one or more large cars. Everyone is solvent and well-fed, the man is king of his family, God is in His heaven and all is well with the world. It has a fifties flavor to it, this original vision- Dad in his hat, Mom in her girdled dress and pearls, and Dick and Jane with a ball and doll. Everyone knows their place and is in their places, obedient to the Dad, loving to the Mom.

When the word ‘family’ is invoked, as it all to often is nowadays, this imaginary half-century gone domestic group is usually what is envisioned. There are no cohabiting couples, single parents, single people, elders, or people without kids. The only ‘true’ family in the eyes of the blathering pols is this imaginary young nuclear family. No one else need apply. If you live in a rented apartment, you are a loser. If you live in the sticks, you’re a hick. And don’t even mention the fact that you live in a manufactured home, unless you want to be branded ‘trailer trash’. Urban? Must be a ghetto dweller, then. No, only middle-class, Euro descended suburbanites count. Everyone else is a mob, or worse, invisible.

What has happened to the American Dream? Why do so many people still invoke it, and worse, attempt to pursue it? Trackless rubber-stamp suburbs sprawl upon once arable land. Instead of being little paradises, suburbs are proving to be a breeding ground for sociopaths of the sort that people still believe only live in urban cores. The houses and cars are growing like fertilized weeds, and covering arable land like crabgrass to accommodate the growing girth of their inhabitants. The middle class is vanishing, leaving home ownership to only the richest people. Families today are all sorts of combinations of people. The "Brady Bunch", once considered a unique enough combination to rate a TV series of its own is now more the norm than the exception. The fifties-era family of wage-earner Dad, stay-at-home Mom, and Dick and Jane is rare, even within groups that encourage its original style- like fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews.

The contrast between the media- deluded ‘dream’ and the open-eyed reality of America today is astonishing. There are no heavy people on TV, but if you look around, they are everywhere. Houses are huge on TV- not in real life. There are no gum-spotted sidewalks or weedy verges on the television. If you believed the ads on television, you’d own at least a dozen cars. And I have never seen places like what they show on TV that are pristine and empty- instead they are overrun with crowds trying to ‘get away from it all’ in RVs complete with satellite dishes. And to quote that Eighties song: the sun always shines on TV.

It is difficult to resolve the difference between the media world and the real world. The difference is often jarring, especially when going to a place which tries to imitate what is shoveled out of the tube. The deliberate sleekness and marketing savvy of stores nowadays guarantees you that your shopping experience will be full of noise, flash, and every device imaginable to get you to part with your money. Malls today are carefully designed to disorient the shopper and temporarily ‘trap’ them within their walls. This is true of grocery stores, too- where companies buy shelf space and carefully place items where certain categories of people will look. Parents get trapped into buying the heavily sugared cereal placed at the precise eye level of their young consumer target. Noise is prevalent, omnipresent, and deliberate. Entertainment stores and places that sell music and movies probably have stock in hearing aid companies, since they play the awful music they peddle at such high volumes. And even restaurants, the last bastion of civility, run at earsplitting volume. And if you are lucky enough to find a quiet, intimate place to eat, someone is sure to bring in a child who is not old enough to appreciate the food or the atmosphere and make its displeasure loudly known.

The American Dream is a delusion, an illusion meant to keep people dissatisfied and hungering to spend more money, in the hopes that the next purchase will be the one that buys them the happiness they are promised. What no one told our framers is that happiness isn’t a commodity. It is something that is internal, easily found, and free of charge. Happiness and the reality of the American Dream are found in abandoning the false dream, and creating one of your own. Understanding that all the trappings of Western culture are props in a badly acted movie, and that you can throw their script away and make one of your own is a liberating experience. It is possible to have a wonderfully rich and fulfilling life without designer clothes, a wedding register, minivan, suburban house, or even a TV. In fact, turning the TV off is the first step in reclaiming your own dream.

It is a daring thing- even a little scary- creating your own reality. But it can be done, and is ultimately more satisfying than the fill-in-the blank blandness that our culture dictates to us. Americans were truly originals once. Now we are a whining bunch of overfed adolescents, wanting all the toys and none of the responsibility. It’s time to grow up, and create a new dream. Go on- I dare you to.

2001 Sunfell


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