We always talk about “The American Dream” — about living it, saving it, wondering what happened to it. Few bother to define it.
The stereotype shows a single-family house, with white-picket fence, Mom and Dad, Dick and Jane. A mansion rarely comes to mind, unless obtained by someone This American Dream is squarely middle class and rests on tangibles. I never cared much for this materialistic vision, but understand its pull.
“The American Dream for me, growing up in India in the 1970s, looked something like the opening credits of ‘Dallas,'” Fareed Zakaria opens his Time magazine piece called “Restoring the American Dream.” It was shiny skyscrapers, sexy women and rich cowboys.
Zakaria says that when he later moved to the United States as a college student, classmates would invite him to their large suburban houses filled with gleaming appliances. He was amazed that his friends’ parents often held only modest jobs.
“The modern American Dream for me,” he writes, “was this general prosperity and well-being for the average person,” which brings him to the article’s theme. America’s middle class fears the end of this general prosperity. The modest jobs that delivered the handsome suburban houses are going to places like India, where equally smart people are happy to work for far less. The concern, not unwarranted, is that they’re not coming back.
To many, here and abroad, the American Dream is over. But that’s only if one subscribes to the easy abundance version of it. Yes, impoverished immigrants from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere still see a land of plenty. We often forget, though, that foreigners sought the Dream for complex reasons.
The Pilgrims immigrated in the early 17th century to avoid religious persecution. Similar motives later attracted the Pennsylvania Dutch, Jews and numerous others. Many sought to escape the mayhem of war, from the Germans in the mid-19th century to Cambodians in the “killing fields” of the late 20th.
For millions, the American Dream meant freedom from starvation. In the 18th century, the Irish fled the potato blight and Swedes disastrous crop failures.
Others came to America not to reinvent themselves, but to preserve their threatened cultures. Such was the case for Mennonites from Northern Europe and Germans from Russia. Not every newcomer coveted the flashy accessories of the emerging consumer society.
Note that for many immigrants, then and now, the bottom line was not wealth but physical survival. Today’s “lost boys” of southern Sudan were children sent away by desperate parents to fend for themselves — anything to escape the murderous government-backed militias. One of them, Joseph Gayoung Khan, miraculously ended up in America and on the dean’s list at the University of Iowa. Khan’s most prized possession will not be the diploma (or his white Isuzu Rodeo), but his very existence.
The term “American Dream” first appeared in a Depression-era book titled “The Epic of America.” (Thank you, Fareed Zakaria, for informing us.) Its author, James Truslow Adams, defines the Dream as “a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank … .”
The reference to a “happier” life can mean things other than things. For a middle class rattled by the shifting economic ground, happiness can come in the form of healthy children, friendships and less stress about keeping up unrealistic levels of consumption.
Perhaps today’s middle class can’t maintain its current “standard of living.” Given what’s out there, a somewhat lower American standard of living is not shabby at all. And we must never forget that for people like Joseph Gatyoung Khan, the American Dream can mean life itself.
Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators.com