Critiquing the American dream

In pub theology the other week, we talked about the American dream: what it was, whether it was inherently exploitative, and whether it has changed. According to Wikipedia, “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the danger of the American dream in Between the World and Me:

“When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you [my son].”

According to Coates, the American dream is inherently oppressive, as it causes us to focus primarily on our own personal good and escape from the reality around us, especially the role that race plays in hurting society.

Ryan Cooper, in “The American Dream is a Lie” concurs with Coates:

Coates connects this death [of the promising young man, Prince Jones], and the others much like it happening daily, directly to the American Dream. Gruesome human sacrifice is what undergirds the picket fences and ice cream socials of the “people who believe they are white.” . . .

[This] is not to deny the fact that many Americans enjoy considerable prosperity in this country. Many millions do float easily on the tide of America’s fantastic wealth. The lie is found in the universal application of the Dream, that America is a place where everyone can get a fair shot at a decent life. . .

The American Dream allows us whites to pretend that our relative affluence is the result of our own actions on a fair playing field. But it just ain’t so.”

 

Cooper’s article also contains an interesting and helpful quote by David Brooks where he points to the good that the American dream has given us:

“[A] dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past… It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. [The New York Times]

Brooks points us to the wonderful freedom and opportunity that has been present for many of us in (North) America, a freedom that has benefited many Christians, especially on account of the value placed on hard work and help for those in our network who are struggling. At the same time, it is important not to close our ears to Coates words, recognizing that, for many different reasons, the opportunities that each individual receives are not the same, and the hard work that we’ve put into things do not produce the same results. Furthermore, the focus on the individual and one’s own achievements has a degree of self-righteousness, selfishness and works righteousness is counter to the Christian teaching of loving one’s neighbour and the recognition that, as the Psalms often say, sometimes the wicked prosper.


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