Has the American Dream become a nightmare? Prior to the global financial meltdown of 2008, the world looked to America to dream the future. After near financial ruin, high unemployment, the gulf drilling fiasco and our budgetary crises the world has started to worry and to grumble that America is down and out for the count. What does this all mean? What will America do? What have we been doing?
In his 2004, book, “The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, wrote that historically the earlier and greater industrial development of America had given us a huge advantage in the global market. However, the rise of computers and the Internet throughout the 90’ have leveled the playing field of business and development. Friedman catalogs the business advances in China and India and says they are nipping at our heels.
In his, 2004 book, Friedman asked the people of India and China, what do you see your country doing in 15 years. India and China answered, we want to be America. Friedman, good man that he is, asked, what should America do in 15 years? The people of India and China said, “We don’t know, it is America’s job to dream the Dream.”
In 2008, on the eve of a frightening moment, in the midst of a great financial crises and a truly important presidential election America expressed one of our essential characteristics, resiliency. Will Farrell, the comedian was on TV, making fun of the president, G. W. Bush, the man that may have led us off this cliff and the people of America threw the dice and elected a new and unusual president. A man with very little experience but with the promise of going in new direction. Resiliency is an important part of leadership, it contains a natural level of optimism and optimism is necessary to move forward in life. Optimism says even though things are bad, I can still hope for the good. Resiliency says if what I did, didn’t work, I can do something different.
Can America do something different? Have we used up all of our promise? At the turning point of the century, America experienced a prosperity that was probably the peak of materialism of human life. Had we achieved the American Dream?
What is the American Dream? It always seems the essence of the Dream is that our children will have a better life than we did. Our children having a better life is the immigrants’ dream. We have an immigrant past, and people continue to want to come here to live a better life, but are there are many of us who are no longer immigrants but are a new people. We have come here from all kinds of cultures and hopefully we retain the best of those cultures, but do we not have a culture of our own? If you look at history, it is true we are still a young country. The people who created our country knew that prosperity was important to our future as a people. The founders knew that we were building a freer nation than had ever existed and material security for our people was one of the necessities to build a strong democracy. Yet somehow I don’t think the founders were thinking “more and more” and it is a difficult philosophical question to explore to say” how much is enough”? Were the founders thinking about a future where everyone had designer bags?
George Washington knew we did not want to be a monarchy. The monarchies of Europe had been a terrible life of tyranny and poverty except for the kings and the oligarchies that served the throne. It was a real life of haves and have nots and it meant horrible poverty for many people. There is an old Iraqi saying “that even tyranny if better than anarchy” but to George Washington’s mind monarchy was not better by much. Alexander Hamilton knew we needed a sound governmental monetary structure that allowed us to do business; Jefferson hoped we would be “ever revolutionary”. John Adams, a lawyer and a farmer, who served on 23 constitutional committees (anyone who has sat on political committees knows what a hell that must have been) helped to craft for us a freedom built on law. John Adams was an ever a pragmatic man and yet when he looked into the future, a future that he and Abigail Adams knew that they were paying for with their lives, he had a vision for us.
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
John Adams like the many of the other founders had a classical education. What was deemed a good education, at the beginnings of our country was based on the history and the culture of those civilizations that came before us and yet had for a moment in time created what we call a “golden age.” The founders looked to ancient Greece and Rome, to the Renaissance to civilizations that at the peak of their prosperity saw the highest values of their culture as being expressed by the arts. The ancient cultures at their apex esteemed the poet, the writer and the philosopher.
From the beginning of time, human life has been based on a scarcity mentality. It is true, in the past, that the resources to sustain life were limited and because of that we have always fought over them. Michael Foucault in the History of Sexuality says it was not until about the16th century, as we learned to better manage our resources, that life actually became more about life than it was about death.
America for a long time a frontier nation, struggled to create prosperity for it’s’ people. After centuries of expansion and economic twists and turns, America was prosperous when we recovered from World War II. The tooling up for the war had turned us into an industrial giant. In the 1950’s life was good in America. When I went to college in the 60s’, automation was one of the future concerns in America. We could do so much with machines that soon we would not need as many workers. How would people structure their lives if they no longer needed to work to survive? We would need to structure an economy to reflect our rising automated materialism.
One of the possible answers evolved from the children of prosperity. Young people in the 60’s, called hippies, raised in the prosperous materialism of the late 50’s did not grow up feeling needy for possessions and looked to find new ways of life. They sought a community not based on owing things. A community built on being, not having.
What would people do when everyone no longer needed to work to create what would sustain us? It always seemed to me that would be good time to look to the “golden ages” of the past. Greece and Rome and Florence were civilizations that had a leisure class and revered the arts as pursuits for people that did not have to work to support themselves. The classical ages had a leisure class because slaves did the work. Slavery dehumanizes slaves and owners and, eventually destroys the system that created it.
We are now on the threshold of an incredible level of production. The machines and the computers and the Internet now are capable of doing much of the work on this earth. Instead of fighting over “all the stuff” that we now producing because we can, why are we not thinking about our capacity to produce and looking at the new world that we could create?
At the turn of this century Thomas Friedman had a glimmer of the world wide productive capacity brought about by the computers and the Internet. And yet looking at this possible new age of man he did not see for us, what John Adams saw for us. He looked at what was happening and continued to see with the eyes of the past. I am not challenging Thomas Friedman for it was the greatness of his book that made me question what we are doing. However, even with his thorough research that outlined the powers of production that the earth now possesses, Thomas Friedman and most of the earth was still caught up in a scarcity mentality. He wondered how America was going to compete.
What if we start to question what we are competing for? What if we started to talk about what we have as opposed to what we don’t have? What if we begin a re-examination of how we live. Maybe we should really talk about dreaming the dream? I don’t think, if we put some energy into it, we would be dreaming about designer bags or Mac Mansions.
I don’t think America is going off a cliff, I think we going in a whole new direction. We are not going to ratchet up the game of materialism. I think what is happening on Wall Street is the” death throes” of materialism. The end game of a life based on who has the most toys. We have been playing this game from the beginning of time because it was a matter of survival, we had to or die. But the game is over. Were we to cooperate and plan, we may be on the verge of being able to take care of the material needs of most people on this planet. That might be a better plan then creating more consumer goods than anyone needs or really wants and destroying each other and our planet in the process.
What if instead of killing our young and destroying other countries over oil, we said, “lets cooperate, we will each nation, give the same % of our GNP, buy an island , hire some of the world’s greatest scientists, equip them and task them with finding a new sustainable source of energy. When they find that source of energy, we will share it. And together we will create a Golden Age for the earth and its people.
We need a world vision; we need to ask ourselves” what do we have that is good and what do we truly want?” This is how America can compete, “we can dream the dream” for us by choosing values that create a new way to live.
Today’s media is so 24/7 that America has watched how Wall Street took the future of America (the great pool of our retirement money) and played high stakes Poker with it. Wall Street is no longer really American. According to a recent ‘Atlantic Monthly article, a global elite now rules Wall Street with very little allegiance to the USA.
However, the expansion of globalization has created new opportunities and at the beginning of any new frontier the chance to pillage markets before regulation gets there is hard to resist. It is hard for regulation alone to control markets but the values of a culture can influence everyone’s behavior. Wall Street’s greed is symbolic of the emptiness of some of the highest values of our culture. Many of our smartest people are little more than rats on a treadmill. They are going 90 miles an hour and getting nowhere. How much money do these guys need? The numbers are absurd. If you step back and look at Wall Street’s behavior it has become self- destructive. Their level of accumulation, of the global oligarchies, is driving us to a situation of haves and have-nots. The American level of political stability, which influences the world and is the underpinning of the world being able to do global business, is based on our government’s broad support by its people.
One of my proudest moments as an American was the 2000 Bush/Gore presidential election. Our presidential election is one the most important elections in the world and we screw it up over chads, little pieces of paper. Do we fight, do we get guns, and do we go to the streets? No, we hire two of the most expensive lawyers in America to fight this out in court. I paid attention to those lawyers because I thought they must be two of the smartest people in America. So, I watch their TV appearance. Wow, two lawyers in bad suits and not great haircuts arguing and yet this elections matters to the whole world. It was one of my proudest moments as an American. As unhappy as we, as a country, were about that election we had enough faith in our system that we did not take to the streets. Our faith, in America, is based on the fact that under our system more of us live, (they don’t kill as many of us as they used to when we lived in other places) and we live better than ever before.
And yet, Wall Street risks this stability. It outsmarts us and pays our congress to allow it. They perpetuate massive fraud on our mortgage market; they use our IRA money to cover their bets while their hedge funds buy American companies and gut them for a profit sending our jobs overseas. How smart can they be when their greed is killing the golden goose? America is like the fairy tale goose that lays the golden eggs. The political stability of America influences the whole world, and underpins the global market in which Wall Street does business. Wall Street is creating an America of them at the top, very few people in the stable middle and an increasing amount of people on the bottom. Killing the golden goose is self-destructive. Wall Street wants more and more money but to what end? Working hard to survive and have a good life makes sense. Materialism in the service of life makes sense. But the boys on Wall Street are no longer making sense. The Golden Goose is from a children’s story and many of the stories they tell when we are children have life lessons.
Children’s stories are stories that teach us about the world. Remember the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes? In this tale everyone is used to believing what the Emperor says is real. Some con men trick the Emperor in to buying a bill of goods, a set of imaginary clothes.
As the Emperor walks through his country everyone is bamboozled by the con of the imaginary clothes. And yet a child who has not learned yet to deny what he know to be real, yells out “the Emperor has no clothes.”
Thomas Friedman seems to me to be a wonderful man. My impression of him is he is intelligent, responsible and caring. However what Thomas Friedman was looking at was the possibility of a whole new world, but he couldn’t see it because he was looking at it through old eyes. When he talked about the level of production he did not question the con game. I think America is slowly becoming the child in the fairy tale and is starting to realize that “Wall Street and Washington” have no clothes. If materialism is our primary value in life we wind up cheating, stealing and harming others so we can get the most, and like Wall Street, we have no shame for the harm we have done. Winner take all is not the game that should be played at the height of a civilization. Wall Street and Washington’s current antics are their death throes; it is capitalism in the service of destruction not life. We no longer believe in them or their values, like the child looking at the Emperor we see their nakedness. Because they believe in nothing we have no way to stop them. We as a people, as a nation, are going to turn away from them, and their values for what they do sicken us.
America is going to change the game. America is going to” dream a new dream.” Many of us have started to move in new directions, we are not going over the cliff with our leaders. One of the most wonderful attributes of our level of democracy is that we do not have to wait for our leaders. As a people we can vote with our feet. We can walk away from the hierarchies that exploit us. The power of the computers and the internet are accessible to us all. The world is flat. One of the ways power elites have survived is by controlling the flow of information but now that ‘the world is flat” almost everyone has access to almost all information. More people are part of the process of deciding what is important, what do we value. There is an old saying that the business of America” is business” and as a nation struggling to survive that made sense. But we no longer are a nation struggling to survive and our materialistic goals are bankrupting us financially and spiritually.
In Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman revisits the world of massive productivity that he saw a glimpse of in The World is Flat and he questions what and why. He still hopes for a world in which America will lead and he looks to a future where we re-invent ourselves by” going green”. He laments that we cannot be China for a day and force our people to do the things that may be a matter of saving life on this planet. America is going green but not as fast as we may need to for a sustainable earth. China seems to be a very practical nation; it has in my lifetime made unusual decisions about its’ future. As India and China educate their people, perhaps they too will start to realize that we are consuming the earth. In the New York Times magazine section of May 2007, the entrepreneurs of China spoke of alternative energy as the new frontier. Instead of competitors, could India and China become possible partners in seeking new ways to live that do not eat the planet? Soon China and India will be more educated, more capable, more knowing. Will they want to take the same path that America did, won’t they learn from the things that we have done, they mistakes we have made?
Throughout America other values are beginning to emerge. Other ways of life are being offered and explored. Other patterns of life that could create a different future for the world and us are taking shape. Some of us are beginning to dream the dream that the Greeks and the Italians had for themselves and that John Adams had for us, for his children’s’ children, for his country and his people, the then new, America.
I live in a small town in Pennsylvania and for the past ten years we have been living a community project that I think is a small part of the new American Dream. What we are doing is not a “silver bullet,” it is not the answer. But I do think it is one of the responses and as such, I think it parallels other coming patterns for a new way of life.
That is a pretty big statement and I am sure you are wondering who am I to be making it. I am a just witness. I think of myself as similar to one of the children in Hansel and Gretel, following a breadcrumb trail to find my way home. My credentials are I am a voracious book reader that also reads four daily newspapers. I love and haunt the visual arts and came of age in the middle of the hippie sixties. I have worldly interests and yet I live in a small town that I say” is America.” The big cities might be the brains of America but we are the everyday people of America. We are a cross section of so much of this country.
In the late 90’s our little town, like many small towns in America was in serious decline. Stores had moved to the mall and families were moving to the suburbs. Our little downtown had empty storefronts, and our neighborhoods were attracting the big city problems of drugs and crime. Confronted with the loss of a “small town” way of life, some of our citizens decided to do something. We looked at the experiences of other town in decline that had reclaimed their future. We were lucky to find a tape from the AIA, brought to us by their local chapter president, Dallas Miller. The tape was called Back From the Brink: Saving Americas Cities Through Design. Taking an idea from Chattanooga Tennessee we had a community visioning. A large group came together on a Saturday afternoon in a local college and asked the question”what do we want to see in our future? ” We dreamed a little dream.
We chose wonderful speakers to talk before the visioning. Speakers that inspired us and that we hoped would inspire others. Our first speaker was Thomas Hylton, who wrote a book called Save our Land, Save our Towns: a Plan for Pennsylvania. Mr. Hylton was a reporter in a small town outside of Philadelphia that had been confronted with the same serious decline that was affecting our little town. Mr. Hylton in response to some of his town’s problems wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles about what he thought was happening to his town and other little towns across Pennsylvania. Mr. Hylton talked about how till the end of the 50’s we had grown up in small vibrant communities where all the classes lived together. We had problems but we also had downtowns and neighborhoods with sidewalks and we knew each other. We were neighbors. We had a sense of belonging to a community. Since the 50’s on with highways and automobiles, our middle class, expanded to the suburbs and left our small towns and communities behind. In the suburbs we had no sidewalks, our children no longer walked to school, our mothers went to work and no one was at home. We lost our sense of neighborhood and we lost our sense of community. When all the classes lived together in small towns, the middle class had sustained the structure which created order and protected the more vulnerable members of our community. The concentration of low income people left behind in the cities and towns were not able to sustain a comfortable level of social order. Who knew that the old neighborhood women, wearing housedresses and wagging their fingers at the local kids, warning us” I am going to tell your mother” were the guardians of civilization. We suburbanized and we destroyed community said our first speaker Thomas Hylton. Many of the social ills of our cities and towns were the result of planning decisions. Decisions that undermined downtowns and neighborhoods and in the process destroyed our sense of community, our sense of belonging.
Our next speaker was Stroud Watson, a member of the team of architects that had helped to take Chattanooga from a place referred to as the “armpit of America “to a city that became a good place to live. “It is true” said Stroud Watson,” we did use planning to destroy community, but now that we know that we can use planning and design to recreate community”
The next smart thing our community did at the visioning was make a rule that no one could complain, we could only say what we liked and what we wanted. What a great formula for asset based community development. The questions were “what do we have that is good? and “what do we want our future to be?”
We wanted to be connected to our river, we wanted our small downtowns to be vibrant and we wanted our neighborhoods to be good safe places to live. Several of the volunteers were artists. They knew we had a lot of regional art and they thought “more art in our downtown” might make the downtown a more vibrant place.
We started First Friday/Art Town after we saw a book called” The 100 Best Little Art Towns in America”. From that book we saw that other small towns had succeeded in enhancing their quality of life and their reputations through the celebration of their local arts. We are a beautiful place to live, we have wonderful people and we had a lot of local art. Actually music and theater were our most developed arts but we realized that the visual arts are what get people to notice the arts. So we started an event called First Fridays. The First Friday of each month we celebrated our arts. We had talented visual artists and what First Fridays did was give the visual arts an effective platform to interact with the community on an on- going basis. We started with a band, a few performers, and several visual artists on the street and in the shops and now ten years later; the events on First Fridays fill the “On the Arts” section of our regional newspaper, the Sun Gazette. About the same time as we recommitted to community our regional newspaper made the same commitment as a publication. We had created a silent partnership and by working in tandem on the goal of community we started a small social movement. It has been so successful that First Friday is also beginning to attract professional artists and enough artists to start to fill the 300,000 sq feet of a local old pajama factory that was bought by two New Yorkers, who were inspired by our First Fridays to create a space for the arts.
I believe this story should be told because; we are part of the growing regionalization of the arts that is happening across Pennsylvania and also across the America. I have read the New York Sunday Times cultural section since I was twelve. When I was young in the 50’s the arts were in New York or L.A. but now we have regional arts centers all across our country. We are a regional art center. After the financial meltdown the entire world has been looking to America to reinvent ourselves.
It seems to me that since the sixties all across America, we have been reinventing ourselves. The regionalization of the arts has been creating a new relationship to the arts and that new relationship is slowly changing us. We have been changing part of what it is to be American. Local arts are affecting what we value and how we spend our time. America is no longer just the audience for the arts, we are becoming the arts. Regional arts are participatory and I think they are part of changing the mindset of some of Americans from product to process. (See “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink.)
The reaffirmation of the power of community, by our people and our newspaper, the regionalization of the arts, the” buy fresh, buy local movement”, the transition to sustainability, and going green “one grocery bag at a time”; America is moving in a new direction. I wouldn’t say that we have lost faith in all that is big but we are developing a new faith in the power of our individual selves. Over whelmed by this brave new global world and its expectations of us, Americans are doing what we did when we built this country. We once put all our belongings in a small bag and crossed an ocean and then we put all our belongings in a little Conestoga wagon and we and our families walked behind the wagon as we crossed the plains. As we crossed those plains we built farms, and towns, and churches, and states and finally a country. We the people of America, one by one we walked into the future. We didn’t dream a country named, America, we dreamt a good life for ourselves and our children. We didn’t dream global domination, we just trying to do a good job. These are not the dreams of the people of America. Most Americans were a people who grew up in small towns surrounded by a beautiful land. We were a people who were good neighbors and we loved our land. Those values made us a great nation but as a great nation we have been dragged into the wars of the world. Big farms, big companies, big factories, big cars, big highways, big houses, big pocketbooks, we had our heads down doing our work and somehow this happened to us. We did these big things because we could. But on our way to big we lost something, we lost our place in this big world. What good is a big world if in it I have no meaning? If in it, I am not important, if I do not matter.
The world is flat means network, not hierarchy. The world is flat increases the power of individual decisions. The world is flat means I matter more as an individual. The world is flat means I am more powerful as an individual. Big business wants me to produce things, to buy things so it can continue the cycle of production that is its “raison d’ etre.” Big government wants big armies, big guns, big highways, big everything because managing big is its “raison d’etre.” A past President Dwight Eisenhower who led us to victory in World War II left office saying beware of the military industrial complex. Built to wage a war it was assuming a life of its own and finding wars to sustain its existence. Big jails, big hospitals, is there a trend here. America became big everything and little us.
But the world is now flat. The personal computer and the internet give us options, Big still works for a lot of things but small is more flexible. It is easier to change small. “Big’ once it happens wants to sustain itself because of the level of investment to create. Most of history humans have lived small. Work and life occurred in smaller flexible more human units such as the farm and the shop. I think human beings want to be part of their lives. As Pew poll says Americans don’t want an easier life we want a better life and we increasingly want a life not built on shopping and consuming. We want to plant, we want to cook, we want to paint, we want to sing, and we want to carry those little bags to the super market so we can save our planet. Thomas Friedman is right, the American democracy can’t do what China can do, and we can’t force our people to go green. But our people are doing more than going green; we are going every color of the rainbow. Government and our leaders flounder as both those entities have done throughout history, but our people are on the move. I want to tell you the story of one little part of America and what we are doing and I know that all across America other people are doing the same thing in addition to all the other things I have talked about. We always move forward because life moves forward and when we believe in what we doing and who we are, we move forward with more power and grace and joy. Did Walt Whitman sing of us, of our energy and of our land, and so he should have. Once again we need to sing of America, of the American people.
Americans are not exceptional, but the American experience is exceptional. We are the embodiment of the dreams of humanity. It is our job to Dream the Dream. The battles that we fight for other people with our guns are nothing compared to the battle we fight for all of us with our hearts and our spirits. We are the hope of the world because we come the closest to the dream of history to just living our lives in peace and prosperity.
Let me tell you my little story. Let me tell you about my little town. Let me tell you why I think we are one of the many little parts of America Dreaming the Dream.
-Judith Meyers Olinsky