Barack Obama and the end of “The American Dream”


A couple of years ago, I took a transatlantic flight from the Twin Cities to Amsterdam that crossed over the coast of Holland a little after sunrise.

It was a spectacular sight – the gray swells of the North Sea beginning to sparkle in first light, the long tan sickle of the coastline backed by the green carpet of the hinterland. As we began our descent, it occurred to me that virtually every acre of dry land passing below had been wrested, square meter by square meter, out of the chill waters by men and women filling in dykes, then painstakingly draining the ground behind them with an intricate and ever-expanding system of ditches and windmill-driven pumps. If there ever were a fitting symbol of the reality that has shaped European consciousness over the past millennia, this was it. Below was a landscape literally formed by an economy of shortage. Nothing in northern Europe has come easily; foul your nest there and there was no place else to go – unless you fled the continent itself.

If there is one signal difference that separates the European from the American experience, surely it is this. Even today, when the Euro outranks the dollar as the preferred currency of global commerce, life in Europe reflects the inevitable limits – and responses to those limits – of an economy of shortage, while from the very first, this country has been shaped by the lack of any such limits: by an economy of abundance. While that abundance is at the root of certain positive qualities of the American national character – optimism, self-reliance, and individualism– it has also bred heedlessness, ethnocentricity, recklessness and an arrogant sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. Over on this side of the Atlantic, if you foul your nest, there is, or at least there always was, some place else – another valley, river, mountaintop, or prairie – where you can start all over again.

In recent months we’ve begun to hear about the “end of the American Dream” – i.e., the demise of our unquestioning confidence that each successive generation of Americans will achieve a higher standard of material existence than the generation preceding it. Given that the phrase “The American Dream” was not, as many believe, coined spontaneously some time in the 19th Century but created as an advertising slogan in the 1920s to promote home ownership, it seems fitting that the economic crisis that precipitated this gloomy talk has been the collapse of the housing market – a collapse triggered in part by a flood of bad mortgages inspired by the perennial American faith that there is, indeed, a free lunch.

To this version of the American Dream we can only say good riddance. It is this version that has led to an unsustainable, throwaway lifestyle that poisons our air, our water, and our soil, and has turned our food supply into a nest of virulent, antibiotic-resistant antigens and the source of the empty calories that are the true villain in an obesity epidemic that some medical experts fear might end up lowering our average life expectancy.

Not only has this version of the American Dream been literally killing us, but the bullying insistence that we must all buy into it, lock, stock, and barrel, has been a potent tool for suppressing dissent. It is a shorthand phrase that subsumes the good and the bad aspects of American culture, both the benign wish for our children to do well in the world and our not-so-benign profligacy. In its broadest usage, the underlying message of “The American Dream” is that the consumer culture is not only the best of all possible worlds but that anyone who dares question that assumption – and the corrupt and repressive power-relations, the greedy and amoral value system, that underlie it – is “un-American.”

At the same time, this corrupt version of the American Dream blinds us to the country’s very real virtues, virtues that should serve as a model for the rest of the world, not of mindless and self-centered consumption but of how to fashion a truly multicultural, multiethnic society that is peaceful, democratic, and open to all. This is, of course, a very different “dream” from the one espoused by the founders of this country, but it is a noble dream nonetheless. True, this multicultural, multiethnic ideal is hardly uncontested even today and for much of our history did not apply at all to descendents of African slaves brought here in bondage. We still have a way to go before it fully applies to all members of our society. But, thankfully, we move closer to realizing this dream every year.

I remember some time back visiting a food court in downtown St. Paul. Amid the takeout stands offering pizza, egg rolls, chili and hamburgers I happened upon a newer booth offering takeout Cajun. Think about it! I told myself. A fast food version of a cuisine that nobody outside the deep South had even heard of until 30 years ago or so; a cuisine, what’s more, native to an ethnic group that once was among the most despised and marginalized in the nation, the descendants of runaway slaves and French colonists forced out of Canada by the British at the end of the Seven Years War. How extraordinary to come upon Cajun takeout in the middle of blue-eyed, Lutheran Minnesota. Better still: The takeout stand was owned and operated by a Hmong family.

Only in the America, I remember telling myself

“Only in America” was a phrase Barack Obama employed in his remarkable victory speech Thursday evening in Iowa. He was commenting on the fact that he stands on the threshold of becoming the Democratic nominee for President of the United States – not as a protest candidate or a candidate representing the Civil Rights dream, like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson – but as a mainstream, credible candidate with a very real chance of being elected. “Think about it,” he said. “A black father from Kenya. A white mother from Chicago. Only in America!”

Whatever your views of Sen. Obama’s positions on specific issues – and he is not nearly progressive enough for me – his win, and the hope he has inspired, have more to do with who he is than the positions he takes on health care or Iraq. And what does he represent? The embodiment of that multicultural, multiethnic vision for this country, the American Dream we want to keep – no, nurture – even as we scuttle the old dream of endless material abundance that has come increasingly to resemble a nightmare.

After seven long years of fearmongering and repression, mindless belligerence and gratuitous cruelty (it’s my belief that George W Bush is not just incompetent but a genuine sadist as well) that in turn followed eight interminable years of Bill Clinton’s tawdry scandals and spineless temporizing, of a “greed is good,” celebrity-worshiping, bitterly partisan national ethos, Sen. Obama’s improbable rise to the top has opened the door to hope for national regeneration. In doing so he has given the lie to cynics who have written off the American political process as beyond redemption while reinforcing the claim that this is, indeed, going to be an election about change in which candidates like Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer have a far better chance of defeating incumbents like Norm Coleman than backward-looking, Clintonesque knockoffs like Al Franken.

It may not be Morning in America again, at least not yet. And I am under no illusions about the ability of one man, one leader to single-handedly change the direction of the country. I am also acutely aware of the pockets of unreconstructed racial hatred that exist here and there around the country and hope to God that Sen. Obama’s security detail is up to the challenge. Still, at least there’s a hint of dawn in the sky now, and reason for us to feel a little better about the country than we did even a week ago. And for that we should all be grateful – and more than a little relieved.