In the end, the American Dream did not last very long. The modern version, the version with the two point five kids and the house in the suburbs, a nice modest house with a good lawn and a white picket fence (it was always a white picket fence, for some reason, white pickets being the go-to designator of middle class status) had its heyday in the post-war 1950s, and had suffered serious blows when the designated underclasses made themselves too visible in the 1960s, and survived the too-vapid 1970s and wealth-obsessed 1980s in tattered form, but by the 1990s the whole thing was looking a bit sketchy, and by the turn of the millennium it was dodgy, and before the next 10 years were out you were looked at as a bit of a rube if you still believed in it at all.
Fifty years then, more or less? A few generations, and then only if you count certain folks and not count the other folks, the rough span of time between post-Depression America finally finishing up the much-needed kicking of the Gilded Age's ass and the time it took for the Reaganites to argue that maybe being a robber or a baron or an outright horse-thief was not so bad after all, since they were such damn fine American things to be. It was the span between the first gleaming suburbs and those very same suburbs beginning to look worn out; it was the span between being able to build those rows of cookie-cutter houses anywhere and having to build them too far out to really count as suburbs anymore; it was the span between one post-war generation being able to find jobs and that same single generation retiring from those jobs. It was the span between the first rocket launches and the last limping shuttle flights. It came and went with the cathode ray tube, and what replaced it in the American mind was a great, heavy nothing.
There was no new dream, you see, after that old one faded. There was nothing that replaced the white picket fence as the idealization of having your own little somewhere where, no matter what else happened, you were your own master. The new dream was telling each other that having a dream was silly, was inconsequential, was the product of a feeble mind that did not understand that the world was flat now, and that businesses were transcending governments, and that the great American obligation was above all else the right for each of us to be selfish, and bitter, and mean, and to have nothing at all if having nothing at all would at least keep anyone else nearby from having any more either. It used to be a dream to own a nice house in the suburbs with a lawn where the kids could play without getting in the way of the two cars parked in the driveway. Now people in suits sneer that if the poor have refrigerators or cheap televisions purchased in better times, it is probably a sign America has given them too much.
More on the American Dream below the fold.
It was always a bit of a farce to begin with, of course. You would be hard pressed to convince African Americans of the 1950s that they were one good job from the Leave it to Beaver American life—or, for that manner, any other minorities, or the people of certain cities, or those who worked in the wrong set of jobs to begin with. But we paid lip service to it. There was a concept of possible betterment, of shared national promise, of being able to find a job that led to being able to find a home that led to being able to support a family, so long as you clocked in and clocked out and did your fair share. The dream was once to find a job that you would keep for decades, a job that would bring the pension in when you finally drove the car back to the white picket fence that one last time with your bad back and your gold watch. The new dream is to find a job that will last for at least a while. No promises, mind you, but a while. Something that can't be outsourced, at least not yet. No gold watch, but maybe a job that requires both the college degree and that you pee in a cup because the boss considers even the best and brightest of you to be one step removed from criminals, a genetic underclass who would probably beat him to death with a sack of company staplers and steal his own gold watch from his cold, dead wrist if they thought they could get away with it.
Were we that wrong, before? The Dream may have been dubious, but the void seems worse. Worse than promises of a shared national identity that would come to pass for only some is the new promise that the great heap of everyone will get nothing, and like it; there will be no jobs, save for the grace of the barons; there will be no pensions, because those were the dreams of a too-socialist era (itself fighting communism tooth and nail, perhaps, only to themselves fall to the disgrace of making promises to the working class, a flaw that we must remedy lest communism take the American rust belt one tired pensioner at a time). There will be no big government projects because the new dream says there will be none, and we will like it. Forget the old laws, because businesses have now transcended them. Forget the old duties of government, because the notion that government has duties is itself a petty fabrication.
The depths of the dreamless void seem to know no limits, to some: there will be no Post Office, because we are too poor for a Post Office and our current nation too stupid to run one. There will be no collective education, because the word collective is a sin and the word education is a gateway to more of it. The American Dream has been replaced with a dreamless sleep so deep that no past national accomplishments can break free of it. It is not just that we tell our citizens that there will be no more dream, no more security in work, no more yard or fence or staying home with the kids or promises of food and base personal safety as payment for punching the stiff paper card at the noisy little clock by the back door—we tell the nation itself, the collective self of us all, that all the things the nation as the whole once did and once took for granted are dreams beyond our new nation now. We are mocked not for mourning the decay of our dreams, but for believing them. Or, worse, even wanting them.
What is America, that we could do such things as have museums or parks or murals or post offices or roads that you do not have to pay a toll to drive on? What fools were we, that would want such things as trains that take you from place to place, or rain that did not etch the paint from your car, or a lake you could sit by on a quiet summer day, a lake not fenced off in barbed wire or posted with the terse warning that someone else owned the thing, not you? Why dwell on such lavish trivialities when instead we could have the great wide expanse of nothing, a new and glorious version of freedom that exists as a dark, empty, silent void?
(And did we truly go to space only as act of spite? Even that thing, the national dream that transfixed a nation and set the children afire with dreams of their own? Were we truly that petty, down to the last little drop of rocket fuel, that the dreams of new frontiers lasted only and precisely as long as we fretted that some other nation would plant their little cloth flag first, dreams that were first tossed aside, then chastised, then openly mocked as a fever dream we would never again see the likes of? If so then even raw spite has proven more noble than The Void, and America did in raw spite more than it ever did out of noble purpose, and perhaps we all need to be coddling raw spite as new national dream simply because it would get the whole great nation out of bed again, and out of the house for a while.)
The new void barely recognizes the notion of nation at all. The wishes of the states, we are told, outrank the bare laws of the nation; the word nullification gets tossed around at every perceived slight, landing with the liquid smack of a wet sock in the legislative binders of every aggrieved messenger of patriotic nihilism. The new void says that laws shalt not be passed at all. That judges shall not do judging. That agencies shall not agency. That we need none of those things as much as we need the empty void that would replace them, if at long last we could.
No—too much, too far. Pull back. Back to the white picket fence, and no farther. What is the new American Dream, for those that are asked to dream it? Just the fathers, and the mothers. Just the college students. Just the children. Just the happy bachelors, or the retirees, or the sick, or the healthy, or those in the city, or the country, or those on the bus, or those on the freeway, or the tired men in the suits who always look too hurried, at the airports, or the janitor that barely glances at them as he empties another bag of still-wet coffee cups from the nearby bin as the men in the suits scurry by. What do we tell them America stands for? What will it get them? What are they supposed to be doing for their country, and what are the things they can ask their country do for them that will not get them laughed at, get them mocked by the people writing the next newspaper columns or preparing for their next angry speeches in front of the rows of cameras? Can they ask for a job?
A good job? A fair job?
Or, barring that, can they ask for mere survival? Is that too much? Is that, too, a spark to be cast out from the new void?
What can they ask for?