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Empty Promise”€”Barack Obama and the Death of the American Dream

September 15, 2008

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Empty Promise”€”Barack Obama and the Death of the American Dream

Once upon a time, there was the American Dream, “€œthat dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone,”€ as James Truslow Adams described it in his book The Epic of America (1931).

Today we have the American Promise. Unveiled by Barack Obama in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, the Promise is about balancing freedom with responsibility, cutting taxes, installing a government that “€œhelps”€ people rather than “€œhurts”€ them, and ending U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. According to Obama, the very “€œessence”€ of the American Promise is this: “€œIndividual responsibility and mutual responsibility.”€

I can”€™t see it catching on. I cannot envisage a situation where the American Promise “€“ which apparently involves the U.S, government keeping “€œour water clean and our toys safe”€ while also “€œrebuilding the military”€ in order to “€œdeter Iran and curb Russian aggression”€”€”enthuses and inspires people as the American Dream once did.

Indeed, in many ways, the birth of this “€œAmerican Promise”€ signals the death of the American Dream, and confirms that we now live in an era of American defensiveness and fear.

The differences between the American Dream and Obama’s American Promise are striking. The American Dream, one of the purest expressions of people’s desire for more prosperity and more liberty, emphasised our capability“€”what each of us could achieve or attain or win if we put our minds to it and if society were truly equal. As James Truslow Adams said, the American Dream was of a society where “€œeach man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”€

That Dream both fascinated and frustrated millions of people, not only in America but across the world. As Adams points out, it made little sense to the Great and the Good in 19-century and early 20-century Europe, who could not grasp the idea of everyone having”€”at least in theory”€”the right to rise above their station and realise their ambitions. “€œIt is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately,”€ he said. At the same time, the American elite itself”€”its officials and thinkers”€”sometimes lost faith in the Dream. “€œToo many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it,”€ wrote Adams in 1931.

Yet for ordinary people, keen to make something of their lives and improve on their economic conditions and social clout, the American Dream inspired. From America’s own poor to persecuted Jewish communities in Eastern Europe to poverty-stricken families in Latin America, the promise of a land in which life would be “€œbetter and fuller and richer for everyone,”€ and where your “€œinnate capabilities”€ were far more important than your surname, school tie, or skin colour (at least ostensibly), was enticing and exciting.

Some argue that the American Dream was exclusionary. For example, from the Declaration of Independence through to Adams”€™ articulation of the American Dream in 1931, black people and women were shut out from this hoped-for land of better, richer, more equal living. This is of course true, but to blame the American Dream itself for this exclusion is to miss the point. These groups of people eventually came to be included in American society (though still not to a satisfactory degree) not in spite of the American Dream, but because of it.

The assurance in the Declaration of Independence that every man has “€œunalienable Rights,”€ including “€œLife, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,”€ coupled with the American Dream’s promise that everyone should be able to attain what he or she is capable of, implicitly encouraged excluded sections of society to demand access. The American Dream acted as a green light (or perhaps a red rag) that gave excluded people the authority to fight back and force the American elite to make good its historic promise of equality and opportunity. It is striking that the civil rights protestors of the 1950s and 60s used the language of the American Dream in their struggle for equality, as captured in Martin Luther King’s “€œI Have A Dream“€ speech. This and other episodes in American history, from the struggles of slavery abolitionists to the Suffragettes, gave fuller meaning to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the American Dream. The Dream has been made more real by every progressive struggle in American history.

Perhaps the most positive thing about the American Dream is that, essentially, it celebrated human subjectivity. Its premise was that every man should be free to carve out for himself the life that he desires. Even during the darker periods of American history, many were keen to keep alive this idea that all should be able to reach their “€œfullest stature.”€ Writing during the Great Depression, the novelist Thomas Wolfe said the American Dream should grant to every man”€””€œregardless of his birth”€”€””€œthe right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him.”€

Manhood… vision… work… the right to be oneself “€“ these were the ingredients of the American Dream, a dream which emphasised people’s resourcefulness, zeal, inner drive, and, above all, their capability.

“€œThe American Promise”€ could not be more different. Of course, Obama paid lip service to the idea of America “€œensuring opportunity”€ for all: “€œbecause I want my daughters to have exactly the same opportunities as your sons”€; he also said that part of the American Promise is that everyone must have “€œthe freedom to make of our lives what we will.”€ Yet aside from these platitudes, his speech was shot through with a conception of people as essentially weak and under threat rather than possessed of vision; a view of people as having to be delivered from harm rather than as the makers of their own destinies. Indeed, even the terminological shift from “€œDream”€ to “€œPromise”€ reveals much about how the Obama camp views Americans: as people who must be paternalistically rescued rather than individuals who can combine manhood and vision to become “€œwhatever thing”€ they wish.

Obama’s speech gave an impression of America, not as a land of opportunity, but as a land under threat”€”from terrorists; from the carbon footprints of businesses and individuals; and from a general, free-floating, oil-related “€œinsecurity.”€ Part of the American Promise, he said, is a recognition that “€œgovernment cannot solve all our problems,”€ but what it should do, he argued, is “€œthat which we cannot do for ourselves”€”protect us from harm…”€

These harms are apparently numerous and amorphous. For example, one of the key elements of Obama’s American Promise”€””€œin 10 years we will finally end our dependence on oil form the Middle East”€”€”is built on the simplistic, possibly even simple-minded notion that the politics of oil, or what he refers to as America’s “€œoil addiction,”€ is a threat to “€œour economy, our security, and the future of our planet.”€ Where the American Dream was about what individuals might achieve once the barriers of privilege and discrimination had been removed, the American Promise whispers darkly about what might become of individuals, and our entire planet, if America does not kick its “€œoil addiction.”€

Another harm is the product of the American people themselves: CO2 emissions. Grandly, Obama said the American Promise would require “€œa renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F Kennedy called our “€˜intellectual and moral strength.”€™”€ And for what purpose must this strength be harnessed today? For reducing our “€œimpact”€ on the planet. “€œYes, government must lead on energy independence,”€ said Obama, “€œbut each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient.”€ The “€œfuture of the planet,”€ no less, is at stake, he argued.

In this new eco-terminology, people are looked upon not so much as the makers of history but as potential polluters”€”as Scud missiles of carbon who must be decommissioned and decontaminated. Where the American Dream was about “€œunleashing people’s potential,”€ the green-tinted American Promise is about “€œreducing people’s impact”€; where the American Dream celebrated gumption, Obama’s Promise encourages a new kind of environmentally-aware meekness, where we should be forever conscious about how much energy we use and waste we produce.

The American Dream was about removing all barriers to people’s material and social advancement; today’s new green morality, which has clearly been embraced in Obama’s American Promise, imposes the new barrier of eco-guilt, in which material desire”€”for a bigger house, car, refrigerator, etc”€”comes to be seen as “€œanti-environment”€ and ultimately destructive.

The American Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and American Dream were beacons to the world. The oppressed, the poor, the radical and the aspirant were frequently inspired by the words of America’s Founding Fathers and by the idea of the American Dream. Obama’s American Promise, by contrast, treats the world “€œout there”€ with disdain and suspicion. Obama mainly opposes the continuing American presence in Iraq because, as he said in his American Promise speech, he wants to free up US troops so that they can “€œfinish the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan,”€ and possibly to “€œprotect Israel,”€ “€œdeter Iran,”€ and “€œcurb Russian aggression.”€

In other words, one of the key components of the American Promise is more military ventures and “€œtough diplomacy”€ overseas. Where the American Dream inspired people around the globe, the American Promise is likely to alienate and infuriate them.

Obama’s American Promise speech exposes his elitism. The American Dream was aspirational: its focus was on the individual aspiring“€”that is, dreaming”€”to become successful, fulfilled, happy, and so on. The American Promise, by contrast, is essentially elitist: it takes a top-down approach to “€œprotecting people from harm.”€ Even its promise of liberty comes with a rider: as well as having freedom, “€œwe also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect,”€ said Obama. America’s Founding Fathers never felt the need to inject morality into their promise of liberty, to advise people on how they should behave with their newfound freedoms. This, too, expresses Obama’s innate distrust of the American people: concerned that they might run riot with their liberties, he reminds them of their obligation to be decent. The shift from “€œDream”€ to “€œPromise”€ is telling. “€œTo dream”€ is something that individuals do, as they map out their futures; “€œto promise”€ is something Obama will do, as he looks after Americans”€”and the world”€”from on high.

Of course, the American Dream had numerous faults. For many millions of people, it simply never came true. American society has, thus far, proved itself incapable of making everybody’s dreams into reality. This tension between people’s aspirations and what American society can deliver was captured brilliantly in the song “€œAmerica“€ in West Side Story, in which the Puerto Rican women clash with the Puerto Rican men over the promise of America. “€œIndustry boom in America,”€ sing the women… “€œTwelve in a room in America,”€ reply the men. “€œLife can be bright in America,”€ the women say… “€œIf you can fight in America,”€ the men retort. Yet for all its faults and failings, the Dream spoke to people’s desires to be free and prosperous.

Today, the American Dream has been killed off by the American Promise. And again, it is the American elite itself”€”the new Democrats, various thinkers, commentators”€”who have “€œgrown weary and mistrustful of it.”€ Today, aspiring to material wealth (though as James Truslow Adams pointed out, the American Dream was “€œnot a dream of motor cars and high wages merely”€) is described as greedy or environmentally irresponsible. Aspiring to be equal doesn”€™t fit well in an age in which we are encouraged to “€œembrace our differences”€ and celebrate them. And aspiring to be free is inappropriate, apparently, since security”€”in relation to oil, terrorism, the threat from Iran, or whatever”€”is more important than freedom. Obama can only make promises; America needs a leader who has a dream.

Brendan O”€™Neill is editor of spiked in London; his journalism is collated here.

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