Between & Beyond: The American Dream

Commentary never seems to go far enough. There are still figures out there in our culture that I respect. Maybe two: Cornel West and Bill Moyers. I like their voices. Not the timbre necessarily (though it is fine in both), but the quality of their insight. But, there seems to be a moment where they each hit their respective walls. I wrote about this in terms of Cornel West’s critiques of Obama. They are at least coming from the right place and addressing Obama’s failure to act as a true progressive, but it falls short in terms of why. I love how Moyers entertains multifaceted interests in his approach of looking at our culture; he gives attention to poets from time to time besides just people involved in politics. I can’t help but think it’s all just not enough. I remain haunted by my revisiting of Death Of A Salesman with my students this semester, and the American Dream is on my mind, wondering what it is about these days.

Maybe it’s never been any different, at least no different in recent history. Any idea that the ’50s were simpler, more unified times is shattered by the play itself which was written in 1949 and was already critical of this idea of the American Dream. From there, the Beat Generation became a force of resistance before the full-fledged counter-culture exploded in the ’60s. Maybe the divided landscape of today is still just a result of that initial deep schism. But, I remember studying Faulkner in grad school and receiving a list from a professor of the values of the agrarian Deep South that Faulkner was connected to. This professor had an obvious conservative bend that came out in his critique of the Communists of the Spanish Civil War whilst studying For Whom The Bell Tolls, but it was even rumored that he voted for Bush Jr. (twice). So, these values were supposed to be representative of a time lost to us, where things mattered and were authentic. Ironically, the ideas of community, living close to the Earth, and maintaining a sense of reverence only reminded me of the counter-culture.

Maybe, what’s missing in our lives is narrative. We don’t have a good story, one about who we are and what we want. The original story of the American Dream was just not a good story at all. It was incomplete and short-sighted. The problem remains that too many people want to keep telling it to themselves and too many powerful people resist the idea of editing it. All commentary will always fall short for me until we can address the failure of Capitalism. Of course, when one says such a thing, the most immediate response is to ask, “Well then what do we do instead?” I don’t necessarily know the answer to that. I’m not sure I am qualified to answer that question truly. I do know that absolutely everyone is qualified to ask the question, “Has Capitalism failed?” But if we can’t even agree on that question, then we can’t seek to understand what we should do next.

Continuing on the way we are seems to me like we are piloting a burning ship, the captain always reassuring us that we will be fine if we stay the course. We could pull out grandiose critiques of the financial system and the Federal Reserve. We could look at corruption in the stock market and the fractures in the foundation of the global economy. We could look at Third World sweatshops and global climate change and drowning polar bears. We could look at wholesale corruption and overturn the stones of conspiracy theory and look at the wet darkness beneath. But, what Death Of A Salesman is reminding me is that we only need to look at ourselves. Our stories are the most important. What this world does to us is most important.

There’s something incredibly familiar about the struggles in Arthur Miller’s play. I have always been interested in understanding myself as deeply as possible. I think about who I am and try to understand how I came to be this person. There’s no doubt that my life has been built on the back of a middle class existence. There are some who would call my perspective the result of privilege and discredit it. I know that I watched my father struggle in the same way Willy struggles in the play. I saw him sacrifice his entire life in order to maintain a standard of living. His father was an electrician and also worked hard for his family, but my father was involved in the corporate world, and a sense of authenticity and satisfaction was lost. The turmoil that my father’s lifestyle created was palpable and corrosive, and it engrained in my brothers and me a desire to avoid that lifestyle at all costs. And, when I look as closely as possible, I see that what really affected me from my family is beyond the class structure. The unconditional love for each other and the reverence for the world around us and the food before us: these are the things that truly shaped me and inform who I am and what I want from the world and what I believe to be possible. It’s the community and humility that was found in Faulkner’s South, in the counter-culture, in the deep and hidden desires of Willy and Biff, and in my own desires and my father’s and his father’s. I know that’s the root of what we, human beings, want. And, I know that it is in no way contingent upon Capitalism.