Friday, September 7, 2012

The American Dream—A Stale Metaphor

Today’s employment/unemployment numbers have set off a round of critical commentary and more cries that the American Dream is dead.  The numbers were bad, see here.  Macro level analysis about the ongoing class warfare in America, the wealthy versus the not wealthy, is painted as The Betrayal of the American Dream, a discussion about a new book by that name.

These reports got me to thinking about the phrase “American Dream” or, more precisely, the complex metaphor that it is.

First, here is what Wikipedia has to say (here):

“The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States; a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.”

The idea is more than a focus on materialism, however.  It also means a person can pursue their inner betterment without artificial constraints, such as religious, artistic and moral freedom.

I generally believe that knowing the origin and popular duration of phrases helps to understand their meaning.   In this case, James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931:

“…the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each 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” (here).

Obviously, it is a Modernist phrase, conceived in modernist terms, such as “achievement” and “social order.”  However, it does contain many older American ideas, so the phrase may be older.  If it is older, then it was never widely used as chart 1 shows.

While Adams used the phrase in 1931, it was 30 years later that it became popular and part of the American collective vocabulary, as shown in chart 2.

My point here is that while many of the ideas bundled together in the phrase are old in American culture, the metaphor “American Dream” is a product of the mid 20th century.  It is a metaphor that came into being as the American High was transforming into the Fourth Awakening, the climax of Modernism.  It represents the greatness of America at the height of its own achievements.

The popularity of the metaphor has been in decline since 1975.  For young Americans, under age 45, it is an idea from their parent’s, grandparent’s, and great grandparent’s generations.  For them the American Dream is like eating stale bread.

Thus, it is a legacy metaphor.  And, in our new Romanticism, it may not be a useful metaphor or one that has deep meaning, one that provides sustenance to our culture going forward.

The above charts clearly demonstrate that “American Dream” began in popularity about 1960.  It was in that year that Life Magazine began a series of essays on “Our National Purpose” (here).  It’s very hard to imagine today our nation having such a conversation in print or multimedia.  But we need one.

To me, the American Dream is not just about personal success, freedom, or the chance to better myself.  It is about our nation’s role in the world, our purpose as a collective entity about which we can all share a sense of pride and loyalty.  We need a new metaphor that combines the best of the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism.

I don’t know what the new phrase, metaphor, would be.  I do know that worrying about “losing the American Dream” is a wasted effort, a fake controversy, because our spirit is still intact.  The oligarchy does not own that.