Since well before the credit market crisis first hit, we've heard a lot about the American Dream. In the context of illegal immigration, the American Dream was expressed as coming to America to build a life for a family. Much of the discussion now focuses around home ownership, as if owing a mortgage is the pot of gold at our rainbow's other end.
But that isn't it at all, and the misguided effort to prematurely supply people with homes and mortgages outside their means I think is a direct result of misinterpreting the Dream.
Now Joe the Plumber has been supposedly pursuing the American Dream by wanting to own his own small business, making money rather than earning it.
All of these things -- supporting a family, owning a home, building a business -- are just stops along the way, and are neither necessary nor sufficient components of the satisfied Dream.
The American Dream is that anyone can start with little or nothing and become as wealthy, powerful, or successful in whatever endeavor desired, limited only by ability and willingness to work.
An essential part of the Dream is that there are no limits on it. Even more, the Dream seems hard to define precisely because no one gets to say what it is that we strive to achieve; that's our call.
It's different here because we don't rely on the government, charities, the god of luck, or anything else outside ourselves to fulfill the Dream.
American Idol captures the Dream and encases it in shiny clamshell plastic packaging, almost impenetrable but apparently worth the effort for those for whom fame beckons so strongly.
Barack Obama appeals to the American Dream, and in so doing reveals Martin L. King's other Dream to be one and the same with the American Dream: Dr. King dreamed that the American Dream would apply equally to all, regardless of skin color; Obama shows that it does.
Sarah Palin does, too, and her story resonates almost as strongly with her supporters as Obama's does with his.
The fundamental American myth, and one in which I believe, is upward mobility. We're limited only by innate sloth, folly, and poor discipline.
We've always idolized those who achieve on their own merits success in life, especially from humble beginnings: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, and many others all started with the odds against them and are remembered for their journey as well as for their destination.
Now the barons of Wall Street and those of Silicon Valley are alternately idolized and demonized, in a budding national schizophrenia. Do we still believe the Dream, or does it somehow stop at $250,000?
And will the politicians stop pretending that they have anything at all to do with helping us to achieve it?
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