Gary Indiana on the False Promise of the American Dream

Improbably, or not, Wikipedia features a definition of the “American Dream,” to wit: a “national ethos … in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children.” If you Google further, you’ll discover another item about the American dream on the Smithsonian website: 100 years ago, it discloses, the phrase in question “meant the opposite of what it does now. The original ‘American Dream’ was not a dream of individual wealth; it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation.”

Like most dreams, either version of this one tends to evaporate upon contact with waking reality. Something sleazy adheres to the word “opportunity,” namely the word “opportunist.” The George W. Bush administration saw the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity for the defense industry and Halliburton; nearly every member of Congress, and every president except Carter, leaves office infinitely richer than when they went in. That is, when they have the good sense to leave. Exactly what any of these people have done to improve daily life for ordinary people has yet to be revealed. But certainly they have seized a lot of opportunities. The same can be said for the winners of celebrity culture, the sports and entertainment industries, corporate CEOs, Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and everyone else whose remuneration is so far beyond that of average working stiffs who sell their labor for wages that it makes medieval feudalism look egalitarian. The ultra-rich were always different from us, as Fitzgerald said, but now they inhabit their own hermetically sealed, alternative planet.

The miserable deficiency of “equality, justice, and democracy” in the United States is precisely the source of the rage felt by millions of Americans on either end of the political spectrum. The rage that bleeds from headlines and makes it impossible to think of the U.S. as a viable society. Nothing works; our health system is a corporate scam; a mass shooting occurs almost hourly anywhere; our police departments are full of murderous thugs; our Supreme Court is dominated by troglodytes whose idea of justice is infantile sadism. The true enemies of human life are masters of misdirection. It’s an unfortunate fact that rage can be focused on altogether the wrong targets by demagogues brimming with criminal energy, which accounts for the election of a vicious chimpanzee as president in 2016.

The current president, alas, lives in the imaginary past of the idealistic, Smithsonian version of the dream, and his tombstone, like that of so many people who’ve outlived their usefulness, should simply read, “He meant well.” After Trump, after the unfinished pandemic, we’re inhabiting a reality that no longer corresponds to any previous one, a chaos that can’t be returned to any earlier version of normality. Its inflection points are in Ukraine and the drastically mutating climate catastrophes everyone could see coming and nobody in power is capable of dealing with. These points converge at the insatiable greed of the oil and gas industries.

The world is a bloody mess, as Jacinda Ardern so succinctly put it back in early July. America is simply one kind of bloody mess, hobbled by the worship of “exceptionalism” endorsed by every politician with a mouth. If the United States could become one country among others— forget about thinking it’s the greatest, most wonderful place the world has ever known—if it just became part of the world, and not the only country besides Liberia and Myanmar that doesn’t use the metric system—well, it’s a matter of mentality and willingness, isn’t it?