Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, June 25, 2012

“The American Dream”: the new world’s insolent gift to the old

The Wall Street financier from India Rajat Gupta may soon go to jail. Willie Loman saw that he’d never be “number-one man.” Today, America slips down the Gini Index of national income equality—and its elites connive like aristocrats to support each other and pass on their advantages to their precious children.

Collective and individual misfortune in the American marketplace, critics insist, exposes the falsity and folly of their cocky “American Dream.”

In material terms, it’s obvious that the Dream never was true—as a promise or a social contract. The American economy hasn’t been organized to be especially fair to newcomers and hasn’t invested over-generously in those with unrealized potential. Indeed, the expression American Dream was coined in the depths of the Great Depression, after a decade of unprecedented extravagance and social negligence at the top.

Nevertheless, the American Dream—the intense assertion that ambition isn’t right-sized by circumstances, by upbringing, by career guidance councilors, or by class—is an extraordinary, essentially American addition to the way people think about their possibilities.

Its 20th century ambassadors—jazz and rock musicians, protest poets, GIs, farm boy CEOs, generals, and presidents—didn’t make the world much smarter. But they have made growing up, careers, business, culture, and politics less predictable and more exciting.  

The American Dream, however, is about accepting failure as well as pursuing success in a new society.

Being brought up as optimists—entitled to try—can’t be blamed for Americans being less inclined to support collective action as voters in Canada and Europe. However, it can be blamed for making many people miserable.

Canadian essayist Robert Fulford pursues this line of attack, wondering whether anyone but windy politicians and wordsmiths ever took the phase seriously. Then, he offers the ultimate Anglo-Canadian compliment: “Americans have always been too skeptical to embrace an idea of their future that’s pure rhetoric.”
“The real energy of America, as reflected in its culture, was never given to fantasies. In good times and bad, the best novelists and playwrights have always looked on American life with sharply critical eyes.”

Fulford claims that those artists—Mark Twain, Earnest Hemingway, Williams, and Arthur Miller—who captured the American spirit were “anti-dreamers, dream debunkers.”

Fine. Great writing—Russian, American, Canadian, South African, whereever—gets at the truth. However, did Arthur Miller actually write Death of a Salesman simply to warn Americans that Willie Loman’s American Dream was an “empty and self-destructive fantasy, poisonous to the spirit”?

Americans have committed many faux pas in the eyes of their elders in Europe and of their cohabitants on this continent. However, being especially hard on upstarts and dreamers is a new one.

Death of a Salesman didn’t leave its audiences in America and around the globe questioning their over-reaching dreams. It didn’t blunt the renaissance of Babbitt capitalism in the 50s. Also, it didn’t cause anyone to laugh over futile bravado of Willie Loman. And that was significant.

As much as anything, the play is an expression, not a put-down, of the American Dream.

Great tragedies, traditionally, are about the failures of kings, the greats. Arthur Miller insisted, “A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man.” Thanks to Miller and the generous center of the American Dream, greater attention is paid to the folly of non-entities.

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