“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961.
It has become increasingly clear that many Americans no longer buy into the American dream. From the perspective of national unity and morale, this is not a good thing. From the perspective of national honesty, however – which is the only foundation on which real national unity can ultimately be built – the time has come to acknowledge the dream’s shortcomings and, if possible, to revise it.
But first, what is the American dream? Historian James Truslow Adams, in his 1931 book, The Epic of America,called it “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” It’s a dream, then, of a country where any boy can grow up to be president; where hard work will lead to a better life and children will live better than their parents; where, instead of a few lords in large castles, millions of Americans owned single-family houses with small backyards.
It was an amazing dream, and one that did much to build and unify the country – especially when you consider how many people it actually excluded. Native peoples had no rights; the Supreme Courtdefined “the negro . . . as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic;” women couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1920 (and a girl has yet to grow up to be president). “Let America be America again,” wrote the African American poet Langston Hughesin 1935. “Let it be the dream it used to be. . . .(It never was America to me.)”
And yet, on November 4, 2008, in a North Philadelphia neighborhood whose streets were filled with people giving voice to a mixture of jubilation and disbelief that Barack Obama, a black man, had been elected president of the United States, I learned firsthand how hard it is to kill a dream. “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime,” a woman said to me of what was suddenly no longer an impossible dream.
But just as the American dream seemed to be expanding to include many it had so long excluded, it lost its power to inspire. When was the last time you heard someone call America the land of equality or say they expect their children’s lives to be better than theirs? Perhaps it has run its course because, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, it had an unnoticed fatal flaw.
It has always been a dream about making it, based on the premise that if each of us strives for our own success, we will prosper and so will the nation. And it has worked remarkably well. Too often, however, making it has meant leaving behind your old life, your neighborhood, your community, and setting out on your own to pursue wealth and fame. It’s about escaping your past, about going it alone.
But we are learning that, in the end, we cannot create a nation by leaving many of its people behind; our definition of success cannot be a zero sum game in which I need to get mine before you get yours. For then the purpose of government becomes, not to serve the community but to enrich the individual. “I seen my opportunities,” said Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt“and I took ‘em.”
That spirit now seems firmly entrenched in Washington, where public service is not a sacrifice but an opportunity, where we have a president who says his tax returns are none of our business and a governing class beholden to lobbyists and oligarchs.
And this isn’t happening only in America. Speaking of the corruption that has engulfed South Africa’s long struggle to end apartheid, Adam Khatide told The New York Times,“We managed to bring democracy, which is not working for us now. It’s working for individuals,” corrupt individuals lining their pockets.
America was supposed to be different, to be exceptional, because we had this dream. It’s not too late to reclaim it, but we need to realize that it’s not just about getting ahead, it’s also about coming together.