It’s over a week since Santa’s big scene, and even though you’ve kept the Christmas tree watered and fed, decrepitude seeps outward. Away in the manger, Baby Jesus no longer lays down in sweet hay but upon a bed of pine needles. The branches above shrivel and sag as the dying tree soaks up less water. Despite this, your Christmas tree’s silver garland and ceramic ornaments reflect a warm glow of red, green, yellow, orange, and blue, and the star or angel above shines or smiles down as the centerpiece of the holiday season.
How much longer will this magnificence last? It’s the same question we ask about American greatness and the American dream.
At Bloomberg, columnist Elliot Lewis deploys a crass and materialistic definition of this dream to declare that it’s already over for those born in the late 1970s and 1980s, known as Generation Y: “[T]he earnings and employment gap, between those in the under-35 population and their parents and grandparents, threatens to unravel the American dream of each generation doing better than the last.”
To prove his case, Lewis plucks out Christina Tretter-Herriger, a “32-year-old lawyer.” Lewis explains: “Eighteen months and two busted jobs later, the daughter of a retired physician and a former editor at Vogue circled back to upstate New York and hunkered down at a small legal office that pays about one-quarter of her former $165,000 salary.” Only by Lewis’s shallow standard of “each generation doing better than the last” could this lawyer fail to live the American dream because she stepped back from a six-figure salary. Had she opened an antique shop on Main Street and squeaked by in the second-floor studio apartment, she would still be living the American dream so long as that path was her choice.
Uniquely in world history, this dream pre-exists the country in which it thrives, driven first by individual aspirations, and only after this protected by government. What’s the Russian dream? What’s the Indian dream? Where else was government founded and structured for the express purpose of keeping it from infringing on its citizens’ dreams? Our country is the result of the Founding Fathers pursuing the American dream on a grand scale. That dream, which the world’s tired and poor have fled to for generations, is about the opportunity presented by liberty, not any guarantee of gradually improving economic status.
Contrast that dream, epitomized by the huddled masses who uprooted their families for nothing but the promise of freedom, with the pathetic attitude of another Generation Yner, architect Eli Hardi: “The hours were long, the pay was low and we got a notice saying the bonus would be minimal…. The hardest part, I found, is to maintain your own self respect and dignity.”
Chasing self respect and dignity in piles of money will always leave you poorer. The examples of Hardi and Tretter-Herriger put on full display our society’s confused attitude regarding material wealth. We just elected a man who ran on envy and demonization of those who have acquired it, yet are expected to pity those who have not yet joined the envied list. Untangling that contradiction would illuminate the emptiness of the material-based version of the American dream.
We live in a technologically revolutionary age. The supercomputer Deep Blue beat human grandmaster Garry Kasparov in chess. The interactive Wikipedia machine, Watson, beat the greatest Jeopardy champions. ‘Roboboy’ is going to be ‘born’ sometime late this year at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the University of Zurich. Yet with all this hyper-competence, even with this latest generation of computers sailing eons past the capabilities of their ‘parents’, the machines can be defeated by a one-word question.
Deep Blue cannot tell you why it’s trying to become the greatest chess player. Watson cannot tell you why answering questions faster than its human competitors matters. ‘Roboboy’ will perform household tasks simply because it does. Similarly, for people like Bloomberg’s Lewis and his ilk, the ‘why’ is nothing more than a materialistic and shallow calculation based on presupposed and often arbitrary outcomes. It’s a whimsical target, with no specific reason that keeps others from infringing on it.
The mistake comes from viewing the American dream as an end instead of a means. The ‘why’ of the American Dream is the means of individual freedom, which recognizes the inherent dignity and potential instilled within each of us by God. Freedom allows for self-reliance, which in turn enables true self-respect, not the false kind that is tied to the size of a paycheck.
That ‘why’ is the fire with which the Founders forged the Constitution. Twenty-first-century Americans of all political backgrounds who treat the Constitution like a poorly worded instruction manual then shout, “Because the Constitution says so!” are making a lazy argument from authority. Avoiding the deeper ‘why’ that generated the Constitution creates an attitude that leads people like Louis Michael Seidman in the NY Times to suggest abandoning the Constitution in favor of the political whimsy of the day.
Root values, from which branches out the American dream and defines American greatness, are what make our founding document great. Its purpose as a bulwark against tyranny in protection of individual liberty and freedom, the lifeblood of American ambition, is what makes our founding document great.
When we cast aside the dream that served as its inspiration, it becomes just another interchangeable tree stand for a dying symbol.