Posts Tagged ‘American dream’

Baldwin debates Buckley (1965)

August 4, 2021

James Baldwin begins speaking at the 14-minute mark; William F. Buckley Jr., at the 39-minute mark.

The promise of American life

August 9, 2010

The promise of American life is that every generation will enjoy a higher material standard of life than the generation that came before.  But what happens if this is no longer true?  What happens to the American way of life then?

Compared to my parents, I am better off materially in every way.  I live alone in a house that is bigger than the house in which my parents brought up my brother and me, and for which they saved up for years.  I have a thermostat which I can turn up or down as I like.

I remember the first family in my home town to get a TV set.  All the neighbors gathered to watch as they set up a free-standing outdoor antenna that looked like the Eiffel Tower.  Now TV is practically a necessity of life.

But am I happier than people of my parents generation?  I don’t think so, at least not after they came out from under the shadow of the Great Depression and World War Two.  They were happy and unhappy for the same reasons people are today.

I’m now in my 70s, and I am materially much better off than I was in my 20s.  I was happy when I owned a radio and a library of 20 books.  Now I have cable TV and an Internet connection, and thousands of books.  I don’t know if these things make me happier.  But I am very unhappy when my computer malfunctions or I lose my Internet connection for a couple of days.

Will my niece’s and nephew’s generation, and their children’s generation, enjoy the same material abundance that I do?  Maybe not.  For the past three decades, the U.S. manufacturing base has declined, wages have been depressed and an increasing share of U.S. wealth has flowed to the upper 1 percent. Even if our dysfunctional economic and political system can be reformed, we face real-world problems such as the peaking of world oil production and the worsening of global climate change.  Maybe there is an answer to these problems, but maybe not.

I have always believed that the story of the United States is the story of the affirmation, in the Declaration of Independence, that human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, and of the struggle to live up to that affirmation.  But what if I’m wrong? What if the promise of material abundance through individual effort was not merely a part, but the whole, of the American dream?  And what if that promise was not fulfilled?

We do not need the latest of this gadget and the best of that product in order to be happy.  We need a minimum of food, clothing, shelter and medical care.  We need freedom from well-founded fear, whether of crime, arbitrary government or economic catastrophe.  Beyond we need things that economic and political systems can’t provide – ties to family and friends, interesting and worthwhile things to do, the consolations of religion and philosophy.  None of these things are out of reach, either now or in the foreseeable future.

Can this be enough to sustain American freedom and democracy?  Or will we turn to something else?  I probably won’t live long enough to see.  In certain moods I’m glad I won’t.