By: Barbara Peterson - January 2020
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, so the saying goes. And it is true for dreams. Americans are fed on the belief that we live in a meritocracy, a system in which one’s success is directly proportional to one’s efforts. If one succeeds, one must have earned it. Conversely, if one fails, one must deserve it. The American Dream tells us that life in this country is basically fair, and that success is not only available to everyone; it is equally available to everyone. The harsh reality, though, is that if one lives outside the power culture, one must overcome enormous and continual obstacles to achieve success, obstacles that the privileged class never encounter and rarely even want to admit exist.
The Dream that every American has an equal opportunity for success is so prevalent in our psyches; it is the mythology, the spiritual story of our past that shaped who we became, and serves as a fundamental and foundational aspect of our current perspectives and views about who we are today as a people. Such a powerful and ever-present belief is not easy to change. We hold on to it and refuse to give it up, even in the face of unrelenting facts to the contrary. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (The Great Gatsby). We are Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, romantics who believe what ought to be instead of what is. We move forward in our happy conviction, as illusory as it is, that America is the land of equal opportunity, a land where the frontier holds endless possibilities to all who have the courage and tenacity to go for it.
While the Dream can bring out the best in us, it is more often a cruel promise to so many who are denied success and even a basic subsistence, people who do everything right: work hard, study diligently, stay out of trouble, show respect to those in positions of authority, and persist against obstacles. The fact is that there are millions of such hard-working Americans, people who have jobs, pay taxes, love their families, and do their best every day to try and make the lives of their children better than theirs, and who are nevertheless unable to be certain if they will have enough money to buy their next meal or pay for the shelter they need to survive.
The allocation of goods and resources to workers is unjustly unequal across class, gender, ethnicity, and racial lines. The American Dream, that one will succeed if one is willing to put in the effort and time, continues to be untrue for millions of citizens in this country. When 1% of the wealthiest people in the United States owns 40% of the country’s wealth, we do not have justice, equity, or decency. Money doesn’t just buy more money; it buys an overriding influence on what people believe, what they see in the media and in their school textbooks, what laws are passed that determine their role in democratic participation, and how society’s institutions treat them. Money buys power. And when such an enormous amount of power lies in the hands of so few people, we inevitably have corruption – a system that is designed and effective in benefiting the wealthy at the tremendous and continual cost to working and all other marginalized people. Promising everyone an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams is a terrible lie permeated in our popular media: the exception (that actually proves the rule) of the rare individual who beats the odds. We love to herald these exceptions as if they are the norm, as if the Dream is available to anyone equally if they are just willing to work hard enough. Telling working families living in poverty that their suffering is their fault is not only pitiless; it shows a remarkable ignorance of the reality of our economic inequity extant in our nation.
Right to the bitter end, as Gatsby lay floating in the pool, he never loses hope that Daisy will be his. An errant breeze causes him to call out her name, thinking she left Tom and is arriving to join him. The harsh truth is that the only one to arrive is his murderer. George Wilson, a poor working-class man living in the Valley of Ashes, falls victim to the power and manipulation of the elite class, the Buchanans, and accepts Tom Buchanan’s word that Gatsby, not Daisy, ran down George’s wife Myrtle. Reality, in the form of George, ends up killing Gatsby, and only through his death does Gatsby’s dream finally die. However, the Dream lives on in the hopes and beliefs of many Americans. “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther.” In our hearts, we believe in the stories told of the past when grit, sweat, and ingenuity earned one the success they pursued. We believe that the mythical past is alive, that the wilderness, the endless frontier holding limitless possibilities, exists and, if we just work hard enough, extend our reach far enough, we can achieve that ever-elusive Dream.
Ideals and Dreams of a nation are important. They remind us of what we value, of what we believe we ought to be. If we do want to be a nation that values individuals’ equal opportunity to a healthy, sustainable, satisfying life, we must first recognize that the Dream is out of reach for millions of Americans, taunting rather than comforting them. We cannot continue to live in the myths of the past. Gatsby is dead; he never did have a hope of attaining his dream. His blind ignorance to that fact did him no good, and it will do us no good either. We need to build a new Dream, one that works from the ground up, educating people on the reality of existing injustices, and on building new structures of equity, fairness, and genuine hope for all.
Our federal and state constitutions guarantee that our democratic government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people. We began as small communities, the best of which lived in cooperation with native, indigenous people. Too many colonists, however, treated our hosts with Eurocentric arrogance and racism, and nearly all practiced the unjust cultural norms of patriarchy. Yet, our laws at least paid heed to the ideal that local people have the right and duty to devise rules and policies that meet their needs and interests. Over the years, corporations have again and again successfully taken away those rights by getting our Supreme Court to pass laws that deny states and local municipalities the legal authority to decide whether or not a corporation can operate in our neighborhood and pollute our land, poison our water, and jeopardize our local economy. Corporations, and the few who benefit from their money and influence, have far greater legal standing and far more power than we the people. The system is rigged against working class people, and it continues to oppress the socio-culturally marginalized.
We need a people’s movement that starts locally and makes networked connections nationally and internationally. While working within the system is essential and important, it is not enough. To bring back the Dream, to make it a reality, we need to stop depending almost entirely on political and corporate power-holders to restructure our society toward true equity, justice, opportunity, and freedom. We need to look to organizations that are engaging in mindful, informed, well-researched, genuinely diverse, and democratically operated people-power campaigns that develop strategically sequenced and escalating tactics of nonviolent action. It is to all of our benefit that we are ever mindful of the devastation of colonialism, capitalist greed and destruction, oppression, and anthropocentrism. Revitalizing the Dream requires lovingly fierce actions that show those in positions of authority that we will no longer cooperate with their agenda. Instead, we will disrupt their ability to carry out their goals to such an extent that they will have no choice but to do what they were always supposed to do: work for us, represent us, be a government who derives all of its power from us, from we the people.
“I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” We can recapture this Dream, this sense of the possible. But not through idle hope and wishing, but through work, sacrifice, re-imagining what is necessary, desired, and possible, and by recognizing that it is the people who hold all the power if we can only work together to achieve it. Although the Dream is now only a promise “founded securely on a fairy’s wing,” if we work together, across our differences and enriched because of them, “one fine morning ---” we can rebuild, we can revive Gatsby’s American Dream.