Saturday, July 28, 2012

Let's Talk About Money and the American Dream (Wrap-Up)

We've spent this week looking at the way that the American Dream mythos operates when it comes to money.

This series kicked off with the question of whether Mitt Romney's considerable wealth is a liability for him when it comes to winning the election. For the purposes of this post, I'm not really interested in answering that question specifically so much as I am interested in seeing what the fact that we're asking that question means about our culture. For the record, though, I don't think Mitt Romney is too rich to be president. He may be among the richest presidents ever, but he'd only be "among" them, not even at the top. I do think, however, that he's too rich to become president if he's banking on a message of being more in touch with "ordinary Americans."

And I think it's interesting that we seem to push him to make that claim. After all, if wealth is so tied to hard work that we all strive to make it to the top, then shouldn't people who have made it have the luxury of getting to throw themselves into their new lifestyles headlong.

But that's not the way it works. A very important part of our cultural narrative is "don't forget where you came from." 

You see it everywhere, from politicians to musicians:

And maybe, in the midst of a narrative that's so committed to individualism, the "don't forget where you came from" insistence is the one nod to collectivism. But what happens when where you "came from" is richer than most Americans can even imagine? What happens when you didn't go from rags-to-riches but from riches-to-more riches? We want people who are representative of the American Dream because then we can plug ourselves into their story, we can imagine rising to that success someday. But when we see cracks in the story, we can get a little panicky because--if the story isn't as solid as we want it to be--then maybe we'd have to question our belief in meritocracies and examine the wealth disparities that underly our culture. Maybe we'd have to face prejudices and discrimination that we'd much rather sweep under the rug. And maybe we'd have to admit to ourselves that our own upward mobility is much more limited than we've probably been telling ourselves. Sure, you can rise in America, but not nearly as much as we've all been lead to believe. 

And that's really what this series has been about. The American Dream has its uses, but the simple version does not hold up under scrutiny. There's too much tension to ignore. 

To recap:

Part 1: Why do we say that getting rich is the goal but then vilify some people for making it? Is there a hypocrisy in the way that we handle success? 

Part 2: There's a fine line between criminality and innovation. Sometimes, people can completely follow the rules of the American Dream but completely ignore the rules of the law. What happens when someone has bought into the American Dream narrative but doesn't have the means to access it?

Part 3: The rags-to-riches narrative depends on starting with rags. If you don't climb from the very bottom, it's not as good of a story. How does this impact the way that success stories are framed?

Part 4: Can you divorce "you'll succeed" from "work hard"? Does reaching success through something like winning the lottery still count? Are you still living the dream if you don't put in the work?

Part 5: Can you divorce "success" from "riches"? Are the best things in life really free? How does the tension between a corporate culture that tells us we can buy anything we want--from love to adventure--and a belief in virtues free of monetary value work out?

In the end, these tensions are in a constant interplay. Sure, the American Dream narrative helps to make complacent workers who can tap into a dream that they'll someday succeed. It also helps companies sell products that demonstrate what "making it" looks like. But it's not a simple power play of the powerful companies over us weak individuals. We need the Dream, too. We use it to move ahead, and we use it to keep us motivated. The belief in a meritocracy assuages guilt and keeps things moving smoothly. To some extent, most of us have some investment in smoothing over the cracks in the narrative. 

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