In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe, Neal Gabler suggests that the idea of the “American Dream” has changed dramatically in recent years.
As devised in the late 19th century, the American Dream was about opportunity. The idea, writes Gabler, “was that anyone in this pragmatic, un-class-conscious society of ours could, by dint of hard work, rise to the level of his aspiration.”
But over the last 50 or so years, the American Dream has changed. The Dream is “no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection…the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect.”
And we will seemingly do whatever it takes to attain this perfection, from “plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard.”
Or else. At least that’s how we feel. Because inherent within the new American Dream is a new competition from those who are also striving for perfection, and may have already attained it. People “whose wives will always be beautifully coiffed and dressed or whose husbands will be power brokers, whose children will score 2,400 on their SATs and who will be playing competitive-level tennis, whose careers will be skyrocketing, whose fortunes will be growing.”
So if you are not in on the perfection, you are not only left behind, you are second-rate.
Talk about pressure.
So, Gabler concludes, welcome to the new American Dream. Not where every little girl can have the opportunity to get an education and strive to reach her full potential, limited only by her hard-work, persistence and dedication. No, today it is the birthright of every girl “to be a rich, beautiful, brilliant, powerful, Ivy League-educated Mistress of the Universe who will live not just the good life but the perfect one.”
I think Gabler is on to something. But I’m not sure he went far enough. If the original American Dream was "opportunity" (the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story) which then morphed into "perfection," I'm not sure it hasn't now become "entitlement."
Entitlement is beyond perfection. Yes, that is our goal, but instead of the Dream being striving for perfection – and achieving it - the newest Dream seems to be the demand for it as a right. Meaning, it should be provided to us regardless of whether we’ve earned it or not.
It would be difficult to eavesdrop on our culture and not sense this shift; how the great American Dream has turned into the great American Right. “I am entitled to the perfect car, house, spouse, child and job.”
And if perfection isn’t delivered? Then enters the newest American Pastime. No, not baseball. Blame. Anything but taking hold of the old American Dream.
Good old fashioned opportunity. And then doing the best you can with what you have, and finding contentment.
James Emery White
Neal Gabler, “The New American Dream,” The Boston Globe, March 31, 2011. Read online.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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