There’s something deeply wrong with the idea of the “American Dream.” It was supposed to be the embodiment of hope, but instead it’s spawned real-life bigotries.
Everyone loves Oprah Winfrey. She’s an incredible human being in many respects. She was born into potato-sack-dress poverty to an unmarried teenaged mother. She worked hard in high school, learned how to give speeches and won a contest at the national level and got a full scholarship to a university. She got a job in local television, and through sheer personality, intelligence, and business acumen got her own show—and later her own whole entire media empire. She has a net worth of nearly three billion dollars. Literal rags to literal riches.
That’s the story of the “American Dream”: that someone can go from the worst poverty to the most astonishing economic success through hard work and sheer force of will. “Only in America,” they used to say.
Except that it’s never just hard work and willpower, is it?
Winfrey benefitted from a lot of factors, and not all of them innate. As a teen, she was identified by a federally-funded program called Upward Bound that moved her to a more affluent high school where, yes, she was made fun of for being poor, but where she also had the opportunity to learn to give the speeches and enter the competitions that would lead to her getting a full-boat ride to college. And she had a whole lot of luck.
None of this is to discount how amazing Oprah is. She’s a force of nature, and she’s worked harder for her money than I’ll probably ever work at anything in my entire life.
But because one person does a thing does not mean it is possible for everyone, or a reasonable thing to except from any more than that one specific unique person.
This is the problem with the American Dream. I call it Bootstrap Logic. Here’s how it goes:
- The American Dream is open to all.
- The American Dream is acheived through hard work.
- If you don’t achieve the American Dream, you didn’t work hard enough.
By this twisted logic, poverty becomes a symbol of laziness, and wealth a symbol of moral rectitude and personal effort. There’s no room in this equation for federal aid, no admission of the power of luck, no understanding of just how unique every single intensely rare rags-to-riches story is.
And certainly no admission of the ways systemic issues like racism and poverty contribute to the marginalization of whole groups of people in America.
The American Dream is about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” doing everything on your own, because you, the individual, are solely responsible for your success in life. And if you don’t achieve success, well, that’s your fault.
But here’s the thing about that line about bootstraps.
Try sitting down.
Now pull on your bootstraps.
Are you standing yet?
No of course you’re not, because it is a literal impossibility to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. That’s what the saying means. You cannot pull yourself up by things attached to your feet.
Look, I’m not saying social mobility is impossible (though it’s getting harder) or that people can’t get anywhere through hard work (some can). But this “American Dream,” this idea of the “self-made” success story, this linking of “hard work” to social mobility, is bad and wrong and should be thrown on the trash heap of history.
By equating wealth with effort it makes failure immoral, and makes those who don’t achieve the heights of success de facto worthy of the aid of no-one and the scorn of all.
The “American Dream” is a mythology constructed to make the rich feel satisfied that they earned it, and to assuage any guilt they have for not helping the poor.
The “American Dream” is a lie created to convince the poor that if they don’t become rich that it’s somehow their own fault.
The “American Dream” is complete and utter trash.
Signed: The Remixologist.
Photo source: Michiel Jelijis, CC BY 2.0