Monday, 19 May 2003

The Darkening of The American Dream

Here we go again, an overextended military overseas, a depressed economy at home, and the darkening of the American Dream.

On a New York subway train yesterday in the middle of the afternoon surrounded by the safe Upper West Side, my daughter’s wallet was stolen. Before she could arrive home and telephone the credit card company, numerous charges had been made: $135 for perfume, $263 for shoes, $59 for lunch, $210 for three subway passes, $88 for a railroad ticket to Long Island, $80 worth of wine.

While her wallet was being lifted, I was reading that the U.S. military is imposing security on the other side of the world, wealthy New Yorkers are paying enormous sums of money for lavish Manhattan apartments, and workers in Brooklyn and the Bronx are struggling to find any kind of work. I didn’t read anything about New York crime, which is just as well. Statistics on crime in New York City are as trustworthy as statistics on SARS in Beijing.

As for the thief (or thieves) of my daughter’s wallet, it appeared to be a well oiled machine of slick liberation: spot wallet placed into backpack, follow backpack onto subway car, gently unzip backpack, carefully lift wallet. Then the American shopping dream -- expensive perfume, fancy shoes, stupendous lunch, a hell of a bottle of wine. The America Dream, for an afternoon anyway.

It’s doubtful the liberating one is from the army of economic emigrants living in New York and working for near slave wages, since most of them are riveted to the promise of the American Dream, immune to thoughts of injustice and stealing. Those living in proximity to 5th Avenue are already living the American Dream -- pushing dog-stocks is definitely stealing, but it’s legal, and anything legal and profitable is the American Dream. The squeezed and diminished middle class, what few remain in New York City, are too busy and not desperate enough. Their American Dream has been downsized to a SUV, which precludes their need to steal. Old folks receive social security checks and have arthritis, so they’re not into lifting wallets on subway trains.

The perpetrator of this heist is not, we can assume, working for the American Dream, has not discovered a corrupt yet legal version of the American Dream, does not have the small size Dream, and does not have arthritis. It could be anybody, but it's doubtful he or she is under the influence of America's promise.

The American Dream is a material dream, the hope for a life of wealth. Everything else is secondary, including democracy and nationalism. This material American Dream helps keep our society together since little else glues us. However, with riches beyond reach, Americans are forced to settle for the occasional brush with opulence and a house on a small plot of land with an SUV in the driveway. Still, the Dream tends to hold and bind a people with less and less in common.

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