Saturday, June 17, 2006

A European Perspective on the American Dream (1)

The American Dream [the idea that that through hard work, courage, and determination one can achieve a better life for oneself, usually through financial prosperity.] is one of the topics always discussed in English class in French high-schools.

Most textbooks, it must be said, pick and choose (English or American) articles or texts very critical of it, showing how the U.S. is also a very unequal society. Most of them hint at the idea that the American Dream is a myth that must be debunked by reason.

While it can easily be argued that it is [a myth], I think that they're missing the point. The American Dream is - like most other ideals - not about numbers and economic statistics but rather about faith. So what is important is NOT reality but how people perceive it and how they see themselves in it. (That being said, I agree it is also good to be as aware as well as possible of the reality of the situation.)

It should be stressed that one of the features of the American psyche is that they do not go in for envy. As this article (free online) from The Economist puts it "Americans want to join the rich, not soak them". This is particularly true when you consider that studies show that the gap between rich and poor is greater in the U.S. than in other rich countries. In the U.S., however, 8 out of 10 people believe that even though you may start poor, if you work hard, you can make a lot of money - and that's more people than in any other country.

It should also be added that in America, the image of the rich is much better than in Europe. This may have to do with the philanthropic tradition of the wealthy (think of the great American capitalists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and more recently Bill Gates).

In France, for instance the rich are seen with suspicion, especially by the left. In fact, quite recently, the leader of the socialist party said that on TV that he did not like the rich. (see the video here - in French). That is not something you'd see on American TV. This is because the rich are perceived as having reached the top unfairly. They are often perceived in Europe as the old aristocracy used to be. Whether it is because they really are or because they fail to sell the media a better image, or because the media themselves like to replay the old rivalry of the pre-revolution era, the fact is that it is perception which matters. It is what shapes the political landscape of a nation.

Our point, I guess, is that we ought to acknowledge the fact that there are myths - albeit different ones - on either side of the Atlantic and it's up to us to choose to debunk them or use them for the good of society. What is certain is that in any given society collective myths are needed whether they should be dreams or nightmares is another question.

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