The American Dream Isn’t So Much “Success” As The Level Playing Field That Makes Success Possible

American Exceptionalism is a very real thing. Let’s be crystal clear first what it isn’t: rich white guys and their money. That’s what rich white guys and their money want us to believe — that without them, America wouldn’t be America. That has always been top-of-the-line, the best-money-can-buy horse shit. Money has always played a part in what happened here in our slice of North America. Commercial interests drove almost every bit of European colonization. We credit the Pilgrims with seeking “religious freedom” for their coming here but that’s not what actually brought them. The Pilgrims’ first move after leaving England was to Holland where they settled in Leiden and found — to their own delight — a remarkable amount of religious freedom. Their problem was, in Holland, they couldn’t make a living. North America promised both “open-mindedness” and a chance to score financially. Even religious kooks could make it in America!

Opportunity. That’s why Europeans first started coming to North America. Reinvention and reward. The reward was essential to Europeans’ continued interest. The Vikings got to what is now Canada as early as 1021. Their settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows survived for a few decades and then they abandoned it. Their inability to get along with the Native population had lots to do with it. But so did economics. Leif Erickson had daringly crossed the Labrador Sea from the Viking settlement in Greenland which was, itself, a colony; the Vikings’ home was Northern Europe. Sustaining the Greenland colony was hard all by itself. Sustaining a colony of a colony — with zero reward coming back — that likely impacted their reasoning. When the Vikings retreated from what is now Newfoundland, as far as we know, they never went back. It wasn’t “worth it” to them.

After European pathogens like smallpox, measles and flu did their work (wiping out around 90% of the Native population), conquering the survivors of that germ tsunami became relatively easy. Then it became all about money chasing money. The Virginia Colony was an entirely private venture. “The company’s plan was to reward investors by locating gold and silver deposits and by finding a river route to the Pacific Ocean for trade with the Orient.” The settlers were all employees of a kind, beholden to a dream in their heads (unless they were sent here as a punishment) but also to the Company that sent them and supplied them. Almost from the get-go, though political power (in the form of royalty) claimed dominion over North America, money claimed all the real power. The rise of capitalism, its spread across Europe, undermined any “divine authority” claimed by any king. For all their divine rights, kings couldn’t pay for themselves because the feudal system they relied on for legitimacy was hopelessly corrupt, inefficient and hostile toward labor.

Funny irony? The bubonic plague that swept through Europe during the 14th century did more than just wipe out half to three quarters of the population. It destroyed feudalism. A shortage of laborers turned the labor market on its head; for the first time ever, the guy plowing the lord’s fields got to name his price for doing that plowing. He could just as easily go plow someone else’s field if they were paying more. This is precisely what COVID-19 and the coronavirus that causes it have done to our world. It drove a stake through the corrupt heart of our current economics. It changed not only how we work but what we work at. It drove home how beneficial it is to our economy if we UBI people (provide them a Universal Basic Income) until they can truly fly instead of forcing them to take low paying jobs that don’t match their skill sets or financial needs.

UBI works because it levels the playing field. It’s government doing what we need government to do — giving as many people as possible the same opportunity, the same chance to succeed as everyone else. When a rising tide floats all boats, all boats rise. People get happier and healthier (for reference, see Northern Europe — those Vikings may have gone home to Northern Europe but clearly they learned a thing or two from their travels). They live longer and live more fulfilled lives. They work in order to live. They don’t, as we do in America, live to work.

That unhealthy compulsion is a leftover from America’s founding principle: profit incentive. And don’t forget — one of the American Revolution’s big talking points for why revolution was necessary was “taxation without representation”. Want our money? Hear our voice. But, also let’s not forget that our founders made a Devil’s bargain with slavery at the founding. Instead of rejecting it outright, they compromised with it, making “All men are created equal” embarrassingly ironic. The white, Christian, land-owning men who drew up America’s founding documents had a great idea — “All men are created equal” — that they failed to stick on the landing. They didn’t mean “ALL men” though they they did mean “ONLY men”.

America remains to this day a great idea as yet unrealized. Which brings us to what American Exceptionalism actually IS: Our remarkable, never-happened-before-in-human-history diversity. Or, as our Great Seal puts it: “E Pluribus Unum”.

The nations of Europe that colonized North America were all products of at least fifteen hundred years of local tribes coalescing into national identities, each distinct and distinctive. The Germans are how they are just as the French, the Swiss, the Italians and the English are all how they are et cetera et cetera. Minus the Native American tribes, there was no “culture” in North America. There was no “native tribe” whose origin stories and mythology was the larger culture’s. That’s not to say one didn’t evolve. We have Thanksgiving and Independence Day as American rituals that grew out of mythologies about ourselves that we told ourselves. The same goes for “The American Dream”.

Whereas hierarchy and caste made it nearly impossible for a poor person to become anything other than a poor person, America’s lack of castes made it a place where truly anything could happen and a person could reinvent themselves completely. Opportunity. Reinvention. Promise. All those things flash in neon when the rest of the world contemplates America. If you’re willing to put in the sweat equity, America offers anyone and everyone a shot at greatness — that’s the lure. When it works, it works brilliantly. When it doesn’t — the onus is on us.

Immigration has always been the engine that renewed America’s exceptionalism. Not only do immigrants do the hard physical labor American workers don’t seem to want to do, they bring innovation with them too. Their aspirations counter the last group’s success and temptations to settle. New ideas force old ideas to compete. New ways of doing things make old ways obsolete — ditto the people doing those obsolete things. That’s why the people doing obsolete things get nuts when new ideas drop onto the table.

White people, having tilted the playing field at the start, are now loathe to allow the playing field to be corrected. It’s understandable — power sharing is less predictable than having permanent power in your hands alone. Lose power and you lose money. That also motivates white people to tilt the playing field as much as possible whenever possible.

Imagine if we could actually level the American playing field? Imagine if we could give as many Americans as possible the greatest possible chance to achieve the greatness within them? Think that’d be bad for America? I get depressed thinking of all the greatness America left on the table when it turned its back on Reconstruction and gave racism a boost instead. Think of all the Black minds that, had we but educated them, would have “returned on our investment” in ways we can’t even imagine — because we didn’t nurture the minds that would have scored those returns.

Fer F*ck’s Sake, America — They’re Just WORDS!

George Bernard Shaw put it this way — ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”

Not that every Brit is Shakespeare — that would be a slight over-statement — but regardless of how profane they are by nature most Brits are a hell of a lot better at using the language to express themselves; it’s a subtle thing — having to do with not only word choices but just a general facility with the language itself.  Britain’s is a more literary culture by nature and history.  On the surface, its obsessions seem fuddy-duddy & Old World.  Colonial even.  And British culture is all those things — for better and worse.

One of the better cultural obsessions is the language.  Brits are no match for the French when it comes to compulsive defensiveness regarding their language — the French have ‘L’Acadamie Francaise’ overseeing the language, literally allowing or not allowing (the most usual outcome) new words in.  English (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) has 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 ‘obscure’ words in more limited use.  French, by comparison, has 100,000 words — roughly half as many.  But (this is significant), each French word has an average of 3 definitions!  Words are less descriptive by nature and more (my French professor at Vassar put it) “analytical”.

English literally grows every year as new words are added or coined.  French doesn’t do that.  Instead of inventing new words (or bringing foreign words into its vocabulary), it adds definitions or puts old words together to form a kind of French Language Pretzel.  Even so — the French are simply proud of their language and see it as part of their cultural bulwark.  That pride translates into not just a love for the language but an overall sense that how they say things is part of who they are — as individuals and as a culture.

Boy, was that long-winded.

The point is — The French and the English (among others) are far more connected to their languages than Americans are to English.  We almost seem to speak English for lack of anything else to speak.  Consequently, we Americans always seem more at odds with English than at peace with it.  It’s more an obstacle to expressing ourselves than a tool.

If George Carlin had been English, he would never have conceived of ‘The 7 Dirty Words’.  It wouldn’t have been on his radar.  Yes, true, you couldn’t say any of those words on the BBC either, but it wasn’t because they quaked at the sound of them as we seem to.  Even in public spaces, words that shock Americans get aired regularly.  The broadcast moratorium on them is decorum and not the threat of legal action.

Here in America though, those words are always an issue.  An example — I refrain from using the word ‘F*ck’ here on this blog.  In order to be part of any possible ad revenue stream (such as there is one), one has to avoid using certain words.  The title of this blog puts me in a hazy zone of quasi-acceptability.  For all our ‘freedom of speech’, Americans sure seem intimidated by certain words.

And that’s the point (finally!)

Americans are intimidated by their own language.  It goes beyond ‘swear words’.  To a degree our sensitivity to oppressive words (the ‘n-word’, ‘kike’ (being a Jew, I get to use the word — how it is), et cetera is appropriate; it recognizes how certain words become weaponized.  Those words are always aimed at specific groups — they are weaponized — and need to be seen as weapons.

We’re not talking about those words.  It’s like comparing sex and  rape.  Not the same things as similar as they are in form.

Americans — being less comfortable and at home with their own language — have a terrible habit of using English to obscure truth rather than reveal it.  Want to know what I mean?  Listen to anyone in Congress yak away for 30 seconds.  On average, they’ll use about 50 words when 10 would have sufficed.  All those extra words add fog to the mix and not clarity.

When a Mitch McConnell is forced to answer questions, Mitch is a master at using words to completely misrepresent what he’s really saying.  He gets away with it easily because so few Americans — including and especially our news media — are comfortable enough with the language to blow past its chaff to get to its wheat.  If, after Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or Devin Nunes or Jim Jordan or Mike Pence or (especially) Donald Trump overtly lied to the public the media called their lies ‘LIES’ as opposed to ‘other points of view’ — we would begin to strip these people of their power to misuse and abuse the language.

Our cultural discomfort with sex-related words flows straight from the repressive religious prigs — the Pilgrims — who came here less for religious freedom than because their religion was just plain wacky — and the Church of England wanted them gone.  It seems to be a constant among humans:  intense religious feelings and sexual repression are soul mates.  They go together like peanut butter and jelly, yin and yang, republicans and corruption.

This twisted unease with sexuality expresses itself in perverse ways.  I think I ‘got it’ about American culture when I was a kid.  I don’t mean that certain words and images were ‘restricted’ — I mean that those restrictions were symptoms of a deeper, darker dysfunction.  A vivid memory from my youth:  I’m in high school — a huge Kurt Vonnegut reader.  ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ is a seminal book in my development.

Back then, the media stone age, there were 3 networks:  ABC, CBS, NBC.  That’s it.  On the night in question, CBS is running the last night of its multi-night mini-series ‘HELTER SKELTER’ — the story of the Mansion Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders.  NBC counter-programmed the premier broadcast run of the film version of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’.  Two ‘events’.

I didn’t care about ‘Helter Skelter’.  I cared about ‘Slaughterhouse Five’.  But I did flip back and forth a little — because the last part of ‘Helter Skelter’ is the most compelling:  the murders themselves.  Here’s where it got weird — and where we, as a culture, revealed ourselves.

On CBS, if one watched, one could experience a dramatized but nonetheless horrifying version of an actual event — murder, bloodshed, unspeakable cruelty.

On NBC, if one watched, one experienced a profound anti-war movie that spoke directly to the human condition.  I am absolutely not making a judgement about one story good, one story bad.  Both were excellent, valid stories that needed to be told.  But one revealed the very worst of us and one wanted to speak to the best in us.

At the end of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, Billy Pilgrim, the hero (he’s ‘unstuck in time’ — able to travel between various moments in his own life including his own birth and death) visits a time in his life when he’s a ‘prisoner’ in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.  There, he’s been put into a comfortable enclosure that he shares with a well known adult performer Montana Wildhack; the two are meant to breed — which they do.

While ‘Helter Skelter’ climaxes with chaos and mayhem, ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ climaxes with Billy Pilgrim imagining a terrible war crime — the Allied bombing of Dresden, German during WWII — being reversed:  the firestorm goes out as the bombs that caused them fly back up into the Allied bombers that dropped them.  The coda to this vision is Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their enclosure — Montana having just given birth to their baby.

Montana puts the baby to her breast and feeds it.  She breast-feeds her baby (a hopeful symbol — feeding the future).  But, because the shot involved actress Valerie Perine’s naked breast, it had to be CUT.

So — on CBS:  murder and mayhem in horrifying (but valid) detaili.

On NBC:  Breastfeeding babies is verboten.

That, right there, sums us up.  It sums up our culture.  It sums up our attitude toward language.  You can describe in all the detail you want on the American public airwaves ways to kill people.

Don’t you DARE however, describe all the ways you’d like to LOVE people.

What the f*ck is the word for ‘that’?