Grieving the American Dream

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For this American, Bishop for the Episcopal churches in Europe, the United States is becoming more and more difficult to comprehend. There are plenty of voices over here that offer unflattering perspectives, which in light of the dreadful images from Charlottesville, among so many others, is not hard to understand. But I don’t think that Europeans “get” what’s happening.

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, wrote in his blog that “I have never quite understood the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This is partly because whatever the dream might be for some, it is clearly a nightmare for others. Look, for example, at the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor. Land of the free and home of the brave? I wish.”

The problem however is that this dream is dead. And it is being grieved.

The American Dream was a vision and a promise that grew after World War II. The growth of unionized industry, along with Federal aid like the GI Bill, mortgage support, and the 44,000 miles of interstate highways added after 1950, all contributed to an economy that allowed millions of people, including Americans of color and first-generation immigrants, to dream of a middle-class life. Work hard, save up, and send the kids to college (with state and Federal help), and you can hope to own your own home, retire without fear of poverty, and live to see your children do better than you.

As a new priest in Pittsburgh’s Monongahela Valley in the 80s, I witnessed the collapse of the Dream, as 450,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. Most of the people affected (including almost all my families) were white. The unique culture of western Pennsylvania, a blend of German and Eastern European traditions with a dialect inspired by Scots miners and the other afore-mentioned immigrants, also began to disappear. In those years, we struggled with the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism, and spousal abuse in the nation.

So there was some reality to the Dream, even though access to its benefits for African-Americans and Latinos was always more difficult than for whites — but not completely impossible. One could certainly criticize it for all kinds of negative effects, like housing tract developments, overconsumption of vital resources like petroleum, etc., and many did.

But what happened in the Pittsburgh area in the 80s has become general, though without the devastating sights of collapsing blast furnaces. The Dream is dead, and the consequences of that are, among other things, “the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor” that Bishop Baines decries. What replaced it was the illusion of instant wealth, whether through stock markets and real estate markets turned into casinos or real lotteries like PowerBall. The rise of finance dominating economies (the servant become master) is behind this.

How this all happened is extremely complex. The metaphor for me is the change from Wall street partnerships to publicly traded companies. This led to the ridiculous antics described in Michael Lewis’ Liars’ Poker. Fifty years ago, no Wall Street firm was publicly traded. Now most of them are. And that led to the disaster Lewis described in the Big Short.

The obscenity of an investment firm, Goldman Sachs, betting against its own clients, is mirrored in the even more revolting spectacle of the publicly-traded companies that rule the American health care system. I say these are obscene because a company whose stock is traded on an exchange must put the interests of its shareholders before those of its clients, even if that leads to decisions that harm their clients. So a health insurer makes its profits more important than the health of the clients who make those profits possible. Add in the development of highly-leveraged derivatives that eventually plunged the world’s economy into a deep recession, the mountains of money that pay for legislators’ loyalty to financiers before their responsibility to their electors, and the rise of unprecedented means for propaganda (“fake news”), and what is happening in America is not so hard to grasp.

People’s grief for the American Dream, like all grief, takes different forms that are in the final analysis quite personal. But there are some common features. These fall into the stereotyped stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. That many Americans are grieving helps explain some things, and these have parallels with Brexit and the Leave campaign’s lying promise of more money, the rise of extreme-right parties in Germany and elsewhere, and the perplexing support of some young gay French voters for Marine LePen. The practitioners of the Big Lie target the pain of this grief in all its various stages, which explains the free-floating anger one finds everywhere, especially in contemporary politics. It explains also the permanence of denial and bargaining, in the form of “if only we get rid of the system…” And the lack of engagement that leads to low voter turnout. Moreover, acceptance does not have to take a benevolent form: it informs the extreme right’s project to destroy “the administrative state”.

Grief needs time to grow over the wounds it deplores (writes this widower). But there isn’t enough time for us all, for there are catastrophes to avoid internally, and catastrophes to address elsewhere in the world, from North Korea’s nukes to the Sunnite-Shiite war to Israel-Palestine, extreme poverty, the unending Congolese “World War III”, and many more.

What the West needs is a new economic promise, to replace the American Dream and similar visions, like the German Wirtschaftswunder and the French “Trente Glorieuses”, not to mention the more recent failed dreams of some Eastern European countries and Turkey. And as an American and a Christian, I believe it begins with a fresh appropriation of the meaning of that Declaration that “all are created equal” and are “endued with unalienable rights”. That work begins with the American churches, especially the evangelicals who overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump.

And it also involves growing a new economic model based on that Declaration, one that can provide for all with a generous hand. People need hope to survive, especially those who grieve. The young who grieve the death of the Dream in particular need hope, for they must be the eventual architects of that economy. And again I believe that the churches must be at the heart of that.

A tall order? Consider the alternatives…

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