Monday, October 24, 2011

What Happened to the American Dream?

Suomi Hall

I don't really care for Johnny Cash. I've tried listening to his songs a bunch of times, but they never really spoke to me. Some have been played so much that they've become cliché, Ring of Fire for example. Yesterday, however, I ended up playing a few of his songs again, after wandering there via "Flowers On The Wall" by The Statler Brothers. I was playing them more or less at random, still going "meh."

Until I stumbled upon "The Man In Black." And, perhaps for the first time, really listened to the lyrics.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Johnny Cash. The quintessential white, working-class, Christian American. There's an enormous heart there. How in the name of Beelzebub did we get from there to the howling hordes of the Tea Party, baying for the blood of "the 47 per cent"—parasites, ne'er-do-wells, welfare queens?

Finland has a thing about America. In some, occasionally pretty endearing ways, we're the most American country in Europe, in good and bad. For example, we have a bad case of suburban sprawl. On the other hand, we have some pretty cute subcultures, such as the "Fiftarit" thing that's pretty big in rural Finland. That's people living an imagined Fifties lifestyle. American Fifties, natch, seen through the romantic haze of Rebel Without A Cause or Happy Days. The Fifties in Finland weren't all that much fun; it was mostly about reconstruction and war reparations, settling Karelian refugees and fearing a Soviet takeover.

The Fiftarit wear baseball jackets and bombshell dresses, put Brylcreem in their hair and drive lovingly restored Ford Fairlanes and Cadillac Fleetwoods, listen to rockabilly or Bill Haley and the Comets. Hundreds of thousands of Finns have emigrated to the USA in search of a better life, and most of them—I'd wager—found it. Some of my relatives did, too. The American Dream still draws us.

When I was a kid, that American Dream was something pretty simple and understandable. It was the idea of going somewhere you could make a good life for yourself and yours, no matter where you came from, what you looked like, or who you were, and nobody messed with you while you were doing it. That good life is pretty much what the Fiftarit embody—a little house, a car with chrome and Leatherette on it, cheerful music, time with friends and family, good honest work.

That's all gone. Somehow, that American Dream—something entirely realistic and attainable in America, at least if you're white—became something different. It turned into a dream of Making It Big. Becoming Rich. Making lots of money. Not just a Ford Fairlane and a clapboard house and a picket fence, but a mansion in a gated community, a country club membership, flying first class. Not small luxuries. Big ones.

That's not the same dream. It's a mirage. And it poisoned the heart from which Johnny Cash sang his song. Instead of looking out for the sick and lonely old, the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold, it's about mercilessly clawing your way to the top. There's no room for compassion there; it's a fight for survival, red in tooth and claw, where only the toughest and meanest make it, never mind the rest.

So here we are, running a machine of production that's far more powerful than anything humanity has ever seen. We have the material means to eradicate hunger, make sure everyone—everyone!—gets a decent education and access to reasonable health care, as well as food, shelter, and clothing. The problem is one of distribution. That won't get solved if enough people don't want to solve it. And that gets right back to values and ideas.

Who wears the black for the poor and beaten down? What happened to the American dream?

Is Johnny Cash a deadbeat Commie hippie now?

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