Colson: Is the American Dream a mirage or a hoax?


Occasionally I become convinced that editors and headline writers at certain national publications like to mess around with their readers’ sensibilities a bit, just to test whether anybody is really watching and thinking and forming conclusions out there.

In the May 4 edition of the Sunday New York Times, for instance, the Sunday Review section featured an essay that asked readers about the reigning mythology of our country with the query, “American Dream? Or Mirage?”

On the same page (page 9, if you want to look it up), another piece was titled, “Another Chance For Teens.”

Both these opinion pieces dealt with our abilities, as a nation, to offer chances for a decent life to those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

One article concluded that we pretty much have talked ourselves into believing we all have a chance at obtaining that silver spoon if we work hard enough, when there is clear evidence that we are fooling ourselves in a big way. Not a very hopeful outlook.

The other was a much more hopeful look, but aimed its lens at a specific slice of the larger pie — that being, whether working with troubled teens is worth the effort it takes (the answer, predictably enough from a college professor in California, was yes.)

The real question, though, is whether the American Dream is a mirage or a hoax.

In the “American Dream” piece, two teams of professorial types in the fields of psychology and behavioral science conducted studies looking at how respondents viewed the concepts underlying the American Dream — that being, the quintessentially American idea that if you work hard enough and follow the rules, you can carve out a good lifestyle for yourself and your family, no matter who you are.

In particular, one of the studies examined how respondents viewed the likelihood that someone born at the bottom of the U.S. ladder of success can claw their way to the upper rungs of that ladder.

The upshot of their studies was that we, as a nation, “vastly overestimate the amount of upward mobility in our society.” The social scientists involved in the studies determined this by comparing the responses to questionnaires, to the actual data about upward mobility in real life.

In the words of the studies’ authors, “we believe unduly in our capacity to move up the economic ladder, and these beliefs increase our mobility overestimates more generally.”

In English, that means we have talked ourselves into believing we have a chance of moving up the ladder, and by that very act of self-delusion we manage to somehow make ourselves believe it even more.

Out on the streets of, say, West Baltimore, such nicely parsed ideas probably are not often the topic of conversation while hanging out at the corner wondering where your next meal is coming from, or how in the hell you’re going to pay the exorbitant rent on your broken-down townhouse or apartment.

No, the topics more likely have to do with being rousted by the cops the night before as you walked down a street, and your fear that the next time it happens you might end up like Freddie Gray, “arrested” to death by the very people your taxes pay to protect you.

Anyways, back to the studies, and my realization that they have confirmed something I’ve felt for years, and have written about in these pages.

This nonsensical belief in the American Dream is the reason the U.S. population remains so quiescent in the face of mounting income inequality, a widening gap between rich and poor, and the disquieting fact that while the number of millionaires in this country grows daily, it is vastly outpaced by the increases in the number of poor, and by the rate of shrinkage in the middle class.

This is due to a systemic problem in our country, wherein money has replaced religious faith as the bedrock value of our capitalist society.

Not that I ever had much use for religion myself, but at least religious values gave lip-service, and sometimes more, to the idea that the downtrodden need the help of society to lift themselves up, and that the societal concentration of wealth can lead to evil deeds.

Under our benighted system, if you’re poor, you are the object of scorn and ridicule by those inhabiting the upper crust and their political representatives (which, by the way, increasingly means the majority of politicians everywhere) and social programs designed to help you are deemed wasteful and wrong.

Oh, I almost forgot about the other article on page 9 of the Sunday Times, the one that tells us how helping teens find summer jobs is a good way to help them lift themselves out of poverty and despair and become hard-working, contributing members of society.

Never mind that they are facing minimum-wage jobs with little chance for promotion, and a life of relative poverty while their “betters” enjoy unprecedented wealth among the 1 percent of the world.

That’s just the way it is on May 4, 2015, here on the Planet Earth at the ragged edge of the Milky Way.

Aspen Times Weekly

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