I have been giving serious thought to the idea of nation and culture--what does it mean, what is its importance individually and to society. How can we free ourselves from these often constricting definitions and when do we seek them as refuge and strength? What is the American Dream?
The longer I am away from the United States, the more I find myself both appreciative of aspects of its national culture, and simultaneously, appalled and at serious odds with its claims to greatness. On one side, I'm four generations into the American project--and I find the chaos of what can be a very open society liberating. It's true. What I miss about American life, due to where I have found myself living in post-colonial Hong Kong, is a sense of possibility that many Americans grant another individual. It is true: friendliness and openness are American cultural traits. Americans are often exuberant, enthusiastic, and unabashedly vocal. I'm sure everyone agrees that this has its positives and negatives, but most Americans are by other cultures standards, upfront and refreshingly open. They also respect an individual's right to dream. This is no small feat and this cultural trait cannot be underestimated. It plays a huge role in how Americans treat each other and how they function politically, emotionally, economically and socially. Americans dream and they expect you to dream with them, or at least on your own, and failure to dream--well, it's simply unAmerican.
Most Americans operate under the illusion that their society is a fluid one, offering great economic and social mobility, though this is increasingly less of an option for the general population, mired in debt and inequality. The elusive idea of the American dream continues to hold many in perpetual thrall. In the dream, all are equal. Because dreams are private, dreams have no hierarchy. So if the dream is framed as the be all and end all--this will silence most. The dream is seductive and profound. It can also be debilitating, terrifying and willfully ignorant. The dream may be large or small, but is usually tied to some form of capitalistic endeavor or material object. In a way, it is not unusual or different from the dreams that are held by individuals in other countries, it's simply that in the U.S., the dream is holy. One must have a dream. And the most American thing one can do, is to pursue this dream. I have witnessed the erosion of many economic opportunities and increased levels of corruption in nearly every aspect of American life due to the seemingly insatiable appetite that American people have for material goods--and other people's desire to meet this demand at the expense of sound governance and economic policy. The dream has become for most, more impossible than ever, but it continues to be the foundation of the American cultural ideology and myth, clouding the conscious mind, and controlling the population. In fact, I believe that many of these strange laws and policies and practices in the US are due to how one interprets the American dream in general, and the American dream on a highly personal level. Some dreamers face the truth of the U.S., but most, dream into an idea of the U.S. that is impossible without some serious structural changes.
Oh--the opposite of the dream is not hell (well, maybe a kind of hell); it is depression.
I should round up some stats on Americans on mood enhancing drugs, but it is quite high. The reason for this I feel is that Americans think that they must be happy and live their dream, and if they cannot, they seek to alter their present with something that makes them feel as if they are in the dream.