The American Dream -- An Illusion or Reality?

Published on Monday, March 18, 2013
 In the dry, evening heat of Bangladesh, a girl visiting from America stands alone on the balcony of her grandmother's lavish condominium. Located roughly thirty miles north of Dhaka, Bangladesh's suffocatingly-populated capital, Uttura Model Town – Uttura, for short – has a suburban character. In a way, its residential districts, shopping malls, clean roads, and its abundance of upper-middle class citizens make Uttura the Bangladeshi equivalent of the town of Alpharetta. As the "foreigner" peers over the dust-laden streets of her grandmother's town, she is puzzled by what she sees in the light of the setting sun. Angled 45 degrees to the right, she is permitted a view of a few massive buildings that house hoards of expensive clothes for the many expensive people inside. She herself visited these air-conditioned shops with her grandmother the previous weekend; they even ran into a few of her grandmother's close acquaintances. When the girl turns her body 180 degrees in the other direction, however, she is facing the left. If she cranes her neck just a smidgen, she can make out the unbecoming view of weary figures walking home to the tents pitched in the narrow stretch of field beside her apartment building. She watches as several dirty seven and eight year olds mobilize themselves with legs skinnier than her arms. These people have probably never had a good meal their entire lives, she thinks to herself. With an existence defined by the mercy of strangers, she knows that when the beggars wake up the next morning, they will face a brutal reality that she has never known. 

 On a global scale, this story is not an uncommon one. Low literacy rates, government corruption, and unavailability of jobs are harsh struggles of daily life for almost half of the world – the three billion people living in poverty. Being brought up in Alpharetta -- an area distinguished by rich, quiet neighborhoods with average household incomes well above the six-figure line --, it becomes easy to forget that the rest of the world does not live in the bubble that many of us have always known. Although Uttura Model Town is, socially, the Bangladeshi version of Alpharetta, there is one major difference that even an outsider notices at a cursory level: the gargantuan distinction between the rich and the poor. The beggar children who had taken settlement beside their rich suburban neighbors are only one example of how the wealthy and the impoverished live side by side, neither group penetrating – or even hoping to penetrate – the barrier between them. This being said, Bangladesh doesn't even follow the caste system, like its larger neighbor does. 

 Harsh levels of stratified society do not exist only in countries that declare it (such as India), but also in countries that do not, like Bangladesh. Living in Alpharetta, we forget that similar types of poverty still exist in America; we're just less accustomed to seeing it. The reason? Because it is not as obvious. As Fareed Zakaria -- a news host of superstar status and  a modern-day immigrant – once recounted, "the modern American Dream, for me, was this general prosperity and well-being for the average person" ("How to Restore the American Dream", Zakaria). Just like Fareed during his early years, many Americans have grown accustomed to the notion that America is identical to equality. To an extent, this is true; there are indeed regions that are less equality-minded as America, such as third-world countries like Bangladesh, which cannot formally afford to give each citizen the same opportunities. However, the mindset that America is equal for ALL has proven to be false from America's initial expansion, when African slaves were considered "less" than a white man, to even now – a time where remnants of our country's sexist and racist past are still present. For this reason, the idea that America provides every person the same chance at success during every moment of every day is definitely an illusion for the vast majority of Americans. What is not an illusion about this "charm of anticipated success", however, is that it can one day be achieved. 

 To start off, the "American Dream" is based on the principle that America provides each individual with the ability to pursue whatever they deem important. What makes following "the dream" unique to our country's system is that America is supposed to supply equal opportunities in the job market so that each person can pursue careers that will help them finance their dreams (or, if their dream is simply to have a lot of money, they can do so by scoring a high-paying job). These "equal opportunities" are given by ensuring that jobs are given based on merit, instead of on a person's background or their family's history of having money. To an extent, this portrayal – that every person has the same chance at success, regardless of where they came from or who they know – is false. Although a person's background is not the deciding factor, having personal connections in the work force is a major benefit when trying to climb the social, working ladder. 

 Of course, this is a huge disadvantage to poor people, because their communities might not have ever valued the skills that are valued in the corporate world, such as being well-read, cultured, and eloquent. People who are born in the worst circumstances often have no way of overcoming these situations. Many are sentenced to lifelong poverty, because they have no access to money that will give them a start in the world where they can start over. For example, a child who is born in the ghettoes of America could forever be behind if they never have exposure to anything other ways of life. 

 A friend of mine recently volunteered at a charity that provides education materials to "at-risk kids" – elementary-age children who are considered "at risk" of participating in gang activity and/or dropping out of school later in life, because they live in sketchy parts of town. Statistics show that inhabitants of these areas tend to stay in poverty their whole lives. While volunteering, my friend recalled reading to a particularly intelligent seven-year-old girl. After the session was over and it was time for all the kids to leave, she told the little girl that she wanted her to read one book at home before she saw her at their next visit. With a slight air of sadness, the girl told my friend, "I don't think I can. We don't have any books at home, because my mom says they aren't important enough to buy." Of course, my friend, who was brought up in upper-middle-class Alpharetta, did not know how to react. She had never even realized that parents in poverty will often teach their kids to devalue education, because they do not believe that their kids have a future in the intellectual world. When it comes time for these children to start seeking professional jobs, they will be vastly limited against their competitors from richer families who have had lifelong conditioning to the world of intellectualism – a world that many current jobs value immensely. In this way, what makes poor American children, who are raised believing that learning is unimportant, different from the poor Bangladeshi children were brought up with the same mentality? 

 The books that we have read in class address similar questions related to the American Dream and the illusions that accompany it. <em>The Great Gatsby</em>, for instance, centers around Jay Gatz, a boy from the slums of America who blossomed into a man worth millions of dollars. When telling the Great Gatsby's personal history, the author stated,
"For over a year he had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam-digger and a salmon-fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed….but his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night….they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing" (Fitzgerald 98-99).

In two pages, Fitzgerald epitomized the desperation that has fueled the American Dream for centuries. It was not greed for more money that started the dream, but a more tragic catalyst: a hope for a better future. This being said, Gatsby shows that the "Dream" was not cultivated by the rich, but by the poor – people whose drives to make something of themselves stem from the fact that they were born from nothing. Gatsby's infatuation with Daisy is then interpreted as the infatuation that the poor have with money, because it is the gateway to a brighter future:

"…Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor" (Fitzgerald 150).

By comparing Daisy to silver, Fitzgerald shows that Daisy is in Gatsby's eyes: money. Money, which is power, which is the freedom to pursue your dreams no matter the expense, is the root of the American Dream.

However, the story of Jay Gatz and his attainment of great wealth show numerous holes in the highly-illusive American Dream. Gatsby did not get rich all on his own – had had help from his friend Dan Cody who left him his first 25K, more than enough to get started as the professional moonshiner that Gatsby would become. Gatsby's means of gaining his fortune go against the idea that equal opportunities in the job market will get you far. If it were not for his fortuitous meeting with Dan Cody, Gatsby might not have ever graduated from his lifestyle as a clam-digger; he is evidence of the unfortunate fact that lucky people, who are willing to resort to dishonest methods (such as moonshining), can get further than honest, steady workers who never meet magical Mr. Cody's to leave them thousands of dollars and turn their lives around. For this reason, Gatsby's story shows how advancement in America relies on more than just being on equal footing with the rest of the runners; it also relies on luck. 

<em>In Cold Blood</em>, a historical fiction by Truman Capote, was a more accurate representation of what it takes for a person with an average background to achieve his or her American Dream. During the first few pages of the novel, the author drops a few hints to indicate what kind of a family Mr. Clutter, a key figure in the book and in the town of which the book takes place, came from. By informing the reader that Mr. Clutter "graduated from Kansas State University, where he had majored in agriculture" (Capote 6), we get the impression that Clutter came from a middle-class family that valued education. With this stable start, his determination to succeed allowed him to achieve his dream. 
Even after the Clutters were murdered, Capote showed how significant the Clutters were to their community, by inserting the townspeople's reactions to their death.
"'Feeling wouldn't run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters. Anyone less admired. Prosperous. Secure. But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it's like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless." (Capote 106).

In this case, the Clutter family symbolized full attainment of the American Dream. They were a family not only famous for their wealth, but also for being good Samaritans, the combination gaining them indubitable respect from the people around them.

 This portrayal of the Clutters shows why America gained its reputation for offering its inhabitants the ability to achieve their dreams -- because America differs from previous, seventeenth century, Old World class structure. Instead of being based on money alone, respect stems from how hard a person works and how he/she treats others. Mr. Clutter was highly-esteemed in Holcomb not only because he was wealthy, but because of how he obtained his wealth and what he chose to do with it. 
"He was not as rich as the richest man in Holcomb…he was, however, the community's most widely known citizen…he had headed the building committee for the newly completed First Methodist church, an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar edifice. He was currently chairman of the Kansas Conference of Farm Organizations, and his name was everywhere respectfully recognized among Midwestern agriculturists, as it was in certain Washington offices" (Capote 6).

Capote's description of Mr. Clutter implies the image of a man who has conquered the American dream. Intelligence paired with tremendous work-ethic, Mr. Clutter was an embodiment of "success" – which encompasses wealth, security, a family –, achieved through completely honest means. Furthermore, the fact that he donated so much of his time and energy to build the church showed how involved he was in his community. Instead of just sitting on his money, he chose to invest in the development of something that he believed would benefit hundreds, maybe thousands, of people around him.

In this way, Mr. Clutter shows exactly what makes the American Dream so unique. As Alex De Tocqueville, a French citizen who visited the United States from 1831-1832, wrote in his book Democracy in America,

"…the germs of aristocracy were never planted in that part of the Union. The only influence which obtained there was that of intellect; the people became accustomed to revere certain names as representatives of knowledge and virtue. Some of their fellow citizens acquired a power over the others that might truly have been called aristocratic if it had been capable of transmission from father to son."

By contrasting knowledge and aristocracy, the Frenchman showed how American values were drastically different from Old World ones. Inherited wealth, the factor that mattered most in Old World social structure, was rendered less important in America, a nation founded by religious and social outcasts – many of whom did not have noteworthy family names to begin with. What did become important, though, was one's ability to make something of themself with the skills they possessed.

What is paradoxical about America's open-armed stance towards freedom and equality, though, is that the country has always housed two groups: the free and the oppressed. Of course, this sort of relationship is present in any country's history, or in its present times, but it is ironic that a country that ensures freedom to all has had such extreme cases of oppression for most of its history. In the 1800's, De Tocqueville noted that "in the South one man, aided by slaves, could cultivate a great extent of country; it was therefore common to see rich landed proprietors." This goes to show that one group (white men) could gain power at the expense and enslavement of another (the slaves). From the beginning, the glorified freedom of America is shown to have only applied to specific people. 

 In due time, however, the descendants of America's slaves saw the irony of the situation as well. Instead of living as oppressed people forever, they made sure to take advantage of the system that guaranteed equality to fight for their own. Martin Luther King, arguably the greatest human rights activist of all time, exclaimed, "we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice." He continued onward in his "I Have a Dream" speech, informing the masses that,
"There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream."
 Martin Luther King definitely had the right idea as he led the fight against racism and inequality. America, a nation set on giving freedom to all, has had its hardships in ensuring the American Dream – this is because the definition of equality, a key ingredient in the Dream, is always changing. During the first days of settlement, equality was a right to land that was granted to every qualifying white man who stepped off the boat. This freedom was more than the settlers had been accustomed to, and they were content…until the others realized that being content should extend to people who did not fit the original, narrow category of white males. Throughout history, a pattern has endured: a group is denied rights, they fight for those rights until they are gained, and another deprived group (i.e. blacks, women, homosexuals) assumes center stage. The process repeats again and again and again and again…ensuring us that although the outcomes of our wildest dreams are far-off, diligence will always bring us to the next step of the process. A step that both marks today's illusive fantasy, as well as the hopeful reality of tomorrow's tomorrow. 
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