Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Alternative American Dream

“They say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
 --John Lennon

After the financial crisis of 2008, I heard and read many stories about people who lost their jobs, their saving and their homes during the crisis.  These are stories of people who worked hard, thought they were investing wisely, thought that owning a home was going to be a good thing.  These stories are often accompanied by a statement about pursuing the “American Dream” and the great disappointment in seeing that dream turn sour.  I have great sympathy for these people, but I am not so sympathetic to their "American Dream.”

The American Dream, as it stands today, is almost entirely defined by ownership and consumption.  A big house, with a big lawn; a big lawnmower to mow that lawn; a big car or two or three; big vacations, like a cruise aboard a big ship; big catalogs filled with things to fill those big houses, cars, plans and bellies….  This is not surprising since the images of what comprises the American Dream have largely been created by marketing executives and their staff in hundreds of offices throughout America (and the rest of the world).  This army of marketers has but one function, to motivate consumptive behavior by stimulating desire and envy.  In an earlier age, if you had asked someone the name of the being whose sole function is to stimulate desire and envy, they would have said, "the devil."

Closely associated with the myth of the American Dream is that of “a lifestyle.”  In the sixties, when I was coming of age, we talked about an "alternative lifestyle."  Such a lifestyle was to be an alternative to the “normal” work and consumption filled postwar lifestyle.  It was an attempt – a short-lived, largely failed attempt – to cease being a consumer.   The marketers quickly saw the commercial potential of the idea of an alternative lifestyle and quickly co-opted it.  Like the American Dream, one's lifestyle is largely defined by what you own, wear and consume.  In addition, one's lifestyle now is portrayed in advertisements as something to which we have nearly a God-given right. 

Well, if we are going to dream, let’s dream.  How about an American Dream of community – a diverse community of people who actually share each other’s lives and enjoy each other’s company?  And, in this country that calls itself the most religious country in the world, how about a dream of people in deep communion with ultimate things, whether they call that God or Nature or the Great Spirit or something else?  How about people who find such joy in that deep communion, that they really haven’t time for trips to the mall or on-line shopping.  How about a dream of people who love the American ecology and would never think about stripping from the great Web of Being a sterile swath of grass lawn, much less waste hours mowing it?

No investment bankers can feast their fat, ugly egos on authentic human relationship, or spiritual contemplation, or enjoyment of natural beauty, or empathy with all living things.  No local bankers can repossess these, leaving us homeless in our homeland.  How about an American Dream that cannot be sold and repossessed? 

Unlike John Lennon, I am not a dreamer.  I have no illusions.  The marketers have won, and that is not going to change.  They are powerful and clever and well camouflaged.  They infiltrate and co-opt alternative dreams.  No, we are not going to change that.  But we can change ourselves.  As individuals or small groups, we can live an alternative American Dream.  We can dis-incorporate the marketers message from our sense of the world and its value.  We can re-incorporate community, spirituality, material simplicity, and natural beauty deeply into our lives.

Imagine that!

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