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A smaller American dream

Our relentless pursuit of the exceptional has led us to social malaise and economic catastrophe. Maybe it's time we wake up to another possibility.

March 13, 2009|Frederic Morton | Frederic Morton is the author of "Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914" and "A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889," a musical version of which has just opened in Vienna.

What must be done to restore the American dream? The White House, Congress, the media -- all are consumed by the need to solve the problem. Neglected in the ferment is an issue underlying all others: the need to reform the American dream itself.

The dream acts as an unwritten constitution of the United States, governing our conduct. Our written one has checks and balances; it evolves through debated amendments and reasoned court interpretations. Our unwritten one soars beyond check or balance; it is updated continuously by whatever glitters beyond the edge of our means.

Today's scary headlines reflect the force of this unwritten constitution. It mandates a steely ambition, a heroic greed braving all consequences. Result? Our economic catastrophe. So many executives made so many wrong decisions not because they lacked competence but because they couldn't resist the common pressure -- higher, bigger, more -- driving them to their folly. Many of them knew better; none could resist the boundless compulsion of the American dream.

Now, it may be argued that our passion for the out-of-reach is the very dynamic that (to use a long- familiar phrase) "has made this country great." But has it made us happy? And how much of our happiness is the bright mask of stress? The picture of a helicopter-accoutered yacht glowing from a glossy page inflames (to use a newly familiar phrase) "the audacity of hope." Of course, Barack Obama's book has nothing to do with luxury craft. It's title, though, plays on a basic Yankee emotion. The audacity invoked transcends hope. It is fueled by the fiercest expectation: "Impossible is American"; that's our martinet motto.

In other words, a dweller in the land content with the possible falls short of America's spirit; he fails his country's stern, norm-shattering exceptionalism. The map of your truly American life charts a freeway leading from a log cabin, literal or figurative, to the White House, literal or figurative (that is, to the movie icon's aerie or the billionaire's topiary garden). No intermediate destination is recorded on this map; no speed limit, no rest stop, no side roads, not even a space for getting out to enjoy the scenery.

If only there weren't just one Bill Gates, one Elvis Presley, one Barack Obama able to even approximate such a journey. With the rest of us, audacity tends to curdle into personal thwarting, social malaise and, sooner or later, general economic disaster.

Sooner or later has arrived. Now we look back to the 1930s, the last time we visited upon ourselves a similar suffering.

In those days, we managed to ease the pain by agreeing to temper the dream. With the New Deal, we toned down the adamant commitment to absolute individual fulfillment. We woke up our dormant response to the comfort and warmth of the communal. We discovered we could savor realistic contentment; we didn't need to keep panting after triumph. Many of us in the bleachers learned to enjoy the game as fully as those few behind home plate. By reordering our inner attitudes, we produced the outward political will to remake the nation.

Can we do it again? The contrast between presidents now and then may complicate the process. Franklin Roosevelt was a beneficiary of privilege gained by unbridled private ambition. Hence his moderating of such ambition made him a persuasive role model. Obama's project has parallels to the New Deal, yet his biography is almost the opposite of the New Deal architect's. It suggests the invincible self, predestined for barrier-smashing. His legend sees him marching from the back of the bus straight into the Oval Office. Without intending to, he has made the trajectory of the superstar even more prescriptive. He can't help stoking over-the-top American optimism, whose very excess is seductive and addictive.

From that addiction we are not easily weaned. Quite a number of us may have voted for Obama not just to prove ourselves post-racist but by way of denying the debacle of the unmitigated American dream. We voted to reinstate the impossible as a national idea, a legitimate obsession, a must for you and me.

Therefore, I put the question to you and me: Do we have the courage to free ourselves from the fixation on the exceptional? Shall we try to dream a dream less extreme? Can we give up the mania that must crash into depression?


Frederic Morton is the author of "Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914" and "A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889," a musical version of which has just opened in Vienna.

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