Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Building The Dream

I watched a couple of movies about immigrants coming to America. One was from the perspective of a European Jew, the other from an Irish Catholic viewpoint. Both movies were set in the times when there were massive migrations from Europe, both were based on true stories, and both told of the hope that America held out to people facing hardship in their native lands. Both movies ended with the now cliché scene of the Statue of Liberty viewed from an arriving boat. Since the movies ended before their protagonists set foot on our shores, they leave it to our conjecture whether America turned out to be what they had dreamed of, or something else.

There is a lot of talk these days about the American dream and whether it is still alive. This seems as good a time as any to start thinking about what the modern American dream should be. The world has changed, both in the lands we attract people from and here in America. The dream should probably change with the times.

Running water. Indoor plumbing. Central heat. Relatively non-corrupt police. Opportunity to choose one's work, and to earn advancement. A chance to accumulate wealth. Freedom to worship or not. Freedom to travel. An absence of restrictions on the basis of caste or class or sex. These are facets of the old American dream. They are commonly viewed almost entirely in terms of what the dreamers can get for themselves, and for the dreamers' children. It has not been, for the most part, a dream that has been dreamed for the benefit of other Americans, and certainly not for the advancement of the rest of the world. It has been a selfish dream.

At times, a more socially oriented dream has been proposed, by reformers and labor unions and religious leaders and visionaries. Philanthropy and taxes and charity and sacrifice have helped that dream along. We have built schools, bridges, dams, highways, canals, railways, airports, waterworks, museums, concert halls, post offices, parks, and libraries to benefit the masses. But in this difficult economy, these sorts of expenditures are not so much advanced for the public good that the projects will provide as for the temporary jobs they will create while they are being built.

When we think about public works projects which are being proposed as a stimulus to the economy, whether the public good is viewed as the focus of the American dream, or just a byproduct of job-creation will make a big difference in what kind of country we end up building.

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