The American Gigantic

Has the dream of freedom and opportunity declined into a hopeless pathology?


Beat Streuli1
Beat Streuli2
Photography by Beat Streuli

“[P]erhaps Paul’s sudden elevation from schoolmaster to millionaire struck a still vibrant chord of optimism in each of them, so that they said to themselves over their ledgers and typewriters: ‘it may be me next time.’”

Evelyn Waugh
Decline and Fall (1928)

American society’s greatest sleight of hand, the persistent belief that it is classless, suffers periodic cataclysms. Sometimes, as in the dislocated images of Katrina-chased black refugees begging for water or clambering onto buses, they are impossible to ignore. Other times, the media conspires to make them almost invisible—if more telling. Scant weeks before the hurricane devastation that preoccupied the national airspace, an event took place of the sort that only makes its way onto National Public Radio or the back pages of the New York Times. At its fiftieth annual meeting, the afl-cio—the country’s largest labour body, a conjunction of two mighty umbrella unions gathering a dozen others—split in two. Led by Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern, a significant portion of the afl-cio’s body, including Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and unite here, decided to head out on their own.

The wedge issue The final divide Lobbying versus organizing. The defectors still believed in actual union drives and what Stern did not hesitate to call the “American dream” for workers—not just one lobby group among countless others crowding the concourses of the Capitol, but a force for social justice. These are the same people who brought you the eight-hour workday, the minimum wage, and the weekend. The moment was pregnant with futility as well as nobility. Organized labour in the United States now represents between 8 and 12 percent of the total workforce, a sharp decline from the over 30 percent who were unionized during Big Labor’s heyday. With soft union-busting tactics of the Wal-Mart variety—excluding labour reps from stores, straw-polling underpaid workers with fear-soaked questions—now the norm, the prospect of greater organization is dim. Offshore labour is too cheap, Chinese imports too numerous, and domestic politics too distracted by religious hooey like “intelligent design.” The idea of a general strike or a food riot or a violent May Day demonstration is these days unimaginable, even laughable—an image from another world altogether.

Of course, the idea of American citizens drowning and starving to death while their government dithered about how to help them was likewise unimaginable—until it happened.

Stern’s invocation of the American dream is a useful reminder of the instability that lies at the centre of the United States. A tension persists between two versions of the dream, a difference frequently elided for reasons both innocent and sly. One dream—the older one, as it happens—is about a society that takes justice seriously and offers a structure of mobility, what John Locke called “the career open to talents,” combined with care or compensation for the least well-off. The other dream is a vision of acquisition pure and simple, though often romanticized in ways belonging to an American television comedy of the 1950s, where the median income of depicted households was, in today’s dollars, less than a third of what is seen in television’s current ten most popular shows. Even idealization is subject to the laws of inflation, apparently, and dreams get priced out of their own market when material success overpowers all other values. At that point, they are naturally subject to the massive debt-financing characteristic of the current domestic economy. After all, the idea that one might have to wait to realize the dream is unthinkable. The dream is, in a familiar paradox of human desire, both demanded immediately and deferred constantly.

The two dreams are in fact contradictory, but substituting the latter for the former—making the enjoyment of material goods a governing virtue of American life along the way—has, in effect, created a third, hybrid American dream: the hallucination that a country where poverty is more widespread by the year, and where the gap between rich and poor is growing with the aid of tax cuts and low-cost inheritance, is actually both wealthy and just. Between 1979 and 2003, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent of American households rose 129 percent, to more than $700,000 (all figures US); the income of the middle fifth enjoyed just a 15-percent lift, to $44,800; and the income of the poorest fifth struggled with a 4-percent rise. Despite its vast gdp, poverty is growing in America, not declining: the United States Census Bureau reported last year that 12.7 percent of the population lived in poverty in 2004, up from 12.5 percent in 2003. The US now ranks twenty-fourth among industrialized nations in income disparity; only Mexico and Russia rank lower.

Everybody’s getting richer, after a fashion, but the super-rich are pulling ahead even as the majority fall behind. This can be hard to see: sleek durables, leisure activities, and cheap credit are easy to come by. This is comfort without reflection on comfort’s conditions of possibility: the diminishing marginal urgency of leisure goods generates a diminishing marginal urgency of the questions leisure is supposed to allow.

The quintessential expression of the American dream today can be heard in almost any sports broadcast, courtesy of Ameriquest Mortgage Company, one of the country’s largest home-financing concerns, which has a massive advertising budget, including a small fleet of blimps deployed at sporting events. The company took out a service mark on this slogan: “Proud Sponsor of the American Dream.” For those who, like me, had not heard the phrase “service mark” before, it is defined by Webster’s as “any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce, to identify and distinguish the services of one provider from services provided by others, and to indicate the source of the services.” Not only is the American dream brought to you by Ameriquest Mortgage, in other words, but nobody is doing it quite like them.

The idea of an American dream is so firmly planted in the loam of national consciousness as to appear chthonic, primeval, originary—a natural property of the whole democratic experiment. But like most ideologies, the dream is a construct with human, not divine, provenance. Nobody can claim utter certainty when it comes to the proverbial, indeed mythic, language of a nation; nevertheless, most historians credit popular chronicler James Truslow Adams with coining the phrase “American dream” in his 1931 volume of dewy optimism, The Epic of America. Adams was no apologist for the current arrangements. The American vision, he wrote, is:

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Do you hear that, dear friends and neighbours Not motor cars. High wages No, not them either. For that matter, the passage does not even mention the houses, Chevrolets, and white picket fences that feature so centrally in homespun versions of the dream circa the post-war boom—the rhapsodic appreciation of the breezeway and the bungalow so deftly skewered by Don DeLillo in Underworld. No such things of any kind. Richer life, yes, but in the sense of fuller; a dream of order and self-actualization. Indeed, by today’s protracted ideological standards, where US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is considered a moderate, Adams’ rhetoric is nothing short of hard-left looniness, socialism in all but name. And yet, the position is here espoused not merely as viable in America but as the essence of the American project. Indeed, his talk of “opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” must help explain that enduring irony of American high-school students consistently attributing quotations from The Communist Manifesto to the Declaration of Independence. From each according to his ability!

But before Adams there was Alger. For popular dissemination of the dream’s siren call nothing can match the dozens of dime novels penned by Horatio Alger, Jr. Alger’s tales of bootstrapping youngsters clearing hurdle after hurdle to go from applecart-pusher to tycoon had already burrowed deep into the American psyche—often against Golden Age evidence to the contrary. Even that great social engineer Plato could not have desired a more able propagandist of social class than someone who sustains the illusion of mobility, especially if mobility is keyed to ability. “If a child born to a worker or a farmer has a nature tinged with gold or silver,” Socrates tells his nodding companions in The Republic, “they shall honour it and elevate it to the rank of either guardian or auxiliary.” Which sounds nice, until you recall that the entire gold, silver, and brass business is an example of that lie we choose to call noble, a myth intended to keep everyone in their proper places.

Just to be sure this strange tale of innate caste takes hold, Socrates suggests eliminating all the adults in his hypothetical city before deploying the myth of the metals. But he should have been more confident in its genius. Every tyrant knows that a whiff of possibility provides more effective security from revolt than any amount of force. Next time, it could be me! Or my son. “Mobility is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream,” the New York Times noted in a 2005 feature package on class in America, even as it reported that economic evidence suggests upward change in social position is limited, and may be declining.

More than half of families earning less than $30,000 a year claim that they have achieved the dream, or soon will. Forty-five percent of respondents said they were in a higher class as adults than when they were growing up. Perhaps indicating the lengths to which citizens will go to make this true, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that Americans’ total 2005 spending outstripped earnings by $33.9 billion—the first year spending exceeded earnings since 1933. The will to believe is stronger than ever, in short, even while access to the dream gets mortgaged inside and remains limited outside. Economic mobility in the United States is actually lower than in Canada or Scandinavia, and no higher than in France or Britain. And yet nobody says much about the Norwegian dream or French equality of opportunity—maybe because nobody feels the need to.

Alger’s fictions served the same purpose as Plato’s myth of the metals, not via state-sponsored tyranny but out of something much harder to identify or oppose, namely a generalized wishfulness. In a democratic society, the privileged have as large a stake as anyone in the idea that their wealth and position have been earned, not granted by mere luck or, worse, a skewed social structure. Everyone wants to sign on to the story. But we make a mistake if we read the American dream as a narrative, even a subtle and rich one. It is rather a matrix of all possible stories, an incubator of individual dreams and a tangle of meanings, where sense is distorted by the layering of word and image. One measure of success for any ideology is its narrative fecundity. I mean the ability to accommodate a variety of individual paths—your story and mine—within its universe of significance. The American dream does not specify a narrative arc; its genius is to accept your own personal tale as an expression of itself.

Here is one ironic shard of meaning. Alger himself was not able to claim that America had allowed him to live the dream and end up better off than his father. A Harvard legacy—that is, the child of a graduate and granted admission because of it—he squandered a comfortable job as a Unitarian minister over charges of sexual misconduct and turned to writing in desperation. His personal narrative fecundity produced, in the late 1800s, a string of make-good novels from Ragged Dick to From Canal Boy to President, but without limning a success story in his own terms.

They say George W. Bush went to Yale and I am prepared to believe it. I wonder if he ever found his steps wandering toward the Sterling Memorial Library. Not to the labyrinthine main stacks, said to be the inspiration for the maze-like bibliotower of Umberto Ecos The Name of the Rose, but to the sleepy drawing room of deep leather-covered armchairs and shelves of old novels named for someone called Livonia and her brothers. Here, on long afternoons, many a slack undergraduate has whiled away the hours with slumber and popular works of a long-gone era. The shelves are chocked with the heroic class fiction of the early 1900s—Frank Merriwell at Yale, Andy at Yale, Stover at Yale—all of them making it to New Haven with hard work, steely determination, and their football-stiffened spines.

In cultural terms, these books, mostly published between 1910 and 1930, are the necessary second wave after Alger. For the lucky or the smart, university plots the transition from home to working life. Truly self-made people may be admirable and worthy of emulation, but they are scarce; these books and their wide audience understand that collegiate jockeying for position is far more to the point in American life, especially if by “life” we mean who makes it and who doesn’t. Then as now, getting in means getting on. They are as familiar in their lessons as they are unfamiliar in their slang.

Nevertheless, it is impossible, at least for a university professor, to read these books with anything other than astonishment. Two things stand out—neither of them to do with such obvious relics as mandatory chapel, celluloid collars, or cigar smoking in dorm rooms. First, no one appears to do any academic work, and when characters discuss the curriculum at all, it seems to consist mostly of work on the order of high-school Latin. Second, the students—or “men” as they prefer to call themselves—are highly polished, sporting smart suits, silk ties, and businesslike attitudes presumably modelled on their fathers. They writhe in agonies of uncertainty over making the Lit or cracking the first eleven. While today’s Yalies probably worry about stds and the lsat, a century ago all thoughts ran to whether or not one had made the right moves, from freshman orientation forward, to be tapped for Skull & Bones or Scroll & Key.

The resulting social conditions are homoerotic to a degree that sails well past the routine levels found in any all-male cult—football team or frat house, regiment or priesthood. Upperclassmen are the nexus of crushes and rumour, inspiration and awe. Football captains are legendary figures, newspaper editors the shapers of world opinion. “Isn’t he a king” Dink Stover marvels of a sophomore he meets on the train to New Haven in his freshman September. “He made the crew last year—probably be captain; sub-tackle on the eleven. I played against him two years ago when he was at Andover. Isn’t he a king, though!” The first third of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise gives a striking poignancy to this collegiate comrade-love. In one scene of Fitzgerald’s novel, freshman Amory Blaine and his friends rush to their rooming-house window merely to glimpse a celebrated junior-class poet as he passes by on his way to dinner.

In the Boltwood and Andy books, this hero-worship is tempered by a pervasive doctrine of moral hygiene, the suggestion that admiration and emulation are the reliable route to probity and success. Even in the racier Stover volume, the moral compass is reliable. Protagonists may, like Dink Stover, lose themselves briefly in drinking binges or ill-advised outings with swift townie girls. They may even, for short horrific periods, doubt the legitimacy of the rigid class system they are asked to perpetuate. But invariably they return to their right minds, to the innate tight-ship virtue and upright posture characteristic of the good Yale man.

Virtue and opportunity are here conflated. The College Entrance Examination Board, adopted by the Ivy League in 1905, was the principal test for admission; that’s why characters such as Boltwood and Tom Regan (in the Stover book), as much as a boarding-school hero like Dink, can aspire to Yale if they scrimp and save and work hard. But scrimping and saving are just the beginning of fitting into the college mould, and success is about more than just brains. Yale, says Regan stoutly, neatly articulating the conflation, is “a college where you stand on your own feet, all square to the wind.”

By the time George W. Bush began attending Yale, things were far different. An open admissions policy had led to a post-Depression influx of unsavoury but clever homunculi—which is to say, Jews—who seemed set to outnumber the four-square Boltwood Bootstrappers. Personal essays and interviews soon supplemented the standardized tests so that “athletic” and “upstanding” young men could once more gain ascendancy in New Haven and Cambridge. Bush is the clear wonder boy of that era, when brains were not an issue in American success stories, despite the mythology of Ivy League brilliance—a mythology unsustainable to anyone who has ever taught at one.

As a legacy—his father George Herbert Walker was captain of what Dink Stover would have called “the nine—“George W. could enter Yale without barrier and earn his gentleman’s Cs without censure. He benefited from an admissions system that cracked down on such traits as shyness and unmanliness—also, just to be certain, shortness. The popular novels of the early century imagined a meritocratic and virtuous Ivy League even as they lovingly depicted an exclusive jocky wasp heaven. They were nevertheless more honest than we are today, at least on one crucial point. Despite the board exams, they did not suggest that attending Yale or Harvard was about intellect, because they knew it was about class—and football. When intellect was briefly rewarded and reality met illusion, reality was altered to fit: if open admissions meant the Yale of old was being trampled by clever Jews from Brooklyn, then admissions standards had to change. Or if Jews still managed to get in by “passing” for normal, they must eventually, like Ben in Louis Begley’s The Man Who Was Late, transmute pursuit of the dream into alienation and, finally, suicide.

What did not change was the idea that attending these schools correlates strongly with subsequent wealth and status. One analyst of the system recently went so far as to define preference for legacies as a luxury-brand loyal-customer reward: if you spend so much with the same carrier, you expect an air-miles payout at some point. But these and similar “honest” justifications for selection merely beg the obvious question—in fact, two of them. Why are athletic ability and aggressive friendliness so highly valued in American society that they are virtual guarantees of a dream position, especially if sealed with the indisputable approval of an Ivy League degree And why, if elite universities are really social-class finishing schools rather than brain factories, do they consistently maintain the reverse

The answer to the second question is clear enough: the legend of smart Ivy Leaguers is just part of the general dream mythology that sustains meritocratic delusion in American life. Intelligence, unlike socio-economic origin, is thought to be a virtuous divider, a legitimate basis for discrimination and reward. Therefore, smart people should be allowed to get into Yale or Princeton and enjoy its rewards.

But it isn’t smart people who get in; it’s well-groomed and well-funded people. Everyone acknowledges that an Ivy League sojourn is tantamount to a seal of social approval, yet the prevailing myth makes that emblem a merit badge rather than the family crest it most often resembles. The fiction of merit is maintained by the peculiar alchemy of elite universities, which magically transform inherited social privilege—first into brains (or the assumption thereof), and then into “earned” social privilege. College education is like income: there’s a lot more of it out there nowadays, but the upper percentiles are still getting more than their share. At 250 of the most selective universities in the United States, the proportion of students from upper-income families has grown, not declined, over the past three decades.

Even if elite colleges really did select purely for intelligence—say, as measured by sat scores alone—the assumption of virtuous division according to intelligence is debatable. Certainly intelligence is distributed in a different way than social position—there are poor smart people and dumb rich ones—but it is not obvious that that distribution is more just than the other. We prefer intelligence as a distributor because it is “natural.” But even without raising doubts about standardized tests and the sort of “intelligence” they reward, we could wonder why we naturalize this particular human trait. After all, isn’t that more or less a gold, silver, and brass story The hidden issue is that there is no point in lauding meritocracy if nobody examines what counts as merit, and why.

Social success is predicated on many factors that are both intangible and awkward. Tall politicians generally fare better than short ones. Gregarious executives are more successful than taciturn ones. Good looks are strong predictors of both social acceptance and wealth. These are natural traits, but ones we cannot, barring exceptional honesty, bring ourselves to consider as meritorious. There are honest moments. The mother of a friend of mine confesses that she has always considered handsome men better—that is, ethically more worthy—than plain ones. Not long ago I overheard a student from a selective Midwestern school being asked about his college. “I hear that’s a great school,” his companion said. “Oh yeah,” he agreed, “everyone is really good-looking.”

Brains, by contrast, together with less quantified but popular traits such as hard work and dedication, are qualities considered worthy of reward. Life is unfair, the common story goes. But instead of working to minimize the effects of unfairness, we will construct an idea about good forms of fairness. We will add a side story about social mobility, which, if anyone was paying attention to the main story, would be quickly revealed as incoherent. Meanwhile, the rewards of one round of success will be allowed to accumulate, passed from parent to child, so that social mobility, like time, becomes a unidirectional vector for the rich but not for the poor—something not even Plato’s guardians imagined possible, since they were supposed to examine the soul of every newborn for metal-merit.

Then, talking fast, we will praise the whole thing as a dream and sell it far and wide in the marketplace of ideas. And the kicker is that everyone will want to believe it. The alternative, after all, would be to acknowledge that the whole game is rigged.

” Americanism,” Martin Heidegger wrote, “is something European. It is an as-yet uncomprehended form of the gigantic.” Current readers can be forgiven for thinking there is a typographical error: surely the European thing is anti-Americanism But this remark was written in 1938 and, as was often the case, Heidegger meant something not quite what we are inclined to expect: first, that judging anything technological or “fast” to be American is a naive European tic; second, that the New World inherited an aspiration that is stalled and thwarted in the old. There is a truth lurking in the routine charge of Americanism, already a continental pejorative in the 1930s.

Though we must take care not to be hasty in understanding it, Americanism as a world picture—as a construction of thought, not polity—is a metaphysical reaction to modernity organized in the form of scale. Americanism, if it means anything, signifies that largeness is all. Pace well-meant documentaries or op-eds, this truth cannot be seen from within American self-regard any more than it can be judged from a position of Euro-disdain. The reason is that this truth conceals itself in the form of use, effect, or purpose. “The American interpretation of Americanism by means of pragmatism,” Heidegger goes on, “still lies outside the metaphysical realm. The gigantic has a deeper meaning than blind mania for exaggerating and excelling”; it is a flight into the incalculable.

Contemporary eyes may discern here routine condemnation, perhaps more Gallic than German, of the gigantic food portions, obese bodies, hulking suvs, and vast wastelands of box-store and monster-home common in recent cultural criticism. Americans, making up just 5 percent of the world’s population, consume a quarter of its energy. Thirty percent of Americans over twenty are clinically obese, a dramatic increase from just 14 percent in the 1970s. The associated medical costs of obesity were $75 billion in 2003—almost as much as tobacco. Even sexual attraction seems to be shifting with the growth of double-wide America. In 1985, 55 percent of US adults said they found overweight people less attractive than others; in 2005 only 24 percent said this. Talk about the American gigantic.

We make a mistake if we reduce the gigantic to mere symptoms, however, especially if those symptoms are understood only as expressions of greed. A better statement of the American gigantic is probably the Empire State Building, that total mobilization of technology and labour which opened its doors in 1931—the same year Adams’ Epic of America was published. The skyscraper, with its embodied desire for transcendence through height, is an American invention, a fantasy building of the New World. Such a dream may have obsessed Le Corbusier in France or the Futurists in Italy; it may be, now, a property mostly of East Asia’s surrealistic skylines, but it was born on the streets of Manhattan and Chicago, the boulevards of dreams where Depression-era economics bought exceptional skill for pennies a day.

That was the dream that exercised the imagination of Adams, as well as the architects of the New Deal. Working together, high to low, not only could everyone do better, they could create great things. They could be better—better citizens and people, richer in spirit as well as dollars. If the American dream offers a naturalization of heaven, a mundane counterpart to the transcendent visions of post-mortem bliss, the Empire State Building is, Depression and all, its proper symbol. Not for nothing does Deborah Kerr, in An Affair to Remember (1957), call it “the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.”

Instead of sustaining that vision, the dream becomes the unofficial ideology of liberal capitalism, whatever its nationality. Initially a work, save, and achieve ethos designed to oppose, and eventually replace, pre-modern hierarchies based on bloodline or social favour, it generates instead a cancerous pathology, a runaway version of itself. The result is a mixed dialectic of the material and ideal: the presumed telos of family, house, and car deployed to underwrite all that abstract rhetoric about freedom and opportunity. So, far from being a healthy codependency, this blithe pairing masks a corrosive truth: the American dream is perhaps the most potent means ever devised to effect what French cultural theorist Paul Virilio calls “endocolonization,” the feeding of a nation’s population on itself. The American dream is a zombie virus, consuming resources and citizens alike in an endless round of renewed desire and positional goods, obscuring the realities of class and race, erasing evidence of difference.

Combined with the political conditions of empire, this otherwise merely depressing narrative becomes a twisted theoretical endgame. A war about oil, fuelled by fear, fed back through country-and-western jingoism and football-game flyovers, sustained by claims about freedom and the American way of life, all suspended in the ether of patriotism—the world has not witnessed this rough beast before.

Speaking to New York Times reporter Ron Suskind on the eve of the 2004 US election, a Bush administration aide explained the new postmodern condition to the liberal intellectuals of the eastern seaboard. Such people belong to “what we call the reality-based community,” the aide explained, where people “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” This was a view of things for which he clearly felt some pity. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating our new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

But the American empire is not only postmodern, achieving a degree of unchallenged power undreamed of even by the most extravagant relativist; it is also allegedly liberal. In contrast to previous empires, which were more straightforward in their designs on domination or found quasi-moral justifications thereof, as in the case of Britain assuming the “white man’s burden,” the current example clings to a habitual position of exceptionalism. Postmodern imperialism employs a rhetoric of liberation and human dignity, and remains unwilling to offer clear admissions of aggression. Its violence is real and undeniable but inexplicit, hidden behind claims of national security or distant oppression. It will not acknowledge any moral authority outside of itself, yet appears untroubled by internal contradictions in its own moral position, the recourse to lies and false justifications for exercising power.

This is no mere lack of honesty; it is a fundamental incoherence at the core of liberal empire, and the irony is that only the persistence of the American dream makes the paradox obvious. The dream isn’t merely the latent virus of endocolonization; it is also the sign of enduring contradictions in exercising distant force in the name of freedom. Every massive suv speeding along the interstates sports a yellow or red, white, and blue ribbon—cultural contradictions of late capitalism, moving at a steady seventy miles an hour. The young airborne officers and men who watch in grim silence as President Bush attempts to justify the collapsing invasion of Iraq are doubtless weighing up the finish-the-mission message with their own desires for home and comfort: the actual white picket fences and two-car garages to be seen on armed-service bases from Fort Bragg to Scottsdale. Indeed, this tension is the bitter centre of an earlier Gulf War tale, the 1999 rogue heist film Three Kings, in which Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney spend most of their renegade tour of duty discussing which sports car or big-screen television will grace the house when Iraqi gold is theirs. Why we fight!

American dreams have probably always been as numerous and various as the people dreaming them, and they have always been suspect properties—tales of possibility that keep the engine of the market running at a brisk clip. They were aspirational fictions long before every fashion magazine and makeover show got hold of the concept, using it as a justification for facilitating that most profitable of human emotions, envy. But the core ideas of self-creation, self-respect, and hard work—the essential virtues of the Protestant ideal that shaped America—have been lost in a flurry of spasmodic evangelical counterclaims that render the culture of American aspiration fundamentalist rather than political. Where once religious belief offered guidance in the pursuit of social justice, now social justice is understood as a smokescreen for tolerant forces of evil that must be swept away.

While liberals were busy trying to make equal opportunity a reality, conservatives have massed their power to oppose evolutionary science, stem-cell research, abortion, gay marriage, and universal health care. Both seem to miss the crucial fact that the dream used to carry a hint of utopia without the dangerous ideas of central government and social planning. Rather, big dreams could be made real by a combination of money, invention, and confidence, the sort of collective achievement embodied in the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1970 and the product of self-made people, populist politicians, and all that cheap multi-ethnic labour. Now that New York is a controversial property in the American psyche, part Gomorrah and part embattled theme park, it is hard to imagine that conjunction of forces moving the nation in the same way now, let alone creating something so crazily beautiful as the Manhattan skyline.

The dream goes banal in the bland, self-aggrandizing ambition of Donald Trump or Martha Stewart, far more compelling as television spectacles than as entrepreneurs, coming alive when firing people rather than hiring them; or it gets off-loaded into the Bush administration’s base of rock-solid Christian belief combined with tax cuts for the rich, a hybrid of apocalyptic rapture safeguarded by plutocracy, the ones who sustain a high approval rating for a leader whose wider population grants him just 37 percent. The rest of us are left to carve out identities from the usual array of consumer options and exposure to Paris Hilton’s breasts and pet dog. No wonder, perhaps, that the dream can then fester and sicken at the margins, generating new forms of anti-heroic opportunity: violent individualism, self-destructive freedom, the internal disruptions not of terrorism but of total self-belief. High-school massacres. Fertilizer truck bombs. Road rage.

It used to be that one could dream both a better job and a better world; indeed, one could reasonably hope that the two were somehow related. Now Americans dream of holding on to some minimal sense of political belief in a society guided more by communion with God and free-market declensions—not to mention election theft and lies in the service of invasion—than by a shared sense of justice. The foreign adventures continue, pumping out oil in one direction and young men and women in the other. Over it all stands a version of that joke sign sometimes found above the bars of neighbourhood taverns: “Free drinks tomorrow.”

Whitman’s invitation for us all to become American, to taste the freedom of self-creation, declines into one final pathology. Call it the New New Deal. It applies to all of us, regardless of passport; everyone really is American. The catch is, we don’t have the dream; the dream has us.

Mark Kingwell is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and the author of Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters.

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