Requiem for the Real American Dream

by on September 16, 2020 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, History

By Joni Halpern

There is a time in life when all things that once were new and filled with promise become old and worn out, their shiny surfaces dull and scratched, their presence a mere reminder of the past.  These things that once fueled our imaginations, set us in pursuit of impossible goals, drove us to creativity, and embodied cherished values must all be bade farewell when their time has passed.

I noticed today that the American Dream is badly worn.

I do not mean the American Dream of Horatio Alger, that rags-to-riches-if-you-work-hard-and-never-give-up dream.  No, that one still lives in our hearts and minds.  But it is not the true American Dream, for rags to riches is a story that happens all over the world.  Truthfully, it has always been more like winning the lottery, even in this country.

But that didn’t matter, because riches have never been the dream of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Sure, we might buy a ticket to the lottery, but what most of us wanted was a fair chance to earn a place to call home, with a job we could depend on, a decent wage to care for our families, and a good foundation for our children’s future.  This was the pursuit of most Americans whether they resided in the middle class or were still struggling to get there.

We wanted safe and pleasant neighborhoods, good public schools, the right to practice our faith or personal philosophy, and the respect of our neighbors.  Wherever we came from, whatever happened to us, however we were affected by the misfortunes of life, we just wanted a fair chance to achieve and maintain these basic attributes of a life of decency.

In that context, the real American Dream was the promise of fairness, a principle driven into the foundations of our democracy like bolts into concrete.  It was the dream of fairness before the law, fairness in allocating the burdens and risks of our economic system, fairness in our country’s investment in our future, fairness in interpreting our contribution to the life of our community and our nation.

The American Dream of fairness has never been fully accessible to all our people, but one by one, each group burdened with exclusion came forward, claiming first one right, then another, moving ever closer to the fundamental rights our forefathers said belonged to all of us.  To aid us in claiming our birthright, our founders designed a tripartite government to restrict the inclination  of political leaders to over-reach in their quest for power.  They also delivered to us a gift of fundamental rights so that each person, no matter how humble their origins or how empty their purse, could challenge the overwhelming power of government to act without regard for the value of individuals.

It was an enticing dream that captured the imagination of the world and set in motion a dynamic engine of discovery, artistry, invention, productivity, and intellectual ferment that caught hold of our national soul and drove us to great achievement.

We were not perfect in granting access to the dream.  In some eras, we killed it for entire groups of our nation’s residents.  At other times, we nearly suffocated it for those we targeted with our distrust and hostility.  But time after time, this dream of fairness was resuscitated  by the sacrifice of conscience-driven Americans who reminded us that in a country in which fairness was not only a value, but a sacred right, it had to be granted to everyone if the Dream were to continue to exist at all.

It is that dream that is now in trouble.  We watch every day as the sense of fairness toward the American people is denigrated as if it were a weakness.  Our federal institutions, imperfect though they may be, have been the envy of the world for their independence from cronyism and the statutory processes by which they could be held accountable.  Now these institutions have been scoured of people of conscience and staffed by partisan hacks, many of whom know absolutely nothing about the mission or accomplishments of the agency to which they were appointed. The once mighty research arms of the federal government, leaders in all areas of science and health, have been cowed into sculpting their results to fit the image of the prevailing political powers.

The military is said to be holding up against the divisiveness, but there are signs that it, too, may be riven by partisanship.  Arising as a personal tool of presidential support, clandestine militias have gathered and trained, itching to take up arms to punish opponents of the President.

Federal supports for fairness in education, nutritional assistance and housing that took more than a hundred years to build are being destroyed by regulatory and funding tricks designed to make programs inaccessible to those who need them most — American children.  Health care, only recently extended to millions of Americans who had been excluded from it, has been subjected to repeated attempts to destroy it.

In truth, our political leaders, regardless of their party, have not protected the American Dream of fairness in perhaps 50 years.  Instead, they have promoted the rags-to-riches dream, hammering into our national psyche the idea that we alone are the source of economic success.  If we want to get rich, we can.  We need to work harder, get rid of the moochers in our society (the poor, elderly, disabled, suffering, etc.), and drive out immigrants.  These political leaders then delivered to the richest people in America the vast majority of our nation’s wealth, leaving our states, cities, communities, and families to fight over the scraps.

The outcome was perfect for the rich.  They became untethered from any obligation of fairness.  The don’t need fairness anymore, because they make the rules that favor themselves.  They wage war against everything that built the once great American middle class.  They are returning us to the days when food was scarce for the working person and unavailable to the poor, when water sources were polluted, when the air was too foul to breathe, when the best medical care belonged only to those who could travel abroad, when children worked to help their families instead of going to school, when working for a living was a step above slavery.

We are watching the murder of the federal agencies and institutions that once protected the American Dream of fairness.  We are breaking the remains of our systems of justice, education, health care, housing, scientific research, nutritional support, unemployment and everything else that once protected the well-being of Americans as they poured the energy of their bodies, minds and souls into the wealth of a nation.

Today, the fight is under way to break the back of our health care systems, leaving those who cannot afford care to their own suffering.  The fight is under way to crush public education by supplanting it with vouchers, stipends, or subsidies that wealthy people can use toward private tuition, and others can use to attend underfunded, understaffed public schools.  The fight is on to destroy publicly subsidized housing by restricting eligibility and raising rents so that people who now qualify for shelter will fall into homelessness.  The fight is on to make nutritional assistance less accessible, leaving American children to hunger.  The fight is on to plunder our natural lands and wilderness, and to end all past and future efforts to deal with a climate change phenomenon we can no longer avoid.  And just to make sure our American Dream of fairness is never revived once it is killed, there is now an open and enduring attack on the voting rights of every American through strategies of vote suppression.

Above the din of the ongoing battle, we can hear the death rattles of the real American Dream of fairness.  “…qua resurget ex favilla, judicandus homo reus…”  “…when from the ashes shall rise, a guilty man to be judged…”  It is almost time for the requiem.  And if we do nothing to address this unfairness, the “guilty man” is us.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank J September 16, 2020 at 3:46 pm

Thank You. I will share this as much as I can.


Joni Halpern September 16, 2020 at 8:23 pm

Thank you, Frank J., for taking the time to read and comment.


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