Whatever Happened to the American Dream? FREEDOM IS INDIVISIBLE
Delivered before the Philadelphia Society, Los Angeles, California, January 31, 1976
[Originally published in Vital Speeches of the Day. 42. 11 (15 Mar. 1976): 341-45]
Throughout much of the past two hundred years, the spectacular development of our nation has been propelled by an idea called “the American dream.” In recent years, however, the dream seems to have been shattered. What did we mean by the American dream? What happened to it? Can it be revived?
One does not discover a tidy definition of the American dream in any dictionary or encyclopedia. That is because this dream is not some easy ism, but an ideal, an aspiration, a set of values. The dictionary is crammed with words like Americanism, Communism, antidisestablishmentarianism, and a hundred others. Americanism, for instance, is defined as “attachment or loyalty to the United States, its traditions, interests, or ideals.” But what, precisely, are those traditions, interest, and ideals?
In 1961, Edward Albie wrote a play called “The American Dream” and two years later Norman Mailer published a novel by the same name. But rather than defining our national past, much less celebrating it, these forgettable diatribes mostly apologized for it.
No one can say for certain, I think, just when this moving phrase first came into existence. Like most dreams, we found ourselves in the midst of it long before we were self-conscious enough to analyze it. Walt Whitman and Mark Twain; Samuel Gompers, Woodrow Wilson, and a host of poets, politicians, reformers and patriots conceived it, and have helped nourish and expand it. But who has ever really defined it?
At its very heart, of course, the American dream has to do with freedom – individual liberty. Archibald McLeish touched this heart when he wrong: “There are those, I know, who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is. It is the American dream.” In the seventeenth century as men and women began to first arrive on this continent in those tiny wooden ships, mankind’s ageless quest for freedom took a quantum leap forward. Because, while we had always struggled for greater liberty, at last, the ancient yearning itself became partners with a new, incredible opportunity. Freed plus opportunity – the chemistry was explosive. At last, we had been given the chance to see what we could become.
One of the most impressive explanations for the development of America into history’s greatest nation, and one which is frequently neglected, is an idea called “the frontier thesis.” It was developed, principally, by the distinguished Harvard historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner’s frontier thesis, simply put, is that the uniqueness of America resided in its vast real estate. We had been given unlimited room to grow, to move on to greener pastures, to pioneer, to experiment, to expand. For centuries, our European ancestors had been rigidly confined by economic, social, and political boundaries which were partially determined by geographical limitations. But suddenly, the colonies of Virginia and Georgia provided larger territory than all of the countries of the British Isles. As the sons and daughters of the original settlers sought their own personal expression, and as thousands of others sailed from Europe, there was always plenty of room to the west and seemingly boundless opportunity. The Louisiana Purchase, alone, added a territory greater than all of Western Europe. Men, for centuries conditioned to repeat the social and occupational patterns of the class to which they were born, we at last born free. As Thomas Wolfe put is: “The hope and promise of America was that every man could become whatever he had in his manhood to become.”
In providing unparalleled opportunity, the frontier also demanded a toughening of the human spirit. Some lessons of survival were learned from the red-skinned original Americans roaming the countryside. The industrious and determined were rewarded. The weak and unwilling were harshly punished. The most enterprising were the most successful. Only the fittest survived. “The frontier was the line of Americanization,” wrote Professor Turner. “The wilderness mastered the colonist. It found him in European dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It took him from the railroad car and put him in a birch canoe. It stripped off the garments of civilization and arrayed him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. He accepted the conditions or perished. Little by little he transformed the wilderness, but the outcome was not the old Europe. There was a new product that was America.”
The premium was on self-sufficiency and, as the country developed, it was not the European parlors but the rugged farms and woods which prepared the national leadership. Lincoln, as every school boy knows, emerged from the very edge of civilization. But the sophisticated Van Buren was also born in a log cabin. Jackson, Harrison, Polk, and Taylor were all from the frontiers of their time. Even the learned Jefferson was born on a farm in Virginia when that region was remote from coastal settlements. Of Lincoln, James Russell Lowell observed: “Nothing of Europe here. New birth of our soil….the first American.” And of the character of all these frontier leaders he added: “What they dare to dream of, they dare to do.”
Those who felt constrained in Massachusetts, moved on to Missouri. Weary shopkeepers settled the rich farmlands, the hearty homesteaded in Oklahoma. And for the truly adventurous, there was gold in the hills of California and Colorado, and there was the vast, rugged Northwest. Always, there was opportunity for those willing to risk it.
The American dream, then, was no set of dogmas, and no uniform structure. It was fashioned from many fabrics. It was a chorus of dreams, orchestrating the abundant opportunities for freedom. That is why it has been so vital and productive. That is also why it has never been completely harmonious. “To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics,” contends Frederick Jackson Turner. “That coarseness and strength, that dominate individualism, that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.”
But, somewhere along the way, the American dream seems to have lost some it its steam – and much of its buoyancy and exuberance. When I was a college student in the tranquil 1950’s, the dream was still alive and well. Nobody had ever heard of Alvin Toffler, and very few of Vietnam. Elvis Presley and the Hula Hoop provided our greatest excitement, and a sedate father-figure everybody liked was our President. Still in its innocence, America had never lost a war abroad, and there seemed to be no limitations on our ability to measure up to domestic challenges. The Great Depression, once so threatening, now was further historic proof of our complete mastery. So we all went to work in the furtherance of the dream. A college degree guaranteed economic security, and the really big rewards were available for those willing to pay the price. Just work hard and get ahead, it didn’t really matter whose head, and, as we eyed the moon, not even the sky itself was any longer the limit. The folksy slogan that ‘any American boy can grow up to be President” was just one of the many pep talks.
The chilling contrast between then and now recently was brought home to me by my 14-year old, Bill, Jr. “The difference, Dad” he said, “is that today no boy wants to be President.” Whatever happened to the American dream occurred somewhere between my son’s decade of the 1970’s and my own tranquil 1950’s. There was, you may remember, a colorful, crunching, cataclysm in between.
The young people who enrolled in our colleges and universities during the 1960’s were the first generation of Americans who could no longer believe completely in the American dream. For purposes of perspective, it will be helpful to draw briefly the dramatic contrast between the optimism prevailing at the opening of this century and the despair which engulfed so many during the recent past.
In 1900, America regarded itself as God’s elect. We believed in an almost divinely delivered purpose called “manifest destiny.” At the opening of this century, we were planning for universal peace and prosperity, and the brotherhood of all mankind. Herbert Spencer had developed a theory of social evolution promising the perfectibility of the human race. With triumphant, if naïve, confidence in the fundamental goodness of human nature, we believed that we were all getting better and better, day by day. With a kind of global evangelism, we yearned to share our dream with all mankind. “If the American dream is for Americans only,” wrote Rene d’Visme Williamson, “it will remain our dream but never be our destiny.”
I have a little book in which the author argues imprecisely that war is an outdated relic from the barbaric past. It was published in 1907. When Woodrow Wilson, in whose idealistic heart the American dream was never purer, committed us to war, we were so confident of our total control of the future that we labeled it, “the war to end all wars.” But, somewhere along the line we lost our confidence and started numbering them. The young men who died in Vietnam, in a tragic bloodbath which bitterly exposed the deep confusion in the American soul, were the grandsons of the men who sailed away in 1917 to make the world forever safe for democracy.
What we have experienced, as the poll takers now daily verify with endless empirical evidence, is a collapse of confidence in all American institutions – government, religion, business, the media, education. In some ways, our sense of betrayal at the hands of education has been most devastating, because our supreme confidence in education was part and parcel of the American dream. As we celebrate our bicentennial, we must go back to 1636, almost another century and a half, to the founding of the first American college at Harvard. As Frederick Lewis Allen points out in his delightful book, Only Yesterday, by the early 1900’s sophisticated Americans placed more confidence in the efficacy of education than in the promises of religion. Only given enough time to expose everybody to a liberal arts college, and we would solve all of the problems of the human race. It was not some politician or preacher who most profoundly shaped the cult of progress, but rather the brilliant educational philosopher, John Dewey. The new gospel was salvation by education, and we committed ourselves to the most extensive program of mass higher education in the history of mankind.
After building twenty-five hundred colleges and universities, we have lately begun to wonder. It came as something of a setback when during the Second World War the most terrible atrocities were not perpetrated by some banana republic, but exploded from the very heart of Central Europe at the hands of a nation which had produced so much of the world’s best literature, science, music, and theology. The really breath-taking blows, for the average American sending his children to college so that they could have it made, came a generation later at places like Berkeley, Columbia, and Kent State. Not only were the age-old problems still with us, long after they were to have been solved; but they emanated from the very centers of our salvation. If one could no longer believe in the value of higher education, what was left? The American dream had become a ghoulish nightmare.
With the vanishing of the dream, we have experienced a massive shift of confidence away from the cognitive, or the knowing process, toward the affective, or the feeling process. Astrology is taken seriously by millions, many of them with Ph.D.’s. Sensitivity training sessions are the rage. Everything has to be at “gut level” by which we mean: “Look, don’t bother me with what you think, or with what the books says. I want something I can trust. Tell me how you feel.” The technical word for this syndrome is existentialism. Philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose view of human life has led many young people toward nihilism, are the prophets for the new mood. At a lower level, people like Cher Bono or Michael Caine capture the popular fancy, as did the song Caine popularized: “What’s it all about Alphie? Is it just for the moment that we live?” The adventurers always among the first to sense what’s really going on, exhort: “You just go this way one time! You’d better grab all the gusto you can, even in the beer you drink!” Inevitably, it filters down to the bumper stickers, like the one recommending: “If it feels good, do it!”
And so, a lot of people have dropped out of active participation in the system to do their own thing and, lately, that has not included even taking the time to vote. In the national elections of 1974, less than forty-five percent of the electorate voted. The current Governor of California is in office with a mandate from only twenty-three percent of the state’s qualified citizens.
Where, then, do we go from here? Our hope for the future lies in the recovery of perspective. Our predicament is not unlike the man who when asked, “How’s your wife?” replied, “Well, compared to what?” To see things in relationship is a philosophical breakthrough. As with any dream, in much of our national past we may not have been fully awake to reality. Shortly before his death, Arnold Toynbee observed that, “America still has a fighting chance if it can get over the idea of an earthly paradise.” Today, no sane person thinks he lives in any kind of paradise but, nonetheless, we face the disillusionment of paradise lost. What we may need is a national psychiatrist. How does a nation regain its confidence and self-respect, its nerve and sense of purpose? As Eric Hoffer put it: “It is easy to be full of rage. It is not so easy to go to work and build something.”
It is the old-line liberal who faces the deepest intellectual crisis. His total faith in the ubiquitous efficacy of government, fervently held since the New Deal days, is now shattered. The intellectual conservative, while still frustrated in forming a coalition with his social counterparts, at least can feel some philosophical vindication.
The first step demands the frank admission that we dreamed too much, expected too much, believed that through the omnipotence of our federal government we were capable of doing too much. The age of innocence is past. There will never be a war to end all wars. We will never be able to produce enough wheat to feed all of the world’s starving, or tax ourselves enough to buy the friendship of every needy nation.
The agony of New York City looms as a grim contemporary evidence of the folly of our materialistic dream. We simply cannot pay public employees on hundred percent pensions. A city cannot sustain a giant university with nineteen campuses, where none of the 225,000 students pays any tuition whatsoever, without placing unbearable demands upon the taxpayers. If, today, New York were to close down half of its hospitals, it would still have nine times more hospital beds than the city of Chicago. The place to begin is with a vision of pragmatic realities.
In the sense, then, of ever creating an earthly paradise, the American dream is over. But, having conceded that, we must now go forward to preserve the precious thrust which the dream provided, recognizing that, while its capabilities were overstated, most of its underlying principles are as valid as ever. We seek, then, not so much a revival of the American dream, but a new American vision established upon the great fundamentals of our heritage, but tempered by the realities of the new world in which we live.
What, specifically, must be the characteristics of the new vision? First, if perspective demands a clear-cut view of our vulnerabilities, it also demands a grateful appreciation of the richness of our past. To see ourselves as we really are will bring as much pleasure, as pain.
Let’s begin, positively, by acknowledging that we are, indeed, the greatest nation in the world, relatively speaking. It will be extremely difficult to swallow our pride and confess that, despite what we may have believed about “manifest destiny” and all the rest, we were never God’s chosen elect. We were not, any more than mortal beings ever have been, completely the masters of our own fate. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We were, in fact, enormously lucky. We were lucky to stumble onto so much open territory, lavishly rich in natural resources. We were blessed to have been preceded by a founding generation which included some of history’s keenest political minds, who were pulled together by time and circumstance to devise history’s greatest political system. Furthermore, we were fortunate when all of this conspired perfectly with the arrival of industrialization and technology. If, indeed, the hand of Providence moved in our affairs, it would be that the combination of place and people and resources provided us an opportunity unique in world history.
Our Constitution, however, was not delivered from some political Sinai. It was crafted by gifted mortals, and it is only the best one yet, relatively speaking. When first drawn, it provided that only white, adult males with certain property holdings could vote. Blacks received no legal recognition until the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, and women could not vote until 1920. It was not the inherent perfection of the Constitution, but rather the wisdom of the framers to include its amending capacity, which has enabled us to stay together.
What’s needed, is not a myopic inability to see the injustices, improprieties, and stupidities that abound, but a sense of proportion – a balancing of the good against the bad.
The recovery of perspective is already healing some of our wounds. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black radical, is an unlikely champion of the American dream. But his wife, explaining his recent decision to return from abroad even at the price of prison said he had “come to understand that the structural form of individual liberty enjoyed by the American citizen is greater than in any other country. There is no multi-racial society in which the economic and political representation of the black members is equal to that of blacks in America.” Today, a higher proportion of black Americans go to college than do white Europeans. A recent Gallup poll reported that “young non-whites have a significantly greater sense of optimism than the national average.” Whereas only 29% of the total sample of blacks and whites said they expected to make a substantial advancement toward their goals in the next five years, 62% of the blacks under thirty said they expected to climb at least two steps up “the ladder of life” in the next five years. Commenting on the survey, Roy Wilkins said: “Considering the cynicism of the day and considering, also, that black youths are thought to be the tail end of everything, isn’t it almost unbelievable that some blacks are the true believers – hanging onto the old verities that the tired ones have given up on and the cynics have been too smart about?”
Some 400,000 immigrants are admitted legally each year from all over the world, may thousands more come illegally, and despite all of America’s faults, real and imagined, the flow is overwhelmingly one way – only a tiny trickle of Americans pull up stakes and go the other way. If America is a sick and corrupt society, it is only by comparison to the standards that we set for ourselves, not by comparison to reality as it exists now, or ever has existed, anywhere else in the world.
My prescription for the new American vision includes the following: a humble admission of our limitations along with an awareness that we must always live in an imperfect world; the facility not to take ourselves too seriously and to cultivate a sense of humor; a constant, unrelenting effort to limit and control the power and cost of government at all levels; a strong national defense, second to none, in recognition of the real world in which we live, which includes the congenital evil within human nature; a deeper appreciation of the unique greatness of our political system and a rededication to its preservation; a greater and deeper participation by citizens in all levels of government; a clearer understanding that freedom is indivisible, including economic freedom, and that without the preservation of the private, competitive economy none of our dreams will come true.
Finally, there is something else. We must restore the spiritual vision which, at its moments of finest expression was at the heart of the American dream. Our globe is divided into two philosophies, each one stemming from radically different assumptions about the nature of man. We have conceded much of the battle by fighting on our opponents’ home territory, largely with the weapons of their choosing. Communism is a forthright religion of materialism, beginning with the premise that man’s purpose is to get all he can, and leading to the conclusion that concentration of all power in the state can but achieve that goal. The person exists for the good of the state.
The roots of the American dream run radically in the opposite direction. We begin from the faith that the ultimate unit in the universe is the individual; that each person is of intrinsic dignity and that all persons “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” We are never weaker in facing the Soviets than when we do so without this spiritual cornerstone of our heritage. The American dream turn grotesque when it degenerates into a materialistic struggle. Where did we get the notion of individual dignity and personal freedom? If life has no transcendent spiritual purpose, but is utilitarian struggle to create the best materialistic society, then by what objective standard are Hitler or Stalin to be judged venal? The very essence of the American dream derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage. The basic foundation of our society is shattered when we abandon the belief that somehow, in some way, we are created in His image. The Communists are committed to their vision of materialism and the awesome power of the state. People who believe nothing are no match for an opponent of passionate conviction. If our vision fails to include a transcendent spiritual conviction, we not only provide no live option, but have already surrendered the fight. “In God We Trust,” was more than a cliché thrown in by the founding fathers to placate an other-worldly minority. It was the very core of our conviction that the ultimate, inviolate unit in the universe is not a committee or a government, but the individual person. Where else do these “certain inalienable rights” originate? How else shall they be preserved, apart from the conviction that all men and women are endowed by their Creator?”
It is precisely at this point, always the most difficult to make without being dismissed as a soft-headed moralizer, that our crisis begins. There is no challenge to our gross national product or to our national defense system which cannot be met if we preserve this faith.
If this transcendent spiritual cornerstone is the basis of our conviction regarding personal freedom and dignity then we must accept, in a constantly shrinking world, the high challenge of concern for the freedom and dignity of all men and women everywhere. This does not mean that we can, or should, be the world’s policemen, nor does it imply that we can, or should, be its breadbasket. But neither can we shrink from the plight of human beings who, by the accident of birth, were not given our opportunities.
In a very real sense, the vaunted American space program of the 1960’s was the last gasp of the frontier thesis. We were running out of territory our vast resources were not unlimited. Our air and streams were polluted. Our cities crowded and grim. But there was yet the moon to be conquered. Marshalling our instinctive quest for unlimited expansion, the Kennedy administration organized enormous manpower and treasury for one last shot. Do you recall the thrilling anticipation of the sequential buildups and, at last, that first moon landing, as contrasted with the business-as-usual tedium of the third and sixth and…who can even recall how many there were? It will be a long time before there is another. A box full of rocks is painfully inadequate.
That is why the Kennedy men labeled their politics the New Frontier a human frontier. They had been to Harvard and studied with Professor Turner, yet they sensed that we could no longer propel the American dream by the conquest of real estate. The globe has shrunk to the size of a neighborhood, and it is not a congenial one. Our hungry neighbors are banging on our door. Twenty million of them, a population the size of California, will starve to death this year. Twenty families in our neighborhood now possess an atomic capacity of some kind or other. As some of the truly desperate nations develop a means of delivery, we may face a brave new world, indeed.
Archibald McLeish wrote on the eve of that first moon landing: “To see the earth as it truly is, small, blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where is floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together…brothers on that bright loneliness in the eternal cover, brothers who now know that they are truly brothers.”
-WILLIAM S. BANOWSKY
William (Bill) Banowsky and family were friends with Thomas B. Warren and family. Banowsky’s father, Wade L. Banowsky, was an elder of the East Ridge church, Fort Worth, TX, with whom Dr. Warren served (1953-1964). Thomas B. Warren and Wade Banowsky were charter members of the board of directors of a non-profit organization formed to publish The Spiritual Sword. Dr. Warren also served as editor. The journal ceased publication after a year due to Dr. Warren’s health. The Spiritual Sword resumed publication several years later (1969) with Dr. Warren again serving as editor (1969-1989).
Dr. Banowsky was with Dr. Warren at a philosophical meeting at a major California university when he had an exchange in a question and answer session regarding the existence of God. This exchange, with the late Dr. Antony G. N. Flew, was eventually followed by the monumental Warren-Flew debate which was held September 1976.