The American Dream (in Context)

Guy McPherson

We want it all, and we want it for a very long time, and preferably forever, a concept that our deep-seated faith in technology, our fear of death, and our uniquely American vanity allows us to pursue. While seeking immortality, we want a big house with a well-trimmed lawn, new cars, plenty of grown-up toys, a prestigious job, frequent vacations to exotic (but safe, of course) locales, excellent restaurants along the way, and plenty of people at our disposal to care for the details, such as attending to the house and cars, planning the vacations, and serving the food at our favorite restaurants. Is that not what the pursuit of happiness, which is one of our inalienable rights, is all about?”—Dr. Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Live long but, mainly, prosper . . . .

Live long but, mainly, prosper . . . .

“This is an impressive crowd—the haves and have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”―George W. Bush, 2000

“There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”―James Truslow Adams

Guy McPherson

MAITLAND Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—1 January 2021—“The American Dream” was a phrase coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. My 2005 book, Killing the Natives, begins with a comparison of Adams’ ideas to the version of the American Dream articulated by First Officer Spock from the television series Star Trek (“live long and prosper”). A brief overview follows, after which I illustrate a few of the horrors resulting from the American Dream as it is currently interpreted.

Since the historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931 until shortly before Mr. Spock’s eloquent catch-phrase became his signature line, the American Dream meant “life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

Adams was clear to note that the American Dream was not about material possessions; rather, it was “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable . . . unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

This was a dream in which all Americans would “devote themselves to the ‘Great Society’ . . .  We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share in it. It can never be wrought into reality by cheap people or by ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’”

After World War Two, as personified by Spock a scant few decades after Adams popularized the term, the American Dream came to mean something quite different from what Adams had in mind: increasingly, we seem to be “giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements.” We now spend our lives trying to keep up with the Joneses; in short, we have a burning desire to live long and prosper.

We want it all, and we want it for a very long time, and preferably forever, a concept that our deep-seated faith in technology, our fear of death, and our uniquely American vanity allows us to pursue. While seeking immortality, we want a big house with a well-trimmed lawn, new cars, plenty of grown-up toys, a prestigious job, frequent vacations to exotic (but safe, of course) locales, excellent restaurants along the way, and plenty of people at our disposal to care for the details, such as attending to the house and cars, planning the vacations, and serving the food at our favorite restaurants. Is that not what the pursuit of happiness, which is one of our inalienable rights, is all about?

Of course, we do not want to pay for it, at least not all of it. When the bill comes due, we grudgingly pay only a small portion of it. The remainder, which is often the largest share, includes the devastating loss of ecosystems, languages, cultures, and species. Our natural and cultural heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution, is threatened at a global scale by Americans and others pursuing the American Dream. We pass those costs on to our children, their children, or, in the archetypal version of the American Dream, poverty-stricken people in other countries: out of sight, out of mind.

Adams’ book was published a couple of years into the Great Depression. Some seven decades later, President George W. Bush described his version of the American Dream. In a truly Orwellian turn, “the ownership society” was coined to rally support for tax-cut proposals. According to this view, ownership has become an American right and, the more one owns, the wealthier one is.

It is no great stretch to suggest that the newest iteration of American Dream now involves the uniquely American goal of getting something for nothing and calling it entitlement. Indeed, the platinum-card level of the Dream is to get everything for nothing and call it well-deserved.

I would be hard pressed to find a worse idea than ownership, an idea that lies at the root of our myriad predicaments.

To achieve ownership, we must un-see and cross myriad boundaries. We must ignore, hate, and enslave those we view as expendable “others.”

Nearly everybody readily capitulates and assumes a role in a system that accrues enormous benefits to a few, ample benefits to many, a few benefits to the majority, while ensuring horrifying living conditions for the remainder. With ownership as our goal, we also take on board and shore up a monetary system designed by the few to benefit the same few mega-owners at its apex.

These few are called patriarchs. The system that benefits them is called a patriarchy.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, it is not men per se who make up the patriarchy. Not all men rule, and most men are exploited. The prefix Patri- (from pater) can be traced back to the Indo-European languages where it first appeared with the emergence of patriarchy as a system, about 7,000 years ago.

In many pre-patriarchal societies, the word “father” did not exist separate from “mother” (one of the oldest words in all regions of the world). From the time “father” was separated from “mother,” the former word represented ruler-ship, consistent with its current meaning.

The current meaning of father (aka, ruler) is normal only in the sense that civilization is normal. Of course, it is all most of us have ever known, and its normalcy is encoded in the written record of humans. However, to claim industrial civilization is normal is to deny the initial few hundred thousand years of our experience as Homo sapiens.

Accepting patriarchy as “normal” enables us to accept the horrors of civilization (destruction, violence, and oppression) as normal. For the most part, though, we just turn away, willing participants in the system of patriarchal imperialism.

And why not? To accept responsibility implies that we have choice, or agency. Accepting responsibility is painful. Acting on that responsibility is tortuous, for the willing few who wake sufficiently to do so.

Accepting the realities of choice and responsibility leads to harrowing introspection, often late in life and, in some cases, even more difficult personal choices. It also might lead to counter-cultural actions, to which those in the dominant culture give lip service but actually punish. Civil disobedience waged against the patriarchy, against imperialism, may also lead to incarceration, torture, and early death. However, supporting the dominant paradigm supports the oppression and annihilation of others. For most people, the “decision” to support the dominant paradigm is easy.

At this late date in the history of Homo sapiens, patriarchy is the only game in the “civilized” world. It dominates every aspect of life on Earth, even pervading our private and personal lives. Consider, for example, our closest relationships.

During my early days of teaching college classes, I had a student proudly proclaim that homosexuality was a horrible act, conducted by horrible people. Whether you believe in God or evolution, he said, you have to believe there is no purpose for homosexuality, no “products.” Ergo, it is wrong.

The student was adamantly giving voice to the entrenched values of the dominant culture, not to mention his ignorance of biology. He probably believed we choose even our skin color. From this perspective, heterosexual monogamy between people married to one another is good, that is, productive. Every other sexual act is, by extension, bad. Indeed, every other type of relationship is bad.

Much later, when I was teaching at a small, state-funded university in southern Utah, I stumbled across a similar example of patriarchal brainwashing. When asked for three sources to support their written perspectives in scientific analyses, my students there routinely cited the bible and their fathers as two of the three sources.

There is expansive evidence for the prevalence of homosexuality in non-human species. In addition, there is no evidence of “purpose” throughout the entire universe beyond the purposes we assign to our own lives. The entire concept of divinity is rife with assumptions unsupported by evidence; the assignation of evil to human acts beyond the pale of imperialism is ludicrous.

The marriage-industrial complex is a product of civilization. It has become embedded within dominant religions, which are uniformly characterized by the “golden rule.” Marriage, like gold, has a value assigned by patriarchal imperialism. Men own their women, and also their children. Non-monogamous relationships are without value, without imperialistic “profits,” and so, dangerous

The bottom line, as indicated by the preceding examples—and there are myriad more—is that there is only one proper way to live. Attempting to live beyond the dominant paradigm warrants, at best, disparagement; at worst, eradication.

It is small wonder that George Carlin said, “It’s called the American Dream—because you have to be asleep to believe it.” It is also small wonder that we now hover at the brink of extinction.

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

Academic Pursuits: A Novel Kindle Edition

Academic Pursuits: A Novel Kindle Edition

Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction Kindle Edition, by Guy McPherson.

Paperback

Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction Kindle Edition, by Guy McPherson.

Kindle Edition.

Guy McPherson

About Guy McPherson

Dr. Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-hosts his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes. Visit McPherson's Author Page at amazon.com.
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