The Illusion of the American Dream
Living in the eastern sierras, my wife & I have read many stories of the pioneers who got the gold fever and left everything in pursuit of riches out west. They would pack up perfectly good lives, and travel dangerous roads through treacherous places in hopes that they would strike it rich and have a better life. These were people who already had good houses in good neighborhoods and were established in society. Once the “gold fever” hit, they suddenly became very discontent with what they had, and wanted more. “Who cares if we are sacrificing everything, including our wives and children, to go out west?” “The gold is everywhere,” they sold us. California’s Donner Pass is a stark reminder of the sacrifice men made pursuing the American dream. The perfect combination of set-backs, weather, and pride ended in cannibalism. Family members, trapped in 20 feet of snow, literally had to eat each other to survive. One pioneer described it this way: “the gold rush was the beginning of the insanity of greed in America”. Most of those men who left good businesses, good families and good lives either died along the way, or ended up working for peanuts digging gold for another man. Men became disillusioned by the illusion of the American dream and became worse off then before.
It was all a dream…
The American culture is all about success. We envy and worship successful people and try to become successful ourselves. Movies, Television, Radio, Magazines, Instagram, etc., praise and worship our most talented, most beautiful, most successful people 24 hours a day. These people are so rich and famous that their faces are household names across the entire globe. I doubt the world has ever known a time quite like ours where the masses celebrate the few with such zeal and devotion. Just look at how many followers the Kardashians have, and nobody can tell me what they even do. How many people gather around their TV sets on a Sunday to worship our strongest, fastest most talented throwers of balls, dribblers of balls, hitters of balls. These people bounce balls for a living and they are praised for it. They are celebrated and worshipped because they can jump really high while putting a ball into a basket or hitting a ball over a fence. They have been elevated to our highest status, along with musicians, actors and billionaire businessmen, while the rest of us squabble over the crumbs and compare ourselves with everyone else. These people hit the ball harder and they are rewarded handsomely by our money, our devotion and our worship, while we carve out our own game, dominate those beneath us, and work hard to take from those above us.
Competition and comparison are the root cause of an epidemic of depression and debt in America. Beginning in preschool, the process of comparison begins. The stronger kids become the super athletes that we envy and worship as pros. The more confident, socially adjusted kids become the prom kings, then actors; and the smarter kids go to the better colleges and become our CEO’s. Our place in the social structure is established at a pretty young age. We are constantly reminded of how we don’t stack up, and continue to strive towards our own ‘acceptable’ levels of success. Success in America is a blurry line. It’s not about the journey (the process), as much as it’s about the accomplishment, the measurable proof of success; i.e. points on the scoreboard, material possessions, beautiful women, followers, etc... .
Marketing executives across America know this all too well. Advertisers do everything they can to make us feel inadequate and discontent. U.S. marketing agencies use the illusion of success as one of their strategies to bait us into buying into their profit-motivated products. They paint a picture of success associated with their products, and spend millions of dollars a day feeding us their version of the American dream. They use the most beautiful people in the world and the most creative brainwashing techniques to entice you to purchase. This car will make you look successful; therefore attracting the people you think will make you happy & continue to make you look successful. This gym membership will make me look good, therefore attracting only good-looking people… a clear indication of success. Or, these clothes will make me look successful, therefore attracting other successful people to me, (which is somehow supposed to make me happy???). ‘The right to pursue happiness’ is the ultimate goal of every American, and advertisers make sure to define what would constitute achieving a state of happiness.
If we actually felt secure and content with what we have, nobody would buy a new car every two years, nobody would buy the newest electronic gadgets, and the economy would stop. Advertisers have to keep us discontent and depressed because they know they would not exist if we were actually content with what we have.
My mom and dad were from the silent generation, born and raised during the great depression and WWII. They both came from poor backgrounds. Work ethic meant survival. These kids grew up with very little, and had to work hard for what they had. There was an appreciation the millennials don’t understand. I remember my dad saying to me “I want to be as far away from poverty as possible”. He worked his ass off to build a business that would allow him the security he needed to “never be poor again”. He lived with, and knew poverty well enough that he knew he never wanted it again. He distanced himself from poverty as far as he could. At one point, he was making over $2.5M/yr., but still driving a Buick. As much as he had, he never forgot his roots. He used to tell us how to properly wipe our asses with toilet paper so we wouldn’t run out of the stuff. We had dozens of rolls at our disposal, yet he would insist that we only use a few sheets at a time, and showed us how to fold those sheets over and over in order to get maximum wipeage. I was never really that disciplined or successful with the minimalist toilet paper approach, and blew through toilet paper literally like shit through a goose. I just simply didn’t grow up in a Great Depression/WWII type atmosphere so I never really understood exactly where my dad was coming from.
I grew up with the oil embargo, the hostage crisis, the cold war, AIDS, and MTV. Consumerism was in full-swing in the early 80’s, which gave birth to materialism. Material possessions meant success. We defined ourselves by our possessions. Our value as a man was tied directly to our net-worth. How we looked on the outside: clothes, women, cars, jewelry, houses, etc.… determined our status; but more importantly- our worth as men in society.
Growing up in the 80’s, masculinity looked a lot like rock stars, pro-athletes, and A-list actors. The more money, the more manly; the more women, the more manly; the more success, the manlier… Regardless of any real moral character, these role models were our hero’s.
Although less than 1% of us will ever become a pro athlete, a paid actor, or a famous musician, the rest of us still want what they have. We have envied their cars, and their houses, and their clothes and their hair-do’s our whole lives. We saw the fruits of the American dream and we wanted that… now! We didn’t care that our beater car worked just fine, we were too worried about how we looked on the outside to make better decisions with our money.