The American Dream

The new world was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. At that time, most of the large old world societies were highly stratified. Caste system was prevalent in India, China, Europe and Middle East. The accident of one’s birth dictated the opportunities one would get, in terms of education, choice of jobs, physical mobility and social circles. People who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong stratum would usually have to reconcile to the limited choices, if any, they had.

For example, if you were born in Europe and wanted to be a weaver, you had to join the weaving guild in your area. You had to follow the rules and regulations of the guild and if the guild made Fridays a mandatory day off, you really had no choice but to take Fridays off. If the guild required that you only work with cotton, you only worked with cotton. Discovery of new materials or new techniques was very upsetting to the hierarchy. Similarly, your religion was also a discriminating factor. If you were a Catholic in Anglican England or a Huguenot in Catholic France, be prepared to be persecuted. Similarly if you were a Muslim or a Jew just about anywhere in Europe, you were a convenient scapegoat for the ruling classes.

The new world was also populated by people organized into large societies that had a caste system. But a unique situation occurred in what is now the east coast and Midwest of USA. The natives living there were either forced off their lands or were killed off by the European settlers or died out due to lack of resistance to European diseases. Thus, an opportunity presented itself where people escaping the rules in Europe could get a second chance on life.

Mind you, these opportunities did not present themselves equally to all people. The primary beneficiaries of this need for new people were people from England, France and Germany. They were either escaping religious persecution, such as the Quakers, or escaping economic depravation.

Back in Europe, the lords inhabiting the Frankish areas divided up the lands between all their sons. As a result, the sons had an incentive in staying on their father’s property. However, in England, the eldest son usually got everything or close to it. So, the latter sons may have the benefit of education and upbringing, but usually didn’t have anything in terms of property to live off of. The New World gave these men an excellent opportunity to put their education to good use.

As a result of these historical accidents, the New World became a land of opportunity, not just economic opportunity but also religious and social and other opportunities that did not have enough fertile grounds back in the old country. Immigrants coming from Europe saw America as the place where they could be free of artificial restraints and truly blossom. The enthusiasm was infectious and many took advantage of the unclaimed lands all over the place to create their own paradise. Many succeeded and many failed but this thought process was already getting codified as “The American Dream.”

Now, initially, these opportunities were only available to select few people. Discrimination and segregation were rife. However, because of the very nature of the colonies, people were far more willing to compromise than they would have in the old world. In the new world, people had to be much more self-reliant and independent than they could be in their hometowns. If you were trying to claim a piece of land out in the western parts of the colonies, you had to be a farmer, a blacksmith, a mason, a tailor and everything else all rolled into one. These people recognized the hard work of each other, even if they came from different lands and spoke different languages.

Some 300 years after Columbus, a new country emerged, breaking off from the English empire. This country, United States of America, was created by some very well educated yet self-reliant people, including Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson etc. In an attempt to do away with old methods of governance, they tried to give democracy a chance. In addition, they tried to codify the behavior of the government, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of despotic rule. These men, while firmly rooted in reality, were fairly idealistic. They put words like “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence while slavery was still prevalent. As one can see from the energy and zeal of these founding fathers, the American Dream was already a part of the consciousness.

As any observer could plainly see, equality of opportunity was still not a reality. Blacks were still slaves in most of the new country, the natives were still being persecuted and pushed off the lands that they had lived on all their lives, and the developing hierarchy was eager to put down any challengers. Yet, changes were afoot.

The first elections in the new country in 1788 invited White men who had immovable property, i.e. land, to vote. Within a generation, poorer White men were actively participating in the process. Abolitionists were gaining strength, seeking to do away with slavery. The ensuing civil war changed the character of this country again, when many volunteers from all over America and even Europe served both sides. The Irish, fleeing the potato famine back home, made this country their home and despite facing discrimination and other such obstacles, survived and prospered. Germans came in many streams as their homeland became the theatre of many wars.

The ongoing turmoil in Europe saw many more immigrants adding to the population and to the character of this country. As people realized that the old shackles of Europe no longer bound them, they blossomed into a new innovative, creative and hardworking force. Mind you, these were the same people but on new fertile soil. Yes, segregation was still the rule of the day but the dream, of being able to accomplish anything that you set your mind and heart to, was alive and well. It is this dream that propelled the Civil Rights marchers to undo the wrongs in this country. Martin Luther King Jr., in a stoke of genius, prefaced the biggest speech of his life with "I have a dream". And it is this dream that today causes people to think up innovative ways of alleviating world hunger, poverty and wars.

Over the years, United States has seen many more waves of immigrants, people fleeing various wars in Europe, communism in Asia, massacres in Africa and various groups of adventurers. The American society has become more tolerant in fits and starts. Yes, there have been some very ugly chapters to its name, from murderous exploitation of Blacks to internment of people of Japanese origin to McCarthy era witch-hunts of suspected Communists. But this same society has also abolished slavery, ended racial segregation and given women the right to vote and equality in the workplace.

Today, the American dream lives on in the hearts and minds of those who feel unfettered in their quest for success, whatever be their definition. It is this dream, the very foundation of the American experience, which truly defines this society. Over time, many immigrant groups, once shunned, have become an integral part of the mainstream. And this integration has not happened due to heroic events, it has happened due to the embracing of and recognition of the American Dream.

Now, one might say, this dream is as old as humanity itself and is thriving in all parts of the world. Yes, dreamers have always been an integral part of the human society, but as societies have evolved and codified, they have also fossilized, instinctively shunning changes. As for the latter, yes, societies have borrowed from each other and grown. Yet, one can see how unprepared many societies have been of change. For example, Britain reformed its higher education in the 1950s to give talented students from poorer classes a chance. However, many of these “deeply-accented” graduates found that their paths were limited not by their financial means or family backgrounds but by their accent. Therefore, many ended up immigrating to USA and contributing to its society. India is still in the throes of the caste system. Yet, both these societies are transforming themselves and embracing changes. There definitely are far more opportunities in China and India today than there were just a decade back. However, the instinctive embrace of innovation and adventure that exists in USA is seldom seen anywhere else. This drive to dream and to strive to fulfill the dream has been inculcated in this society to such an extent that every successful person feels compelled to pay homage to the dream. Every day, you see people who have created a company or become an accomplished artist or any other field of endeavor laud their dream and their struggle to achieve the dream.

That, in my opinion, is the essence of the American society. Sure, most people never strive to achieve their dream; many don’t even know what they want. But they all know that there is a dream somewhere with their name on it.

No comments: