Well, the general opinion of my last post’s question, “was Jake a sucker for buying unwanted rap music from a guy on the street?” seems to be “yes, you were.” Which was pretty much my conclusion as well, else I wouldn’t have thought to ask.
But in the comments of that post, “Dead Civilian” made a good point about the “American Dream” and its capacity to distract. I usually blame this American Dream business (rightly or wrongly) on Horatio Alger, a mid-to-late 1800s author who wrote extremely popular rags-to-riches stories. His tales invariably started with a desperately poor young boy or girl, who works like the Dickens, attracts the attention of a local wealthy individual, and is then raised out of poverty and into a life of luxury by their rich benefactor.
Obviously, these stories are fiction, but their philosophy is poisonous. Hard work can have its rewards, and sometimes it does lead to great opportunity. But the idea that hard work guarantees success is ridiculous. It’s understandable why the concept is so popular: it has great power to make you feel better. If you’re not successful, you can believe that you will be, if you just put in more effort. And if you’re still not successful, dammit, you can work even harder, and one day, your ship will come in. It’s like a lottery made of fatigue and sweat.
Likewise, if you are successful, you can believe that your luxury was earned. If hard work = success, and you’re successful, then you must have worked hard enough. Well, I exaggerate that slightly; people with lots of money may not feel that they’ve earned their success through hard work, but do feel that they deserve what they have– often by believing that they are just smarter or better than other people.
But the American love of Algerism has evolved since the days of these stories. Once hit with the cult of celebrity, we had a new type of rags to riches story. Sure, some folks still dream of the Grand Meritocracy, where your toil and ingenuity will get you that promotion and handshake with the boss, but it seems to me that many Americans have moved on to the American Celebrity Dream. You don’t need to work hard to succeed in business, you just need to have the right skills, look, or personality, and if you’re “discovered”, you can become Famous. “If those movie directors or record execs would just give me a chance, they’d see!” This is the cause of all the would-be actors and musicians and models who flock to and tie themselves to Los Angeles, like an anchor around their necks (I used to joke that the Guitar Center store in Hollywood has ruined more lives than heroin. Maybe I’m not kidding). This Celebrity Dream adds one bit to the Alger myth: you don’t just get the wealth and success, you also get to be Loved By Everyone, thousands of screaming fans and your face on the magazines. Maybe that says something about our culture, that people feel so unloved in the present that they long for a future where they get rivers of love, a fake kind, from people who they’ll never even meet.
But I’d propose that the American Dream (if we can keep calling it that) has evolved even since then. Maybe we’ll call it the American Reality Dream. With Alger, if you worked hard, you could achieve Success. With Celebrity, if you had special talents or vision, you could achieve success. With Reality, you just need to get yourself onto a Reality TV show and do what you were doing anyway and find fame and fortune. Go to the grocery store, drink with your buddies, make out with Flava Flav, and you’re an international sensation, beloved for being the boring slob you are. It’s pretty astounding. On the one hand, it makes total sense: who wants to work? Wouldn’t you rather get paid to do the things you’d like to do instead? But getting cast on a reality TV show that goes on to be a hit… not the best odds. And the slight flip side of that are the reality shows, on plenty of these shows we’re not marveling at someone’s life and behaviors, we’re watching them debase themselves by eating rancid goat testicles or kiss Donald Trump’s ass. Give up your privacy and dignity and we’ll make you a star. Kinda.
Again, I exaggerate. Not all Americans have these aspirations, and maybe my perceptions have been skewed by a decade-ish near the Thunderdome of Hollywood. But the sad thing is that most of these variations of the American dream boil down to this: you get rich because someone with money decides to let you become rich.
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