We talk a lot in this country about the American Dream. This idea of transcending our station in life. Of doing better than the generation before. Of meritocracy that would allow one to go from pauper to prince. It is, in a sentiment, optimism. In a word, hope.
The writer James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book “Epic of America”:
“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.
“It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
“The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the 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.”
Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) rooted the civil rights movement in the African-American quest for the American Dream:
“We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands … when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
But that’s merely an internal dream. An expectation of opportunity.
The gift we offer the world is our unflinching optimism and confidence in our collective future. Americans, being the new kids on the block, not only believe we’re invincible, we believe that everything will work out. Why? Because it always has.
The American mantra is work hard, play fair, and look on the bright side. We believe in meritocracy, that if you work hard, success will surely follow.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French observer of American life at the beginning of the 19th century, observed that the Americans of his day “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man … They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.”
“Anyone visiting America from Europe cannot fail to be struck by the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence in their country’s future that he or she will meet among ordinary Americans—a pleasing contrast to the world-weary cynicism of much of Europe,” observed Irish philosopher Charles Handy. “Most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.”
The line, most often misattributed to John Steinbeck, but actually written by Ronald Wright reads, “Steinbeck believed that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
Americans all believe that one day, they might too be rich and famous. They’ll finally catch a break, get discovered, invent something grand, or maybe just buy the right scratch off lottery ticket. American optimism is a combination of irrepressible optimism, faith in the value of persistence, and a bit of magic we call luck.
Sure you have to be at the right place at the right time, but if you’re ready and waiting, with a positive attitude and a strong work ethic, you might end up helping a king or a tycoon change a tire on their Rolls Royce and find your life forever changed through providence and good timing. All you need is faith, hope and a little bit of luck.
We’re not poor in America, just unlucky.
The rest of the world might be skeptical of our unbridled optimism, but in the face of real adversity, most of them would be relieved to hear we’re involved. If for no other reason than we think we can fix anything, and are bold enough, or stupid enough, to try.
“Who knows,” they think, “maybe they can do it. At least they’re going to have a go at it.”
Historically, it’s best not to bet against the Americans. Confidence goes a long way in a fight. Simply believing you can do something goes a long way towards actually achieving your goals.
We don’t fail at anything, not really, we’re just temporarily flummoxed for a time. We believe in second chances and persistence, that given enough resource, anything is possible. Throw enough money at it, with a couple of hard-working stiffs, and you can do anything. We flew to the moon and drove around. Even played a few holes of golf. Why?
Because someone dared us to. That was it. No other reason. Simply because we could.
In the movie “Independence Day,” it’s a small band of pesky Americans that save the world, and show the rest of the planet how to defeat the alien horde. Everyone else is just sitting around apparently, waiting for us to do something.
This is why it has been so disheartening to the world that America has been so slow to get on board with trying to reverse the effects of climate change. The world is waiting for us to do something and we’re arguing about whether or not weather really exists.
As a red-blooded American male, born in the latter part of the twentieth century, I have enough faith and optimism to believe that we might just be able to innovate our way out of this mess.
We’re not a roll over and die culture. We’re defiantly not a defeatist people. We actually think we can figure it out. Throw enough money at it, along with a couple of hard-working stiffs, and we can do anything, even tame the planet. It’s just a matter of will.
That’s precisely what the rest of the world is wondering—when we will.