The American Dream: Bedtime Story or Climb Up Cold Mountain?

As long as Republican mouthpieces keep insisting that the American Dream is a “rags to riches” narrative, their Democrat rivals will find plenty of ears to listen to the “spread the wealth” story.


I avoided watching the Republican convention rather successfully last week—saw the parts I wanted to see, tuned out most of the rest.  Talking heads on “hostile” stations eviscerating the speakers even as they spoke, FOX commentators interviewing “in the know” types about what effect this or that spiel would have on young or female or black or Latino voters, the nominees trying through it all to hit their home-run after beckoning to wife or mom like Babe Ruth pointing to center field… even small doses of this fare were almost too much.  And then, in print throughout the week, autopsy upon autopsy of how well the convention’s various components expressed a vision or energized a certain demographic or backed Obama into a corner… I don’t have time for “inside baseball” analyses of our e-lection cycle’s high-tech mass-manipulation.  I have a kid that I need to get into college by this time next year, and my wife and I may both bury our mothers between now and then with or without Medicare or Obamacare.  While all the many idiots of this world cast their vote upon where they wish to set life’s default values, life goes right along enforcing much the same limits that have always been in place.

It isn’t that I found any fault with the Republican “package”.  On the contrary, I’m greatly relieved that the items fell neatly out of the wrapper, one after another.  I want to see the present administration thrashed soundly in November, and last week’s production advanced that cause.  I was taking a peek from time to time, in fact, just to reassure myself that all was going well.  I certainly won’t be lingering over the Democrat Convention next week: I’d sooner visit an ape house at feeding time.

What bothers me, rather, is precisely this notion that we vast unwashed require a leader or leaders to give us a vision.  Was our republic not originally created to allow us, as individuals, maximal latitude in pursuing our own visions?  Why isn’t the theme simply, “We’re taking our chains off now, and we’re taking out anyone who stands in our way?”  If Dirty Harry had shown up fully incarnate instead of Clint Eastwood, he would pretty much have captured my mood (though Clint, for that matter, came close).

Or perhaps I do harbor a small grudge against the Republican vision.  All of the Horatio Alger stories… Marco Rubio, Condoleezza Rice, Mia Love… images of young Mitt and Ann at the kitchen table, young Ryan flipping burgers for pocket change… and the corona of this vision translated into radio waves five days a week (young Hannity sweeping floors, young Rush playing the Top Ten for pennies, Glenn Beck’s saga of Harlan [Colonel] Sanders lengthily recounted last Thursday)… there’s something missing here.  Or something not missing.  That’s it: the story is never missing its happy ending.  Rubio, Condi, Mia, Mitt and Paul, Sean and Rush and “Finger-Lickin’ Good” Sanders—they all made it to the top in the end.  Pardon me, Republican luminaries everywhere, but that really isn’t the true story.  It’s a bedtime story, a fairy tale: the real story is far more involved and bittersweet.  For every son of Cuban immigrants who appears on national television are a hundred thousand more who will never so much as open their own restaurant or create their scuba-diving school.  For every kid who once mopped floors or bussed tables and now is half of a presidential ticket are a hundred million who will never so much as be elected to state office.  How many of the voices chattering over your local radio station do you suppose will become household names in ten years, or twenty or thirty?

It isn’t that most dreams vaporize into fairy dust, leaving only rags and ash—but every dream has to be revised, and the vast majority must be revised in a direction that, by most compasses, appears downward.  The great American narrative, then, should not be that hard work will eventually earn you anything you desire.  It MUST not be: its naiveté incurs too great a risk.  So childish a notion in the head of an adult begins to look like folly, or even insanity.  I have wanted to be nothing so much as a “successful” writer of fiction—of novels and short stories—since the day when I was old enough to scribble my thoughts.  I have achieved success, in that I have written and continue to write works that please me.  At this late date, however, I shall almost certainly never be paid for such productions.  I launched an under-funded publishing house about fifteen years ago to produce well-woven tales of lasting psychological and spiritual truth—authored by myself and a few others—and then shut down three years later, after I had lost all the money I could afford.  Internet marketing, despite many an expert reassurance, could not stave off the collapse.  I discovered that the great American public simply isn’t capable of sitting down and reading good literature for enjoyment; and I think I discovered that the Internet itself is part of the reason for this.  People don’t have the time to ponder broad questions about the human condition, or else they consider themselves just too tired to do so at the end of the day.  Escapism… that’s the thing.  A little light TV, or a “graphic novel” (a.k.a. comic book)…

Am I saying, in a way, that my very failure may indicate an intangible kind of success?  I certainly understand a lot more today about my society, and specifically about the impact of electronic technology on people’s concentration levels and their perception of reality.  I am acquiring a modest degree of wisdom as I approach old age.  That’s a valuable acquisition—or perhaps invaluable.  It isn’t the kind of success, however, that the Republican narrative ever expresses.

Frankly, I had to wonder as I listened to Beck recount the incredibly arduous life of Harlan Sanders just how satisfying the old man found his millions in the end.  Was he not a little too old, a little too battle-scarred, to take the kind of pleasure in his rich haul that Beck seemed to attribute to him?  I’ve often imagined myself suddenly “striking pay dirt”, published in runs of many thousands, raking in royalties, badgered with requests for interviews, etc., etc., during my somewhat jaundiced middle age.  How would I handle it all now?  For me, it would come too late.  I’ve grown so accustomed to living on a modest scale that I actually enjoy it: I wouldn’t want a 5000-square-foot house even as a tax-free gift.  As for the adulation of an adoring public, I have learned too thoroughly the exact worth of mass acclaim, especially as one finds it in a society that chases everything new and anything more risqué than usual.  I don’t want the money any more, and I don’t want the acclaim any more.  I’m no longer a child.

Has my life, then, been a “success”?  Not in the sense that Rush and Glenn and Sean talk about… yet to have left a child’s understanding behind, at long last, must surely be a major victory.  The primary reason for my detestation of progressive ideas is nothing other than their fixation with childhood: their insistence that actions do not have consequences (no bad credit for the careless spender), that life has no immutable limits (doctors could cure death if they really tried), and that adults will go away if you just shout loud enough (Chris Matthews ejecting rancorous abuse and spittle every time he sees a lens).  I love innocence in children and gratefully recall Christ’s injunction that we cling to that innocence, for in its absence our “ascent” toward our dream is sure to draw us into the fatal gravity of power, covetousness, and carnality.  But the brat child who perversely demands that his material circumstances—his toy chest—be given eternal life, forever unaffected by physical reality, has preserved none of that innocent trust in invisible abstractions.  His childhood has gone awry.  He should be seeking his way through and beyond the pleasures and possessions of this world, not throwing a tantrum and holding his breath until grown-ups transform his playroom into heaven.

It seems to me that the “rags to riches” narrative and the “spread the wealth” narrative are but alternate versions of the same journey to Never-Never Land.  Let me attempt an illustration very different from the professional writer’s gauntlet.  My son has always loved baseball.  (So have I—but I could teach myself to write, and I couldn’t learn early enough on my own how to adjust to really good pitching.)  The boy has an extraordinary talent, for which I will take much of the credit: encouraged by me (and scoffed at by many another adult), he has developed an ability to throw sidearm with both hands.  Though he is unquestionably more skillful from the right side, the best righty pitcher in the world cannot enjoy certain advantages that a mediocre lefty possesses when throwing sidearm to a left-handed hitter.  This combination of skills should prove very marketable.  It may just possibly carry my son some short or far distance into professional baseball.

Most of what’s required at this point is hard work.  Yet we both know that, even then, several incalculable factors under the general heading of “luck” must turn in his favor.  Can he stay free of injury?  Will he be noticed by scouts?  (At only 5’7”, he tends to be instantly overlooked.)  If he should find his way into the professional labyrinth after college, will a team acquire him that has an opening for his kind of ability at the upper levels?  Might he incur personal responsibilities in the meantime (such as a family) that will make him opt for more secure and stationary employment?

Millions of American boys dream of becoming ballplayers.  A few thousand make it all the way to the big leagues in a given generation; and out of those few thousand, a very few hundred remain at the summit for more than five years.  The ascent is littered with the relics of those who didn’t reach the top, or who quickly tumbled down again.  Most of these thousands, probably all—the also-ran’s as well as the Hall-of-Famers—tried as hard as they possibly could.  Most of them had just enough of a taste of that ultimate triumph, an appearance in the Major Leagues, that their ensuing and permanent exile from the ranks of the elite must have been more bitter than ever.  Among the glorious few, how many were spiritually broken when they finally left baseball after careers of over a decade?  How many were exhausted by the chicanery and quasi-slavemaster dominance of a ruthless, stupid ownership (e.g., Frank Thomas—the Polish Frank Thomas, bearing the Americanized name of his bullying immigrant father)?  How many felt that their race was the root cause of the game’s brutal ingratitude to them (e.g., Bill White, the first black league president who almost at once resigned to protest his appointment’s tokenism—and who returned unopened the last of several letters I wrote him with an angry warning scrawled across the front)?  How many superstars who have had every honor but the Hall of Fame bestowed upon them must wish that they had sold cars for a living (e.g., Bill Buckner, forever vilified for one World Series error because he was playing on two bad knees, the previous errors of his teammates in the “meltdown” always completely ignored)?

One could easily counter every Horatio Alger tale at the Republican Convention with a far more convincing yarn in evidence of life’s being a pile of coprologisms.  One response to that response would be, “So how does putting everyone on the dole make cow dung any more edible?”  Such is not my response, however.  I would tell the story of a certain college coach I have come to know.  In the early nineties, he achieved his ultimate dream of pitching in the big leagues—for one season with the New York Mets.  Over the following winter, he was traded to the Montreal Expos; and in a handful of outings the next spring, he pitched so poorly that he was released.  I can imagine what reproaches that young man must have showered upon himself.  “You had everything you ever worked for right there in your grasp… and you let it get away.  Why did you have to hang that slider?  Why did you have to walk a .203 hitter before the home run?  How can you just throw it all away—through sheer stupidity—after so much work?  Why did you destroy your life?”  Believe me, careers are similar enough across the board that I know the words myself by heart.  Yet some few days or weeks after this dismal inner tongue-lashing, another voice made itself heard.  “You did the best you could.  Millions of kids have tried just as hard and weren’t even rewarded with a day at Triple A.  You did great.  You played with the very best for one full season.  You weren’t quite good enough to play longer than that—but you pushed your abilities all the way to the edge, and probably beyond.  You did just fine.”

Today this man teaches other boys the game he loves on a college campus which encourages him to pass along his Christian faith as part of his instruction.  I doubt very much that he considers the “downward revision” of his dream a true compromise.  I’m sure he would tell you, rather, that his “failure” opened the way to a superior variety of success.  I understand.  If I had sold several short stories as a young man and then been catapulted to fame for a novel, I would almost certainly have started writing what I thought the public or what the critics wanted.  I would have destroyed whatever talent I possess, because I would have been too young and naïve not to do so.  Freedom has allowed me to fail, and to learn, and to redefine success.  I don’t think the Republican Party’s cheerleaders understand this very well, by comparison—and I know that Democrats don’t understand it at all.  Christianity is very clear about the point, however.  God made us free, and in our freedom we err, and through our erring we recognize better alternatives, and through steady correction we draw nearer to a transcending love that makes life invincibly purposeful while rendering death meaningless.

Toward the end of the first millennium, during China’s T’ang Dynasty, the legend of a Buddhist monk named Han Shan evolved.  Inasmuch as “han shan” means “cold mountain” and all of this spectral figure’s poems address the allegorical ascent up Cold Mountain, we may conclude that the poems collectively are a snowball of anonymous meditations spanning several centuries.  We find that Cold Mountain, though its summit is heaven’s threshold, can be a very lonely place.  People standing idly along the pilgrim’s way scoff at him, for his clothes have turned to rags and his speech has lost the manner of easy banter.  Yet the call to heaven reaches every human breast.  If there is little company for the climber, it is because others set out each at his proper time and by his own unpredictable path of going astray and getting back on track.

A collectivist society has no room for Cold Mountain: the Mao Tse-tungs of the world must blast it off the map, if they can.  Of course, they cannot… but what of the GOP?  When are its slick-dressing exponents higher income ever going to recognize that, no, it’s not all about the economy, stupid?

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