The Weaponized American Dream

Some people were born on third base
and go through life thinking
they hit a triple. 

Barry Switzer

Not only was he born on third base, never held a bat, his dad owns the stadium and the team–the Meritocracy Mets! 😊

We all might know some trust fund babies. Or people who have been given everything their entire lives. I’ve been to weddings that are corporate mergers and worked with people who are amongst the most privileged humans on the planet. And every one of them has a story about their hero’s journey of slaying the dragons, overcoming the odds and the work ethic it took to succeed. It is human nature for all of us to spin a story, an amazing self-congratulatory, self-preservation story about what “I did” to earn, and deserve “my success”, no matter how much privilege we’ve enjoyed. And I have also worked and know those who have come from virtually nothing and suffered through real hardship to claw their way to the top. These are amazing stories that truly come from lived experiences that can inspire and give hope to others. We can fall in love with these stories, wonderful versions of the American Dream.

You know the script where our protagonist survives horrific unthinkable inhumanity to “make it”. He becomes a “self-made” man! That in accordance with the precepts and verses of the American Dream—if you work hard enough anyone can make it.

Self made men, indeed! Why don’t you tell me of the self-laid egg? —Francis Leiber, 1882

First, nobody starts with nothing. We all are blessed with a set of DNA, the sacrifices of our ancestors who survived to give us a chance. Systems were built, paths laid, that enable our journeys. People and even strangers help us along the way to seek or avoid potential destinies. We quickly forget these factors. We can simply believe that hard work enables any individual to climb the ladder of success, proving that democracy and freedom and the pursuit of happiness are worthwhile. And in those delusional moments, we forget about what it really takes to be successful. That are interconnectedness that are interdependency, our connection to the extraordinary web of humans and history that have enabled us to be where we are.

It’s okay to be born on third base. It’s okay to have privilege. It’s amazing if you have been able to overcome extraordinary hurdles and obstacles in your life. The great danger is for us to start to believe that our individual success was fully of our own making. That the intrinsic forces of who we are, have been enabled or supported by history, humanity and happenstance. The delusion kicks into full gear the moment we forget how we’re connected to an ancient trajectory and that there is no way we could do anything alone.

Pulitzer Prize winning author James Truslow Adams first coined the phrase “American Dream” in his best selling 1931 book Epic in America.
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which every man and each woman shall be able to attain 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.

Such a forward-thinking definition and ambition that has been lost to our need to justify inequity.

The point here is many people have had a substantial head start in life and have forgotten how they got there–what it took for their families, for this country to enable them to occupy third base. Their legacy admission to their private school. Having the foresight of being born in America and in a better zipcode. Winning the ovarian lottery. Having the freedom and privilege to pursue happiness. Yes, real “success” requires hard work, ingenuity and perseverance and a half dozen other Boy/Girl Scout traits to succeed, no question. And a lot of luck. But where you start matters.

This delusion this self-made man/woman mythology is used to justify the stratification of society. In a free market and in a free country, people get what they deserve or earn.

The rags-to-riches story fits elegantly with our national self-identity, forged in opposition to hereditary aristocracies of Europe. We love under dogs and David over Goliath. We celebrate the immigrant story of a poor uneducated soul who comes to America for a better life and becomes wealthy. Except the immigrant part. 😉

This story is a Trojan horse, a beautiful concept that deceivingly contains the seeds of our own destruction.  The American Dream: The Musical –gives us this catchy tune to give us hope. And that’s when the American Dream can be weaponized. Exceptional individual stories prove that our system can work for all—but we know better. The truth is the stories are exceptions.

Once the delusion becomes a culture and the culture becomes a philosophy and the philosophy codifies policies, then the game becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And a glass ceiling is fortified.

You add in our history of Manifest Destiny, White Supremacy, anti-immigration, gender inequality and you get a system that is inequitable at best. A system that holds back potential and stifles the beautiful everybody sing-along chorus of the American Dream Musical. 

I have never forgotten my ancestors, that I am in a free country that gave me opportunities. Freedom that was preserved by the lives of American soldiers. That the taxes my parents paid, provided me with the chance to be in the stadium. The taxes I pay and the investments I make as an engaged citizen help build the collective will of a nation to try and make the playing field more level.

I was able to attend a great public university UCLA and paid virtually no tuition because of the California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. A plan to give access to all Californians to an important engine of equity—education. All paid for through the taxes of the state that was led by a vision of our elected officials and our citizenry to create what was for decades, the greatest education system in the world. Not sure where I would be without that advantage, that privilege of going to college. Regrettably, that higher education system has been almost completely dismantled by the forces and policies of individualism, free-market economics and meritocracy over the shared need to advance our society by opening up the turnstiles to the ballpark.

Albert Einstein knew. “A hundred times every day I tell myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

Humility is simply understanding the world, including oneself because I am just a part of the world, just a component of a much larger design of interconnected and interdependent actions and parts. Nothing moves or advances without a sequence of pre-existing and dependent circumstances and relationships. When I reflect on these complexities, the sacrifices, the changes, then I start to understand that things are as they are. That my role in this context is propelled by extrinsic and extrinsic factors that made my opportunity possible.

We would hope that the third base birthplace would remind its occupants of the tax subsidies and the blood sweat and tears it took to build that park while they are recalling the mythical three-bagger they never hit.

We all must become advocates to strengthen the system that gave us that privilege that put us on the bases. We must invest in the ways to make the game more fair and more equitable. The untapped ingenuity, moxie, courage, and the entrepreneurial engines that have been locked out of the ballpark, if given a chance, will improve all our lives.

Thanks for reading. John

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