Thursday, June 23, 2011

Commercial Culture vs. The American Dream

Among the many important distinctions in tonight’s Rebuild the Dream webcast, there was one that I would like to believe is ready to take root. That is the distinction between the American dream and commercial culture. Of course, every big corporation that has a consumer product to sell in the United States would like to persuade American consumers that its product is somehow tied to the idea of the American dream. This is a marketing angle that especially works for products that are expensive to the point of being extravagant. They’ll try to persuade you that you dream of having their products just because you’re an American. But in reality, that is just commercial culture. In reality, the American dream has hardly anything to do with surrendering your money for a standardized list of mass-manufactured products.

The commercialized version of the American dream is a dream I am hoping we are finally waking up from. Enough of us have gotten close enough to those mental lists of products of comfort and convenience, contrived distinction and commercial prestige to realize that the dream of “stuff” is not all it’s cracked up to be. You need only look at the trend of the last two years of people giving their excess possessions away, or the trend toward smaller houses and older cars, to realize that people’s “success” with stuff was not what they had imagined it would be. The financial crash helped a lot of people realize that pure abstractions like strength and stability can be just as important, indeed just as prestigious, as the stuff people had been competing to get. Sometimes you might actually choose peace of mind over more stuff. As Deepak Chopra wrote last week, “To feel financially secure begin by not spending money you haven’t earned, to buy things you don’t need, to impress people you don’t like.” That rhetorical caricature of the consumption mentality is uncomfortably close to what the commercial version of the American dream had become for many people.

It’s really ultimately about self-determination. You’re not really free if you buy into someone else’s idea of what you should be trying to accomplish. The real American dream is not about the freedom to spend yourself into financial oblivion trying to keep up with all the ideas that all the large business corporations have for your life. The real American dream is about real freedom.