American dream

Ground Zero & the American Dream

Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. —Elie Wiesel


On 9/11/2001, one of the engines from the hijacked planes landed in our street, almost killing a pedestrian. For the past ten years, I have been, with my wife and three children, a “Ground Zero” resident. All of our three children attended public schools surrounding the towers. We were, like the pedestrian, spared.

Ground Zero, October 2001. Photo by Flickr user Susan E. Adams.

We were allowed to return to our loft, after being exiled for two months, for Thanksgiving of 2001. The stubborn fire that persisted throughout that time at Ground Zero finally went out around Christmas, and our children were able to return to their school building in February of 2002. By that time, Ground Zero was no longer Ground Zero.

No longer a raw, devastating and severe reality, Ground Zero had quickly become sanitized. Cheap trinkets were sold and American flags were waved for all sorts of ideologies. Tourists flocked to the site after the Canal Street entrance was opened. It became the flash point for demonstrations surrounding everything from wars to Islam to American destiny.

Has the concept of the  “American Dream” changed since the events of September 11, 2011?

The American Dream: a term coined by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, meaning “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Each generation, until recently, passed on a higher expectation for the next generation to follow. I suspect each journey toward the American Dream is also a re-fictioning, or at least a re-telling, of personal narratives. Just as Ground Zero became co-opted, the American Dream can very quickly be short-changed into sheer materialism. Whatever the “American Dream” can mean, it is true that each generation may have its own version. Today, the “American Dream” can be liquid, and certainly elusive, but the incarnation of these ideals can morph and still fit the original definition.

What did 9/11 end, and what did it begin? 9/11 exposed the assumptions behind terms like “Ground Zero” or “American Dream.” For that we need to be grateful. For me, the past decade was an opportunity to think through the consequences of these assumptions. These two terms can be connected in such a reflection.

Theologically, the whole of earth is “Ground Zero.” We live in the fallen world in which every good, true, and beautiful reality is quickly idolized to something selfish, greedy and destructive. Christians believe that Christ came to redeem this path to self-destruction by taking on all of our “pride of the flesh” on the Cross.

“Ground Zero,” in Christ, can also mean a cancellation point, a new beginning where we can stand on the ashes of the Wasteland we see and still seek renewal and “genesis moments.”

The “American Dream” can be a collection of such “genesis moments.” The American Dream does not have to be merely a calculus of how many material possessions we can accumulate; it can be a measurement of happiness based on creative and relational capital. Rather than the blind drive to advance into all the areas of this fragile earth, we can purpose to care for her, as Creation Care advocates have noted. Rather than making Darwinian decisions on “limited resources,” we can endeavor to believe that God’s resources, especially the creative and relational capitals, are infinite. Creativity based on love can create a capital of generosity, feeding the world with fresh opportunities rather than fostering competition.

Caring for culture (or Culture Care) at large, just as we have began to do for our environment, is a noble goal for the next generation. This does not have to be a socialistic vision, by the way, which is based on limited resources, but can be based on the abundant optimism of what “America” represents. In other words, the “American Dream” does not have to be all about the houses and boats we own, but it can be about the celebration of the prudential and humble steps to steward the infinite grace we receive. It can become truly about the dreams of an individual, just as Adams defined the term the “American Dream.” We can see possibilities even as we grieve, standing on the ashes of Ground Zero, and as we endeavor to pass on hope to future generations.

This will require faith. And one does not even need to be an American to be part of that dream. The American Dream is no longer bound by geography, what passport we carry, or what political parties we belong to. A Dream is always meant to be open-sourced, imparted as a gift to those who dare to take on the challenge. Yes, America is a place, a locality. As such, America can be a ferment of experimentation: a place where new ideas can be tried out, tested in the microcosm of that locality, and shared. It can be a nexus of the creative and communal movement of dreamers, gathered to steward the future of the world.

Now, of course, immediate suspicion will challenge such an optimistic view. The world, certainly, does not operate out of generosity, but individual preservation and even greed. Capitalism depends on this drive. From the faith communities of churches, I can hear dissent as well. Are we meant to be triumphant over the city of men on this side of eternity? And if we are, are we not simply able to push back the darkness for a limited time before corruption sets within us? Are we not simply trying our best to be a force of resistance to the evils of our days until Christ returns? All of these positions are valid. Yet, I submit here a radical thought rising from the ashes of 9/11 and the subsequent financial crisis on Wall Street: capitalism based on only greed is not sustainable, and faith without audacity cannot survive in our extreme climate of pluralism.

Like Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi, we can begin our journey with a position of humility, and radical, audacious faith. We can journey on the winding path upward, praying with the birds’ trills calling each other through the tree branches of pluralism. A community that depends on material capital will only grow with the territorial battles. A community that depends on creative faith and communal vision will thrive even if the whole system of the world, or even the corrupt church of St. Francis’ times, is set against it.  Even the financial, political, and military “gates of hell” shall not prevail against it.

See Refractions: A Journey of Art, Faith and Humanity, for more essays on our post 9/11 journey.


The Almost-Rich Get Famous

Caitlin Macy, Spoiled: Stories,
Random House: New York, 2009.

In Spoiled: Stories (Random House), Caitlin Macy explores the anxiety of women trying to sidle their way into the next social class, ready to take the next step up in the American Dream. “My book is about this somewhat afflicted group,” she told the New York Times. “These people on the edge of where they’d like to be: almost rich, slightly rich, very conscious of their place in the world.”

The social climber isn’t new to fiction, and neither is the female scrambling up Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Nanny Diaries shows us the imperious mothers, Candace Bushnell gives us the empowered singles looking for love to round out their status and power, and Real Housewives of New York City shows the reality is not far from fiction. But Macy touches on something different: the anxieties and insecurities behind the irrational cruelties we always see portrayed. And she does it with a talent for delicately needling satire that the others lack.

Macy’s protagonists live by what David Kamp calls in this month’s Vanity Fair, “the outmoded proposition that each successive generation in the United States must live better than the one that preceded it.” Children of unglamorous beginnings, they inch their way up with looks, luck and bitchiness, by letting the drama teacher feel them up so they can get the lead, and by running roughshod over other girls in the designer stilettos they once had to buy on the clearance rack. They marry up, and thus view their husbands with a near-resentment. Their mothers embarrass them, with their TV dinners and their apologies to panhandlers for only having change. They make their own children even more imperious and sophisticated.

But Macy shows the crippling diffidence beneath the sophistication. These women collect props-the model nanny, the Old World cleaning lady, the hedge fund-manager husband-not for the life they have now, but for the life they seek. They are anxious about what the actually rich think (one character crushes another with the line, “Oh, you’re just renting?”), but their insecurities extend to the “help.” Will the model nanny love my child best, and how dare the cleaning lady say my small apartment is easier to clean than a “classic six”? These insecurities manifest themselves in acts of flailing, childish cruelty. One character accidentally hires a cleaning lady who is too much like her old self-“a young woman she might have hung out with, in her single days, on a Friday night.” She reacts to the woman’s confidence with an act of sabotage that finally allows her to exercise a condescension that fulfills her fantasy.

Macy writes like her characters talk: with a wounding, unobtrusive pleasantness. She has a knack for details that capture unconscious snobbery and for lines that impale in passing. (For instance, children are “little trophies, one presumed, to fill up that bottomless pit of dissatisfaction” and pregnancy is “an absurd moment in their otherwise genderless lives”). Yet she’s not without compassion. The “spoiled” in her title seems too dismissively judgmental, since Macy can make us pity even her most repellent characters. Those characters, though, are hard to differentiate since they have similar backgrounds, live similar lives, marry similar men (the type who makes money and reads The Economist), are at the same “almost-rich” stage, and share the exact same neuroses. Their personalities and stories blend together until it feels like the same story told over and over again-albeit with a clever turn of hand.

In a time when everyone worries not just about moving up but about sliding back, their anxiety touches an uncomfortable chord. These women could accept the fixity of their position, could strive less frantically and learn to live with less-but so could we. Kamp says over the years the American Dream has morphed from a simple desire to achieve within our abilities, to the “unattainable” need for “stardom or extreme success.” It’s become “a moving target that eluded people’s grasp; nothing was ever enough.” Frederic Morton recently made the same point in the Los Angeles Times, saying the American Dream “soars beyond check or balance; it is updated continuously by whatever glitters beyond the edge of our means.”

There’s an economic toll to this bloated dream, but Macy’s protagonists show the real price of always grasping for what’s just out of reach. One woman reflects on the fact that no matter how hard she works to bring in x amount per year, only time can increase it: “But time ate up your life. … A decade, two decades of your life would have gone by before you attained it. The fixity of x was the most bittersweet thing I had thought of in ages.”

The woman chooses to let the chasing of x swallow her life over time. It’s a choice we also make, and one that Morton asks us to reconsider when he asks, “Do we have the courage to free ourselves from the fixation on the exceptional? Shall we try to dream a dream less extreme?” Macy shows the extremity of the dream, and the absurdity of the cruelty it inspires.

This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.