The American Dream has been a prominent theme of our Tale of Two Depressions course this semester. We have had the opportunity to trace both the changing content and contours of that dream and the periods, as after 1929, when it quickly turned into a nightmare.
But, as we know, a new American Dream was invented in the postwar period, the so-called Golden Age of American capitalism, which—while unevenly distributed (for example, in the Jim Crow South and northern inner cities) and openly contested (for example, in the Port Huron Statement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom)—held sway at least in some pockets. Such as Detroit:
Decades ago, car workers lived the quintessential American Dream: they pursued stable, well-paying, union-backed jobs, often straight out of high school. They were able to build a middle-class life and provide the promise of something better to their children.
Now, once again, as the BBC [ht: ja] explains, that dream has turned into a nightmare:
Times have changed.
Now jobs are scarce, and people feel shame in being unprepared for the current labour market.
“Unemployed auto workers, factory workers, they have a lot of regrets about the past,” he said.
“A lot of workers are internalising, ‘You succeed on your own merits and your own abilities, and if you fail, you’re to blame’,” [Victor Tan] Chen says.
He isn’t alone in seeing this pattern.
Experts tell the BBC that job seekers in the US are now, more than ever, blaming themselves for being out of work, due in part to misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in America.
What reinforces such an American Nightmare is a self-help industry that is the modern secular version of our grounding myth—which, as Helaine Olen explains, is “the idea that diligent efforts and thrift demonstrated both godliness and virtue — and would result in worldly success.” Belief in self-help easily becomes self-blame. And, of course, an attempt to blame the victims of the Second Great Depression for their own plight.
Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.
This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.
According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.