Tuesday, August 5, 2008

American Idiots

One way or another, much of my life has been spent around first generation Americans and recent immigrants - in fact, Franklin's parents came here to escape communism in the 60s.  I don't understand it firsthand, but I do have some sense of the attitudes, hopes and fears that color newer Americans' experiences.

Here's what baffles me.

If there's anything that seems characteristic of the American experience, it is a wild and unrestrained excess of freedom.  I can say whatever I please.  My religious, political and other personal convictions are not subject to review or persecution.  I have a reasonable expectation of safety, too - that there are no marauding armies likely to knock on my door in dark of night and take me away.  A colleague once called it "freedom from the sound of jackboots marching."

While a college student myself, I tutored a group of women recently arrived from an African nation known for conflict and unrest.  Their English was good and they were hard-working, but they struggled with essay questions.  Why?  As one explained to me, having an opinion can be dangerous.  We want to say what we think you want to hear.

That stayed with me.  I see it with my husband's family, people who tend to never say what they think.  Some of it has to do with notions of civility, but I suspect it also reflects a deep-seated sense that keeping your opinions private is a good way to keep your family safe.  Decades after slipping past the Iron Curtain - decades after the Iron Curtain crumbled - they're still politely disinclined to share an opinion about matters weightier than a favorite flower or a possible vacation spot.

It seems like arriving on our shores ought to be an invitation to open your mouth.  To create.  To discover.  To build.

Once upon a time, I think it was.  My immigrant grandfather, while not a Great Intellectual, was an intrepid entrepreneur - the typical small business owner of a generation past.  What's more, he wrote poetry in his youth, in the days of the Great Depression.  At a moment where most had little, being American meant being resourceful, creative and industrious.  Even in her 80s, my grandmother never hesitated to tell her family where she stood.

When did the dream change so dramatically?

Today it feels like the American dream - for newcomers and long-time Americans alike - is no longer about the chance to paint, to talk, to scream if we're so inclined.  

Today, it's about the opportunity to amass huge amounts of stuff and house it in the largest house possible.

The American dream is no longer characterized by freedom, but by consumption.  You've made it when you turn the key to the door of your McMansion, with SUVs in the attached 3-car garage and wall-size flat screen televisions throughout.

Peace and plenty have always been linked, of course, but our definition of plenty used to be a lack of hunger, not access to dozens of sit-down restaurants prepared to offer up a 2000-calorie mega-feast whenever you've got a hankering.  The kinds of meals that we eat on a regular basis were once the stuff of holidays and celebrations.  Now they're just another Tuesday night.

Freddie and Fiona are coming into a world of material overabundance and spiritual, intellectual and creative poverty.  I'm trying - desperately - to encourage them to see a world rich in possibilities, even if their paths don't lead them to material success.

This is challenging.  And in our neighborhood, where so many families are new to our shores, I worry that it's all being lost.  We take our freedom so very much for granted, we take futures rich in possibility and squander them in favor of another cartful of stuff from the MegaMart.

It is not the dream I believe people die for; not the dream I believe my ancestors crossed the oceans for; not the dream I want any of my children or my children's classmates to dream.

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