Thinking about ideology

1. Summarize ALL readings from this week’s module. Be brief and focused. 2. Watch the Ted Talk, The New American Dream (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Courtney E. Martin makes the claim that “the biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream.The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in.” Do you agree with her? Why or why not? Where do we get our concept of the American Dream? Is it ours to change?3. The texts this week are presenting new ideas about the American Dream that in many ways question our ideological underpinnings as a nation. But most people take their ideological beliefs as more akin to truths than reconstructable frameworks. What long-standing American beliefs get in the way of reconfiguring the American Dream? Use the articles from this week OR last to support your answer. As always, be substantive in your responses. I want at least 350 words for the answers to 2 & 3 (combined). Remember that you need to respond thoughtfully and constructively to at least two classmates (no “I like” responses; make critical conversations take place).
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Can There Be a Less Materialist American
Dream?
The scholar and cultural critic Juliet Schor argues that the onceniche opposition to hyper-consumerism is becoming more
mainstream.
Mike Blake / Reuters
REBECCA J. ROSEN
OCT 7, 2015
|
BUSINESS
For about as long as there has been an “American dream” there have been
critics of it, and perhaps none has been as comprehensive as Juliet Schor, a
professor of sociology at Boston College. Schor has examined every facet of
this dream—what it means to people, the e?ect it has on how Americans work
and play, and the e?ect it has on their children.
I talked to Schor about her research into these questions and an edited
transcript of our conversation follows.
Rebecca J. Rosen: The American dream has always been, in some ways, a
consumerist vision. But it also seems that today people may be distancing
themselves from that sort of pursuit, whether out of economic need or for
ecological reasons. What are the changes you’re noticing?
Juliet Schor: Let’s start with the American dream. I think the biggest
transformation in the role of the American dream in our society is that the
majority of people no longer have faith in the possibility of attaining it. This is
a major shift.
I did some polling in 2014 with an organization that I co-founded called the
Center for a New American Dream, and we found that the majority of
Americans no longer believe that they’ll be able to attain the American
dream. That’s a really big shift—an economic pessimism about where we’re
going and the ability of our economy to lift people up and give them a better
life materially than their parents had.
What people think the American dream is has also shifted over time. Freedom
and personal freedom remain at the top of the list for people’s conception of
what the American dream is. But the second most-cited idea of what the
American dream is is just getting your basic needs met, which is not what we
would traditionally think of as the American dream. It would be more about
upward mobility and a level of material a?uence that’s beyond basic needs. I
think that’s another interesting dimension of change.
There is a widespread sense among the population that people have gotten
too materialistic, and that’s been around for a while. It’s also the case that
materialism is the other person’s disease, so 80 percent of people think that
Americans are too materialistic. But as you get closer and closer to them—
their friends, their family, their kids—they are sort of less and less likely to
think that they’re too materialistic. It’s one of those ?ndings that you have to
be careful about how you interpret.
The other thing is that there is a high awareness that our style of life is not
ecologically sustainable. That’s a really general sensibility that comes from
lots of di?erent perspectives. It comes from true environmentalists who
actually look at the evidence and understand what’s happening to the planet,
but it also comes from people who really don’t know much at all about the
environment but do have a sense that we have this wasteful society.
Rosen: One of the things that I think is interesting—correct me if this is wrong
—is that it seems that there are two major sentiments at play and that they’re
kind of at odds with each other. On the one hand you have people who are
really struggling in this economy and they seem to be saying that the
American dream is no longer attainable or they have this extremely reduced
notion of what the American dream is. And then, on the other hand, you also
have this revulsion to the extreme abundance and consumption people see in
American life. Can you tease out how these two di?erent things play out: both
the fact that the economy is very hard for so many people, but at the same
time there is this very persistent and aggressive consumerism.
Schor: It’s an interesting question, and I have to say the polling we did doesn’t
allow us to get very deep into that.
Rosen: Perhaps you can just speculate a bit?
Schor: We have a materialistic culture, but people also see that as a problem.
I would suspect, but I haven’t gone back and looked at the frequencies on this
question, that there are some generational di?erences. Older generations are
more sensitive to waste. Probably immigrants are more sensitive to waste. If
you come from a poorer culture, you’re less habituated to the levels of waste
in American society, which are really o? the charts historically.
I guess another way to reconcile it would be that when you live in a culture
where the consumption expectations are so high and so expensive, those
needs are more di?cult to meet. So that may be part of the reconciling.
There’s another point worth making which is that it’s also the case when it
comes to consumption and lifestyle issues, people do hold contradictory
attitudes. People who by almost anyone’s accounting would be extremely
materialistic and have a lavish lifestyle can be very critical of other people’s
materialism, and fail to see it themselves. There’s a lot of inconsistency.
Rosen: There’s often a class dynamic to that. Elites tend to think that they
way they consume is superior to the mass culture that they see other people
partaking in.
Schor: Absolutely! Economically privileged people can be very critical of the
materialism of very poor people, because they have a large television or a pair
of sneakers.
Rosen: I’d like to go back to the thing you were saying about the generational
shifts. There’s been a lot of polling on how Millennials seem to be rejecting
some of the more grueling aspects of American economy, and are looking for
work that is more meaningful. Is that a cohort e?ect? What is going on here?
Schor: I’m not sure. You know, I tend to be a little bit skeptical of some of
those analyses. I mean there are for sure cohort e?ects in attitudes to
materialism and lifestyle and so forth. The most well known in the academic
literature is the impact of the Depression, which had a really lasting e?ect on
the cohorts that had direct experience of it. My sense of some of the more
recent attributions about big cohort e?ects are, that a lot of this stu? won’t
last through the lifecycle. I don’t see them as so durable. One of the things
about lifestyle and consumption is that as people form families and have
children you see a lot of changes in their spending behavior.
Now, it’s also true that you have rising rates of single-headed households, and
among certain groups big declines in fertility. But the other thing that’s
important as we think about the sort of attitudes to work are that people really
adjust their expectations, desires, and so forth to the opportunities that they
have. So when there is less opportunity for certain types of success, which is
one of the things that we see happening—increased competition or shrinking
number of really excellent jobs that pay very well and have great career
ladders and so forth—it’s not surprising that people would adjust, and also
that the demands of those jobs would go up, because the employers can do
that.
Rosen: A big part of consumption is socially determined. My husband
moonlights as a ?nancial coach and many of his clients are young people who
are very successful and have a level of wealth that they didn’t grow up with
and are trying to ?gure out what to do with it. One of his key pieces of advice
for people in that situation is to keep their old friends, because your level of
consumption changes so fast if you start hanging out with other similarly high
earners, and all of a sudden you don’t have much in the way of savings from
your big salary. You’re just consuming more, and your ?nancial situation is
actually not much improved.
Schor: Well, I did a study of that. I don’t know of another one that’s ever been
done, but what I showed—and I talk about this in my book The Overspent
American book—is that people whose reference groups is in a better economic
or ?nancial situation than they are have much reduced savings and vice versa.
I think that’s excellent advice.
Rosen: One major in?ection point for people’s consumption patterns is the
moment they become parents, and suddenly there are all these things they
supposedly need. Even for parents who reject excessive consumerism on
ecological or other moral grounds, it can be very hard to resist the pressure to
provide for your child in certain material ways. What is going on? And,
likewise, why is it so hard to insulate kids from the pressure to become
American-style consumers themselves?
Answer: I’m not sure I’ve seen research on [that ?rst quest] and I haven’t
speci?cally researched it myself, [but] I do think there’s both a psychological
and a social dimension to it, which is that people are probably less likely to
take risks when they have children. Being an outlier is a riskier thing.
I have a better sense of the second question which is why it’s so hard to
insulate kids. The social pressures around lifestyle or consumption
conformity are really high with kids because people worry about their
children being di?erent and excluded, so that sense of social ?tting-in is
really strong.
People don’t want to raise their kids in ways that are too, too di?erent from
their context. This is why it’s not hard to do it when you’re in a community
where other people are doing it. So, if you think about, for example, religious
communities that raise their children in di?erent ways, ways that are more
insulated, or immigrant communities—for them it’s a lot easier because they
have those social networks and contexts where [some deviation from
mainstream consumption is] a norm. I think it’s really hard for the
mainstream folks and that’s why, if you can, try and intentionally create
connections with other people who are doing it in less consumerist ways, or,
one of the things I tried to do with my kids, was to steer them toward friends
who were also somewhat insulated.
Rosen: How successful are people with that approach and do you see it
catching on? I read your New York Times review earlier this year about, in part,
why thrift never seems to really catch on in America. Is this changing?
Schor: I think there is a growing and increasingly signi?cant movement of
people who are articulating a di?erent set of values and trying to live in
di?erent ways. It’s really di?erent today than when I wrote The Overspent
American, which came out in the late ’90s. It’s much more mainstream now,
but you’ve got a couple of di?erent incarnations, or di?erent social
manifestations, which I guess would be the right word, which do connect with
race, class, and education.
I think the ?rst thing to say about what’s di?erent now is that the economic
situation is so di?erent than when we started the Center for a New American
Dream. We were in a really consumerist moment, which was not only
con?ned to the wealthy or the upper-middle class, but there was an ability to
consume beyond basic needs, really, throughout not everyone in the income
distribution, but a much wider ability through debt and very cheap goods
coming from abroad and so forth.
So you had that big buying spree that ends with the crash. The reality of
economic deprivation for large numbers of people has changed consumerism,
both as it’s experienced and expressed in our society. [The fallout resulted in]
a really widespread critique, at that time, from people who got into trouble.
[People saying] “I’m never going to live that way again,” and just feeling like
the excess of it was too much.
There’s a more sober attitude to consuming since the crash. A lot of people
don’t feel as comfortable. I’m not talking about the 1 percent or the folks, who
you know, just ordinary people are kind of less comfortable with showiness
and excess at a time when so many people are su?ering economically. There’s
a kind of solidarity, or at least a sentimental solidarity, that comes up.
What I think we’re seeing is you have groups of highly educated,
predominantly white young people living really di?erent kinds of lifestyles.
I’ve called it an “eco-habitus” using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus—your
sort of underlying sensibility toward things. This is the rise of things like CSAs
and farmers’ markets. These are not necessarily low-cost lifestyles, some of
them are. It’s a di?erent sensibility. Again, that rejection of mass
consumption, which has been there for a while, but rejection of materialism,
advertising, people who are saying how do I raise my children in a way that’s
not having them just sucked into this dominant consumer culture. That’s
really mainstreaming and it used to be pretty niche.
We’re also seeing a validation of some of that kind of attitude among, not so
much among the white working class, or the white poor, but more among
inner city communities of color who are also engaged in alternative ways of
provisioning around food or some of the more community-based approaches
to provisioning. There are a lot of parallels with what’s going on with more
a?uent, highly educated consumers.
I do think there is a movement to transform the way we live to make it more
ecological, more economically secure, less unequal, and more economically
fair. And out of necessity you’re seeing this in some of the most depressed
cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, where you just have a ?owering of
alternatives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the
Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson
Quarterly.
REBECCA J. ROSEN
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4/17/2016
Rethinking the American Dream | Vanity Fair
CULTURE
Rethinking the American Dream
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THE WAY WE WERE
APRIL 2009
Rethinking the American Dream
Closing a Summer Cottage, Quogue, New York, a 1957 Norman Rockwell art-directed Colorama by Ralph Amdursky and Charles Baker. ©
2009 Kodak, courtesy of George Eastman House. The photographs in this article are Kodak Coloramas that were exhibited at New York’s
Grand Central Terminal from 1950 to 1990. Enlarge this photo.
Along with millions of jobs and 401(k)s, the concept of a shared national ideal is said to be
dying. But is the American Dream really endangered, or has it simply been misplaced?
Exploring the way our aspirations have changed—the rugged individualism of the Wild West,
the social compact of F.D.R., the sitcom fantasy of 50s suburbia—the author shows how the
American Dream came to mean fame and fortune, instead of the promise that shaped a
nation.
BY DAV I D K A MP
T
he year was 1930, a down one like this one. But for Moss Hart, it was the time for his
particularly American moment of triumph. He had grown up poor in the outer
boroughs of New York City—“the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my
nose,” he said—and he’d vowed that if he ever made it big he would never again ride
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Rethinking the American Dream | Vanity Fair
the rattling trains of the city’s dingy subway system. Now he was 25, and his first play, Once in
a Lifetime, had just opened to raves on Broadway. And so, with three newspapers under his
arm and a wee­hours celebration of a successful opening night behind him, he hailed a cab and
took a long, leisurely sunrise ride back to the apartment in Brooklyn where he still lived with
his parents and brother.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into one of the several drab tenement neighborhoods that
preceded his own, Hart later recalled, “I stared through the taxi window at a pinch­faced 10­
year­old hurrying down the steps on some morning errand before school, and I thought of
myself hurrying down the street on so many gray mornings out of a doorway and a house much
the same as this one.… It was possible in this wonderful city for that nameless little boy—for
any of its millions—to have a decent chance to scale the walls and achieve what they wished.
Wealth, rank, or an imposing name counted for nothing. The only credential the city asked was
the boldness to dream.”
As the boy ducked into a tailor shop, Hart recognized that this narrative was not exclusive to
his “wonderful city”—it was one that could happen anywhere in, and only in, America. “A surge
of shamefaced patriotism overwhelmed me,” Hart wrote in his memoir, Act One. “I might have
been watching a victory parade on a flag­draped Fifth Avenue instead of the mean streets of a
city slum. A feeling of patriotism, however, is not always limited to the feverish emotions called
forth by war. It can sometimes be felt as profoundly and perhaps more truly at a moment such
as this.”
Hart, like so many before and after him, was overcome by the power of the American Dream.
As a people, we Americans are unique in having such a thing, a more or less Official National
Dream. (There is no correspondingly stirring Canadian Dream or Slovakian Dream.) It is part
of our charter—as articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, in the
famous bit about “certain unalienable Rights” that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
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Happiness”—and it is what makes our country and our way of life attractive and magnetic to
people in other lands.
But now fast­forward to the year 2009, the final Friday of January. The new president is
surveying the dire economy he has been charged with righting—600,000 jobs lost in January
alone, a gross domestic product that shrank 3.8 percent in the final quarter of 2008, the worst
contraction in almost 30 years. Assessing these numbers, Barack Obama, a man who normally
exudes hopefulness for a living, pronounces them a “continuing disaster for America’s working
families,” a disaster that amounts to no less, he says, than “the American Dream in reverse.”
In reverse. Imagine this in terms of Hart’s life: out of the taxicab, back on the subway, back to
the tenements, back to cramped cohabitation with Mom and Dad, back to gray mornings and
the grim smell of actual want.
You probably don’t even have to imagine, for chances are that of late you have experienced
some degree of reversal yourself, or at the very least have had friends or loved ones get laid off,
lose their homes, or just find themselves forced to give up certain perks and amenities
(restaurant meals, cable TV, salon haircuts) that were taken for granted as recently as a year
ago.
These are tough times for the American Dream. As the safe routines of our lives have come
undone, so has our characteristic optimism—not only our belief that the future is full of
limitless possibility, but our faith that things will eventually return to normal, whatever
“normal” was before the recession hit. There is even worry that the dream may be over—that
we currently living Americans are the unfortunate ones who shall bear witness to that deflating
moment in history when the promise of this country began to wither. This is the “sapping of
confidence” that President Obama alluded to in his inaugural address, the “nagging fear that
America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”
But let’s face it: If Moss Hart, like so many others, was able to rally from the depths of the Great
Depression, then surely the viability of the American Dream isn’t in question. What needs to
change is our expectation of what the dream promises—and our understanding of what that
vague and promiscuously used term, “the American Dream,” is really supposed to mean.
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