Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A New (old) American Dream

The idea of reclaiming the American Dream has popped up a lot for me recently. Attention must be paid.

First, I went to a Teachers for Social Justice Conference and had my MIND BLOWN (and fell in love a little bit) at a breakout session/workshop thing. You can read about that here. Then this whole Occupy Wall Street thing, which, I am kinda sad to say, I haven't been paying much attention to. But it's there, percolating. And the people are there, working hard, despite my inattention. And then there was this blog entry from Cary Tennis at Salon, who I had never heard of before my husband sent me a link to this today. He is amazing. (I'll let that pronoun reference remain ambiguous - they both are really.)

The text I am excerpting below is a response to a question sent in by a reader asking for help understanding why he (the reader) still dreams of being a corporate lawyer, still thinks of this as his "dream job," despite having ample evidence that getting such a job will make him miserable. This, I can relate to. But Mr. Tennis provides a more thoughtful answer than I have given myself in the year or two (depending from when you start counting) since I left law. Not only that, he manages to wrap in so many things I've been thinking about in relation to my nascent educational philosophy. My nascent philosophy on life, really, because it is
all related to questions about how I choose to live my life, including but not limited to why I chose to leave law and work in public education.

You know what? Screw excerpting: I'm putting in the whole answer (with the caveat that I like England despite never having been). But before I go, I have to address one very important thing that Mr. Tennis says near the end of this piece. He posits "how do we find that America that we really are looking for, that America of the dream, warm, embracing, large of heart, free, equal, meritocratic but egalitarian, energetic, kind, not warlike but strong?" and then answers that we must "go look for it, man. And when you find it you write to your friends."

I feel like I am in the midst of finding this America for myself. So I'm taking him at his word and committing to write and talk to my friends about it. Commitments like this are easy to break, but I have good intentions, strong beliefs, and passionate desires. So, I'm hopeful. And now without further ado, the man himself:

So complete is the corporate takeover of the American psyche that we find ourselves unable to imagine ourselves outside of it. Such is the evidence of its victory. Rather than imagine ourselves as apostates, the best we can do is imagine ourselves as high priests inside the kingdom.

Yet the corporate takeover of the American psyche has not yet gone quite deep enough to dislodge the ever-present dream of setting out for a better land.

What better land is left? Where are we to go now? Where is there an America for us to flee to? We fled here and now this is turning into what we fled. That is why we are camping out in our own downtowns, for there is no more America for us to flee to. We must flee to our own hearts and find America there. We must sail into the rough seas of our own selves to find the farther shore. There is no other frontier.

And then, that America we must bring out to the downtowns of our cities, to put on display not like a museum display of Native Americans and pilgrims but as a living, breathing town, a living, breathing nation: a dream embodied in the rabble.

You know me. You know how I think. For me, every desire is a symbol of another desire, every symbol a symbol of another symbol. Every longing for a corporate job looks like a longing for citizenship; every request for a raise looks like a request for recognition by the king; every longing for class acceptance looks like a longing for love.

So forgive me if I insist that your desire to be a corporate lawyer is a stand-in for some other desire. I suggest that what you long for is not necessarily a job as a corporate lawyer per se, but a decent place in the American firmament. So you, my friend, have to find within you what is more primal. What is it that you desire? I would guess you desire to be told that you matter, that you count, that you are a full member. But you don’t want to hear it from me. You want to hear it from your own land and your own people, your motherland, your fatherland, your homeland. You long for America to finally say to us, yes, I see you, come sit at the table with the prime rib and the roast duck: You matter; yes, we respect you; yes, you are a part of all this! You want to hear it said loud and clear that you matter and that your natural inclinations and personality matter, that you are not provisional, that you are a full member, that you don’t have to earn your citizenship, you already belong.

Your ambivalence and torment are a part of it. Don’t you see? The savage wounding of history and the bright summer night full of fireworks, these two at war in your skull: That’s American too. That’s as American as Mitt Romney eating a corn dog.

And you know what else is American? The right of a writer like me to say such things and not even know exactly what I’m saying. Progress not perfection, my friend. We walk around with longing in our hearts and we express the longing before we work it all out. That’s the American way, too.

This is who we are.

So you know what the Occupy Wall Street people look like to me? They look like pilgrims. The soul of America in whiteface setting out to sail into themselves, looking for what they lost. Like a baffled bar patron looking for her purse, they are looking for an America that was there a minute ago and somehow vanished.

The world of Brooks Brothers and pedigrees is not the America your soul is looking for. That America is nothing more than a Hollywood England, a backlot stage set of public-school snobbery, repressed sexuality and stiff upper lips. It’s American in fashion but not in spirit; in spirit it is old snobby England.

So how do we find that America that we really are looking for, that America of the dream, warm, embracing, large of heart, free, equal, meritocratic but egalitarian, energetic, kind, not warlike but strong? The America that says you matter not because of your college rank or your company rank but because you are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

You go look for it, man. And when you find it you write to your friends. End of story. That has been good enough for millions before us and it ought to be good enough for us. You have the right to live the life you actually want to live, and you have the right to be proud of that life, and the corporate takeover that has sucked the marrow out of our bones and left us confused as to our heritage and our progeny and purpose, that corporate takeover is coming to an end, as we finally wake up and see what we have allowed to happen, and begin to assert ourselves once again.

We are indeed not Wall Street. We are more street than Wall Street. We are the proud rabble who would rather eat hard tack and risk scurvy than live under the lash of fat despots. That’s who we are. And we are setting sail. We are sailing into ourselves, looking for America.

So I don’t think a corporate lawyer job is what you really want. I think it’s just a symbol of what you really want. The real search is harder. There is no application process. There are no internships.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are broad enough to encompass the dreams of any soul in the world. Somewhere in those few words is your dream. Go find it.

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