The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

American Values and American Dream

The concept "American values" is used quite often, even by presidents and presidential candidates during election campaigns. Not everyone agrees, though, what those values include, and whether they are universal for the entire nation? The textbook on American culture, American Ways (Datesman et al, 2014), identifies three principle American values developed through the history of the United States: individual freedom, equal opportunity and material wealth. For each of those benefits, Americans have had to pay a price, and these are: self-reliance, competition and hard work. Those six ideals and imperatives to achieve them represent, at least for the authors of the book, the six most important American values. Let's try to analyse the context in which each of them appeared and what each mean for the American society and common worldview, if there is such. 

By moving to the New World, immigrants wanted to escape control by kings and governments, priests and churches, noblemen and aristocrats. After the war for independence, Americans freed themselves from the power of the English king. The first American constitution, written in 1787, separated the church and the state, which greatly limited the power of the church. The titles of nobility were also forbidden, so that an aristocratic society would not develop. By freedom Americans mean the desire and the right of all individuals to control their own destiny without outside interference from the government, a ruling noble class, the church, or any other organised authority. Individual freedom inevitably leads to individualism and alienation, but it has remained the most important driving force of most immigrants arriving in America, especially those fleeing persecution.

The cost for this privilege has been self-reliance. This term implies taking responsibility for oneself, and becoming financially and emotionally dependent from one's parents, the government or community. It has been an expected standard to leave the parents' house at the age of eighteen, and gradually become self-reliant. Likewise, receiving welfare benefits is at least a mild embarrassment for almost everyone who has to accept it. In 1841, one of the most famous American philosophers and writers of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote an essay "Self-reliance," in which he identified this trait as a paramount value for his fellow Americans.

Individual freedom also provides equal opportunity. The life in the countries immigrants came from was largely determined by the class people were born into. Free of hereditary classes, American society provided opportunity for everyone to succeed. The most important prerequisites for such success have been individual talent, resilience and the invested effort. Everyone could start from zero and have a legitimate chance to climb up the social ladder. The process in which one becomes a "self-made" person and acquires wealth through a successful career and a respected social status is called "from rags to riches," or sometimes in movies "from zero to hero."

The price to be paid for this benefit is competition. Free-market economy and large numbers of ambitious immigrants eager to succeed has created large competition in business, services and other areas of life. There is a great pressure to compete in the US from a very early age in school, individual and team sport, as well as professional career. The fact that retired people cannot actively compete anymore is one of the explanations of the existence of the cult of youth in the United States. Unlike in Mexico, for example, where old people enjoy universal respect, in the United States most old people try hard to remain young in both appearance and spirit.

The success people strive for mostly means material success, i.e. achieving financial wealth. Competition for wealth has placed a high value on materialism in the United States, but Americans like to think of themselves as having other values as well. So, material wealth has traditionally been a widely accepted measure of social status in the United States. Whereas in some other countries poor people seem to still have a certain status in the society based on other merits, in the United States they are seen by many as worthless.

The price one has to pay for material success is hard work, and Americans see material possessions as the natural reward for their hard work. Even if they are religious, they see the material wealth they are acquiring only as a blessing, and the only thing they have to sacrifice is their time and labour. Providing oneself with all the valuable possession by taking loans, as most Americans in post-WWII period have been doing, makes one afraid of losing one's job and willing to work even harder to pay off dept and live up to the standards the individual and the society places on people. With the arrival of the recent economic crisis, these standards are undergoing a crisis as well.

So, the concept of American Dream is tightly connected to American values. Many refer to it as the possession of a big house, two cars, a pretty (or handsome) spouse, 2.5 children, a dog and a cat, but what is it really? American dream is a national ideal of the United States, the set of paradigms (Democracy, Rights, Liberty, Opportunity, and Equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. So, the gist is the opportunity for an individual or family to achieve material well being, if not wealth. Together with financial opportunity, immigration to America also involved a chance for a new beginning, a prospect to reinvent oneself. This might explain the mobility of US citizens to this date.

Books to Read and Films to See

American Beauty (1999) is an American drama about a 42-year-old advertising executive experiencing midlife crisis, his materialistic wife and their insecure teenage daughter. The film is a satire of American middle-class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction. It explores the themes of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, self-liberation, and redemption.

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