Dark Side of the American Dream

Little Girl With American Flag
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The "American Dream" is the idea that anyone can, with hard work and perseverance, bring themselves up out of poverty and achieve greatness in some fashion. Sometimes it might take a couple of generations, but material prosperity is supposed to be accessible to all. There is a dark side to this dream, however: if anyone can achieve prosperity with hard work, then those who don't achieve must not be working hard enough.


Many might attribute this attitude to secular ideology and secular capitalism, but the earliest source can be found in the Old Testament and is known as Deuteronomist Theology. According to this doctrine, Yahweh will bless those who obey and punish those who disobey. In practice, it is expressed in reverse form: if you're suffering then it must be because you disobeyed and if you're prospering it must be because you have been obedient.

Charlie Kilian wrote a couple of years ago:

[I]f standards of living were simply a matter of self expectations, shouldn't it be true that I could also live better if only I were to expect more? It's obvious (to me at least) that while I would love to live better than I currently do, I am already doing everything I know how to live as well as I can. Perhaps the problem, then, is that she doesn't know what resources are available to help her move up the ladder.

Whatever the reason, it has become clear to me that economic class is a much greater force in our society than we usually acknowledge. It's much harder to rise above the class you were born into than the American Dream meme would have us believe. And just as importantly, it's equally hard to fall below your birth class.

The American Dream, then, has an unheralded dark side. With the expectation that hard work is always rewarded comes the idea that anyone who has not been rewarded must not work hard. It promotes the perception that people in economic classes lower than yours are lazy and stupid. Professor B summed it up well. Economic class is usually mistaken for intelligence.

[emphasis added]

The emphasized sentence was the idea that inspired Kilian's post and I emphasize it here in order to encourage others to stop and think more carefully about it. To what degree do we see someone successful and assume that they are smarter than the rest of us? To what degree do we see someone in poverty and assume that they must be dumb or lazy?

It doesn't have to be a conscious assumption -- on the contrary, I think that insofar as such assumptions exist, they are probably more often unconscious than conscious.

To determine whether we have such assumptions, then, we need to look at things like our reactions to such people and how we treat them. Behavior is often a much truer demonstration of what we really believe than our words. With this, we might be able to trace our thinking backwards and discern what sorts of assumptions we might be operating under. We might not always like what we find.