Recently my wife had a story published in Postimees about the demise of the “American Dream.”
Like many of her American stories, it drew mostly on conversations with myself, family members, friends, and acquaintances about this international concept.
Unfortunately, her Estonian audience, particularly foreign Estonians living in America, didn’t like hearing how many of my friends are over-educated, under-employed, and deeply in debt. I have heard that many of the individuals that frequent the Estonian House on 34th street, the local hub of Estonian-American culture, are actually fairly conservative, and are loyal Republicans. And we all know how Republicans feel about anyone who lobs a critique at America. It has been my experience that they are quite often upfront about their political convictions.
I understand why Estonians in the US, especially in second- and third-generation families, would be loyal to the Republican Party. Starting in the late 1940s, the Republican Party, which had lost four presidential elections to the Democrats in a row, began to run to the right of the Democrats on dealing with Communism, which was a reversal from their earlier, isolationist stance.
For foreign Estonians, the Republican Party was probably a more open vehicle for voicing their concerns, which was less likely in the Democratic Party, especially into the 1960s when issues like civil rights, the Vietnam war, and LBJ’s great society tore that party into pieces. In the 1980s, their loyalty paid off with Ronald Reagan’s uncompromising posturing towards the USSR. Reagan has gone down as the good guy, even though it was Democrats that refused to recognize the occupation of the Baltics in 1940, and it was Bill Clinton who told Boris Yeltsin that the Baltics would be joining NATO in the late 90s, and it was Dennis Kucinich, perhaps the most leftwing congressman, who introduced the resolution last year calling on Russia to acknowledge and apologize for the Soviet occupation. That’s the way it is, and I understand that.
But for Republicans, loyal Americans, and anybody that still thinks everything is fine and dandy in the US and that the “American Dream” that is still nurtured in some quarters is still very much alive, I am confused about this vague ideal.
To me, the United States has always just been a country. And like all countries, it has its own very special problems. Today we do worry about health coverage. We do worry about the environment and immigration reform. We do worry about a great many things. Even President Bush likes to get his photo taken next to hybrid cars. These are not lefty pet issues. They are mainstream concerns. And people in my generation have been specifically affected in our peak earning years by a stubborn, individualistic economy where it is much easier to fail in life than succeed. My peers really are college graduates. Some have professional jobs, but others wait tables, answer phones, treat sewage, and still others went back to school, where they aspire to stay permanently. Opportunity has not exactly been knocking on their doors.
I am led to believe that things may have once been different. I can only assume that my grandfather and grandmother, who raised five kids on one salary, may have done so in a more advantageous economic environment. They lived that stereotypical 1950s dream, that supposedly is dead. Yet there are plenty of immigrant gas station owners and restauranteurs who find themselves amazingly wealthy and respected here in America. But for them there are also the migratory workers who sleep on concrete bunks in Southern California, or the Asian sweat shop workers who work in sub-human conditions in this very city.
Does that mean that everybody should have the same thing? No. But it does mean that if you are a foreigner thinking about coming to America to live out some sort of materialist fantasy, you should be prepared to handle the fact that you may not wind up being fabulously rich, and you may wind up living in a dump with cockroaches unable to see a dentist over your toothache because you are uninsured. This is the Americas after all, and yes, the US does share some similarities with its neighbors in Central and South America when it comes to living standards.
In my wife’s story she referred to America as being in “crisis.” Terrorists crashed planes into buildings a few blocks from here and I still am unsure if we are in “crisis.” Things seem pretty much the same. But I can tell you that people consistently in opinion polls say that America is “headed in the wrong direction” and they cite things like health care and outsourcing as being among the top issues they worry about. People clearly are looking for something a little better than what they are getting in America.
The other night I met a man on the train. He was about 45. He appeared to have no college education, and worked for 20 years in a supermarket, working his way up to manager, until they downsized staff and he was let go. He then moved down south to take a job in a manufacturing plant making refridgerators, until he lost his job again – this time they moved the plant to Mexico. Now he lives at home with his mom and works at a drug store for $6 an hour.
For every wealthy investment banker on Wall Street there are dozens of guys like him. Just remember that any time you ponder the American Dream.