The problem with the American Dream, now more than ever, is that it's an impossible one.
We spend all our time keeping up appearances, chasing status and material goods instead of meaning, knowledge and relationships -- both human and divine -- such that we have become a society more devoted to "tilting at windmills" than more pedestrian fare as living productively, morally and sustainably.
Society tells us we need to have it all -- today. The economic reports tell us there are five unemployed Americans competing for every job opening.
WE ARE what we own. Our self-worth is what others say it is. We are chasing our tails, our quixotic expectations are giving our kids ulcers, and you just know something's gotta give, something's gotta give, something's gotta give.
Such has it been for a long time in these United States, and the new season of early '60s-set Mad Men was the catalyst for some riffing on the subject from a walking wounded of that era on Rod Dreher's new Big Questions Online blog:
She said that in her recollection of the time, it was hugely important to maintain an impossible standard of middle-class perfection, to the point where it drove people, well, mad. She recalls the pressure to maintain appearances at all costs, and to strive to meet unrealistic ideals. "There was the [N.] family down the street who didn't live like the rest of us in this way," she said. "They didn't go to church, or seem as concerned about the things that preoccupied our families. We all thought they weren't going to make it. Well, guess what? They did fine. The rest of us? Not so much. It was impossible to be satisfied with what we had. You couldn't just stay where you were; you were always looking to move to something better."SOMETHING'S gotta give, something's gotta give, something's gotta give.
Like me, my friend is not a fan of the Sixties and Seventies, but in talking with her, I kept thinking about a judgment I made about "Mad Men" when it first came on: That it gives you an idea of why the Sixties happened the way they did. Some conservatives read the series as a retrospective justification for Sixties excess. I disagree. I don't think series creator Matthew Weiner is necessarily stacking the deck against the Fifties as much as he's diagnosing what it was about bourgeois/haute bourgeois white society at the time that led to the revolution. Because I grew up after the revolution was well underway, I can look at the autopsy with detachment; my friend, who was Sally Draper's age when it was going on, and who was in the "Mad Men" social and cultural class, cannot.
"I keep thinking that today, right now, we're reliving the Fifties," said my friend, who has a child in college. "I see the same obsession with perfection, with getting your kids into the right school so they can go to the right college and get the right job and move into the right group so they can be successful and happy. And these kids, they're terrified of failure. It's crazy, and you can't imagine how stressful this is for parents and kids alike. It's going to blow up, too. You watch. The problem is, there aren't as many intact families to blow up. But these children, they're going to implode. I worry about the net effect on these kids moving forward. They're never going to feel as good or as smart as they're supposed to feel, given how much we've spent on them. I know how my daughter feels: inadequate, always."
It did starting in about 1966 . . . until it didn't anymore and the revolutionaries became the Establishment, obsessing about establishmentarian pursuits. Like status and stuff -- in other words, the same ol' s***.
And their kids, raised in a world where our means never exceed our appetites and every child is exceptional (or so they're told), know that failure is not an option. Ordinary is not an option -- we will "fight, fight, fight, fight, fight it with all of our might."
Until it is. Something's gotta give.
AND YOU GOTTA WONDER whether that's a big part of this fresh hell looming on our horizon, as spotlighted by ABC News:
"This is what we have feared for a very long time—that finally the ideology of radical Islam is effectively reaching into the United States to disaffected people here over the Internet," said Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser.IT'S THE '60s all over again. Right down to rebelling against all the right things in exactly the wrong way, with exactly the wrong ideology.
Some suspects allegedly used the Internet to also contact radicals like cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. In 2009, Chesser reportedly told the FBI that he sent several e-mails to the New Mexico native, who in turn replied to a couple of them. Al-Awlaki, 39, has most recently been tied to Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the prime suspect in the Fort Hood massacre, as well as the failed Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Some of those charged with terror are now well-known in this country, like Faisal Shahzad, the convicted would-be Time Square bomber. Just last week, a supposed martyrdom video surfaced in which an English-speaking Shahzad vocalized his appreciation for jihad, or holy war.
Also, David Headley from Chicago was convicted of helping to plan the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 170 people. Then, associates of Najibullah Zazi, who is a permanent resident, were convicted of plotting to detonate bombs in New York City subways. And Michigan's own Colleen LaRose, more commonly known as Jihad Jane, was implicated in a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist for drawing the head of the Prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog in 2007.
But there have been some suspected terrorists that have flown under the radar, like Bryant Vinas, who was accused of attacking a U.S. military base in Afghanistan and providing al-Qaeda with details about New York's railway system. Also, Michael Finton was arrested in a sting where he was attempting to detonate a truck bomb at a federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois.
With so many potential threats, authorities say they are in a race against time to find these radicals before they launch a successful attack on the land they grew up on.
"In the last six to nine months," Clark said, "the FBI has seen more domestic Islamist extremist activity than at any time since immediately right after 9/11."
We never learn.