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American Dream: The Untenable Perception of Reality

Posted by Elle Latham on June 2, 2013 at 8:25 PM Comments comments (0)

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.” This quote from “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald encompasses the beliefs of millions in the American Dream. People believe that coming to America bestows upon them certain unalienable rights that they wouldn’t normally have access to in their home country. These rights have been incessantly and falsely depicted in pop culture and modern cinema. They show that famous rags to riches story of a young person rising up from nothing to eventually build an empire through the magic of luck and old-fashioned hard work. That is the basis of the American Dream as we have come to understand it. In truth, the American Dream is a myth because the media and certain class systems perpetuate an illusion that society, as a whole, perceives as reality.

When one looks back at the history of modern civilization, it is clear that the perception of American values and the idea of manifest destiny has been blown out of proportion. Such is the subject of an academic journal from American Scholar by John Tirman. He states that:

“…The myth is resilient. The alternative is to reinvent it, to co-opt, in effect, frontier symbolism from its destructive tendencies and transform it into something more vital. Many leaders have attempted to use the frontier metaphor as a way of launching ideas for reform or renewal, invoking, for example, "the war on" campaigns—the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer—which draw on the conflict and moral struggle that played such a central part on the frontier…Yet very few political or opinion elites recognize the frontier myth—the restless urge to expand and to dominate—as the root and branch of our self-defined global role. Thus very few have tried to alter its course and meaning.”

This is indicative of the mentality of modern civilization overlooking past transgressions in order to create a world in which Americans are not responsible for their sinister role in expanding their rule throughout the world at the expense of those who came before them.

The American frontier is not the only myth being shoved down society’s collective throats on a regular basis. Modern cinema has been reflecting the ideal of the American Dream in its films for decades now. In "The American Dream of Family in Film: From Decline to a Comeback”, an article written by Emanuel Levy, Levy explains how the roles of families in film have always been portrayed as nuclear and how they have embodied the American Dream from the early days of cinema up to the early 20th century. Levy supports this claim by explaining that:

“The mass media serve as a major source of information about a variety of social roles, including family roles. This sociological function has been particularly important for children and adolescents who have dominated the movie-going public in recent decades. These viewers often gain their first insights into the ‘real world’ through exposure to the mass media of film and television.”

He goes on to say how films have been such an influence on the audience and shaped their expectations in their own lives of how they think their families should be. By showing women cleaning up the house while the father is away at work, the filmmakers are choosing to perpetuate the many gender stereotypes that have long since dissipated from the social landscape.

In a way, these films are doing more harm than good by taking the American ideals from the 1950’s and misrepresenting them as fact in the modern era.

This phenomenon is further explored in the selection titled “What We Really Miss About the 1950’s” by Stephanie Coontz. She explains how people became enamored of the idea of a nuclear family much like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” in the following excerpt:

“People didn’t watch those shows to see their own lives reflected back at them. They watched them to see how families were supposed to live—and also to get a little reassurance that they were headed in the right direction.”

The thing is America has never gone in the “right direction.” For some reason, this nation continues to latch onto ideals from forgotten eras that simply don’t work anymore. It is highly doubtful that they ever did.

The ideal of a happy life with a stable job and all the trappings in between is just that: a trap. Families aren’t meant to be perfect. Life isn’t meant to be perfect. Whoever started this ridiculous notion of working hard and being rewarded with a beautiful life was frankly an idiot.

Anyone who has gone to school only to be bombarded with shameless promotion and advertising from various soda companies, breakfast cereal brands, and soup brands would find it difficult to believe this is the American Dream that they reside in. That is the basis for “Idiot Nation” an illuminating piece of journalism by the ineffable Michael Moore. He states that more and more schools are making deals with these companies to gain funding in exchange for the students’ mindless consumption of their goods in this excerpt:

“…Schools and corporations sometimes turn the school itself into one giant neon sign for corporate America. Appropriation of school space, including scoreboards, rooftops, walls, and textbooks, for corporate logos and advertising is up 539 percent.”

This quote was taken from a 2002 publication, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant to what the world is like today. Nowadays, one can’t go to see a simple movie or turn on their favorite TV show without being barraged with product placements hidden within (or sometimes blatantly obvious) being sold to them. This is the doing of the all-knowing advertisers who will take every opportunity they can to build awareness of their product. It is something that started decades ago with the advent of television as a new medium. Slowly, it got less and less noticeable until the 2000s when history decided to repeat itself as it so often does.

While Moore rails against corporations controlling our modern school system, John Taylor Gatto takes it to a whole other level with his indictment of the educational system itself which he claims we don’t even need. Gatto believes that school is irrelevant. He argues:

“We have been taught…in this country to think of “success” as synonymous with… ‘schooling,’ but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people…educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that…resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?”

Indeed. I agree wholeheartedly with Gatto’s argument. This society is full of schools that teach the same thing; to be the same, to believe the same thing, to have the same answers. There is no individuality. There is no information one can use out in the real world. The students are stuck. That is what the powers that be want. They don’t want students to realize how powerful they are and fight against the system enslaving them on a daily basis.

Everyone has been told they’re special at some point in their lives. If that were true, wouldn’t we all have wonderful careers and a loving family? There are homeless people everywhere, in every city. If they are just as special as everyone else, what happened? Did the American Dream fail them? Or did society fail them? Maybe it was their false hopes of a brighter tomorrow. Everyone wants to believe in something. Sometimes, believing in the wrong thing can bring about disastrous consequences.

The bottom line is everyone is different. Everyone’s journey on this Earth is different. While there are certain situations where something is handed to someone on a silver platter, it is not true for 99% of America. Most of the American people have struggles day-to-day, can barely afford to feed their families, and work a grueling job that pays them next to nothing. As much as these people would like to believe their journeys will end in being rich and famous or running a multimillion dollar company or winning the lottery, they know better than to trust in that belief. Nick said it best in The Great Gatsby when he realized, “I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.” Thus is the American Myth---sorry, Dream.


School+Me=No Thanks

Posted by Elle Latham on April 11, 2013 at 8:05 PM Comments comments (0)

In Michael Moore's Idiot Nation, Moore points out how idiotic we are as a nation and how stupid the media themselves are. He states that if the news anchors on Fox News were asked to complete a questionnaire to test their knowledge, they would fail. He called Fred Barnes, cohost of The Beltway Boys (who griped about how kids these days don't know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are) if he knew what the Iliad and the Odyssey were. Of course he didn't. Full disclosure: I don’t either.

I agree with Michael Moore and his opinion of school in our nation and how it is dumbing everyone down and alienating the students who see things differently from the way they're supposed to see them. He didn't see the point of singing a song about the alphabet in first grade. He almost got the chance to skip to second grade but his mother wouldn't let him because she didn't want him to be picked on by the bigger kids throughout school. He tried to go to second grade on the first day of school but his teacher Sister John Catharine stopped him.

Throughout his schooling, Moore was dutiful and studious but he still managed to break out by writing a play in eighth grade about a rat infested town which had a political angle. Then, when he entered high school, Moore ran for School Board President and ended up being in control of the school and his principal, both of whom couldn’t stand each other.

What I leaned from Moore was that individuality is good and corporations are bad. All sorts of corporations from Campbell's Soup to Coca-Cola to General Mills to Pepsi to Dr. Pepper have promised to subsidize our schools with grants and free equipment all in exchange for consumption of their products. It's ridiculous. School should be about learning not consuming. It has also contributed to the growing bellies of our young students.

Another corporation that has taken over schools in a big way is the Channel One station that is required viewing for kids. It's another way to advertise directly to the student body. He states that there is only, “20% airtime”, given to actual current events topics and news while “80% is for advertising, sports, weather, and Channel One promotions”.

Michael Moore is concerned with the way students who speak out against authority and break away from the status quo are being punished and profiled as possible school shooters. He thinks that is wrong and so do I. He lists ways to peacefully fight back. He says to run for office and make fun of it, start a club, start to write for the school newspaper or blog, and stay active in your school in order to affect change. I agree with Moore that people should rise up and take their power back and, “start a ruckus”, as he says. That's the only way to get through to the system by taking it down from the inside.


American Myth

Posted by Elle Latham on April 11, 2013 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

In “Horatio Alger”, Harlon L. Dalton counters the titular author in his view of the American Dream in his tome “Ragged Dick.” He says that Alger’s version of the American Dream doesn’t really exist. That it is too contrived and not indicative of the way people live now. He claims that the story of “young boys born into poverty…transcend(ing) their station in life by…hard work, persistence, initiative, and daring”, is fictional and shouldn’t be taken into the real world.

He does have a point when he brings up “the best Black syndrome”, Stephen Carter’s theory that Black people are judged on their successes against one another. I agree with Dalton when he says that things haven’t changed much over the years. Articulate Black people are “praised unduly for how they speak”, but White people are seen in similar ways by Black people. White men can’t jump. White people can’t dance. These are assumptions Black people have about them.

I believe the same can be said for female and male gender roles. Women are viewed oftentimes as emotional, good cooks, nurturing, and loving while men are viewed as harsh, strong, analytical, and business-oriented individuals. Everyone has preconceived notions about other people. It’s in our DNA. It’s in advertising. You see women in the kitchen, Black men on the basketball court, white men in business meetings, and black women as harpies. As long as we are shown these images, we will continue to perpetuate these stereotypes.

In the end, Dalton concludes that by accepting Alger’s myth as truth, it would be like lying to Black people that they can “lift themselves up by their…bootstraps”, and that working hard and having merit are not “guarantors of success should lead…White people to reflect on whether their…achievements have been helped…by their preferred social position”. He says that it sends a false message that we can achieve anything if we work hard and apply ourselves. I agree that that is simply not true. Look at the millionaires in our world. They didn’t all get there based on merit and hard work. Some of them inherited their wealth, while some just screwed over other people and stole ideas on their way up the ladder of success.

It is a myth, the American Dream. It’s something advertisers invented so that we would all conform to what we thought we should be. We had to fit that mold, to consume, to create a life in which things mattered more than people. And still, after all these years, from the 1950s to 2013, we don’t have enough and if we really want it, we are free to take it from someone else and create a lie that even we start to believe. That is the consumer culture we now live in. Everything is available. Except truth.


Freedom of Choice-English 101 Essay

Posted by Elle Latham on March 10, 2013 at 5:25 PM Comments comments (3)

 Linda Hirshman states in “Homeward Bound”, an article that explores the phenomenon of elite women leaving the workplace for the “Second Shift” at home where they are resigned to do housework, that women are doing themselves a disservice by becoming stay-at-home mothers (Hirshman 1). She claims that the rising numbers of women giving up on their careers is holding us back. In response to this article, David Brooks submitted his op-ed piece “The Year in Domesticity,” in which he calls Hirshman wrong and denies that women should value their work life over their home life. While Hirshman uses statistics and elite mother interviewees to prove her point, Brooks takes a far more basic and emotional approach to the subject. He claims that people who cherish time at home with their family hold those memories nearer to them than they do memories of work. He also states that “a child’s IQ, mental habits and destiny are largely shaped in the first few years of life, before school or the outside world has much influence” (Brooks 1).

When reading the two articles, one can easily jump to the conclusion that one person is right and the other is wrong. While one could definitely make a case for the latter, for each author, there is certainly a bit of gray area when it comes to the issue of elite women choosing to exit the workplace in order to raise their children full-time at home. Both authors make valid points for their respective arguments. Hirshman says that elite women are wasting their degrees by abandoning their careers, while Brooks counters that the power is in the home, not the office (Hirshman 1).

In comparing these opposing views on this issue, one can’t help but identify more with what Brooks brings to the conversation. Although he doesn’t utilize as many facts and reacts emotionally rather than logically, what he is saying in “The Year in Domesticity” is a little bit easier to justify than what Hirshman is saying in “Homeward Bound”. While she makes solid points about how women and men are conditioned to do certain things from birth and how women feel guilty for pursuing a career after having a baby, it is completely off the mark to suggest that women should limit the amount of children they have to just one child because it hinders the woman from continuing on her chosen career path (Hirshman 1). Where are we, China? What part of that statement doesn’t come off as totalitarian? Brooks doesn’t touch on that statement quite enough but he does point out that neglecting a child can result in angry children who grow up to hate the parent that abandoned them (Brooks 1).

In addition to Hirshman’s unbelievable tolerance and preference for a parent abandoning their child that is raised by nannies on retainer, she seems to think choosing your choice confines a woman to a life of working for money and letting money rule their lives (Hirshman 1). Contrary to what Hirshman believes, some women don’t like to work. Does that make them horrible people who are making their gender look bad? Surely, having the choice to choose means that a woman can choose to be a stay-at-home mother or pursue whichever workplace role she so desires while also caring for her children. That’s the beauty of choice. There’s more than one option. If women want to stay at home and live happily ever after with their families, they shouldn’t be unfairly judged for going against their own sex and being complacent with doing so. That is their right. It is everyone’s right.

David Brooks’ detractors will say that he veers off track near the end of his piece when he claims that “men and women are wired differently” and men are “interested in things and abstract rules while women are interested in people” (Brooks 1). They are right. It is a generalization that doesn’t belong in the op-ed but it is clear that his point is men and women were given differing gender roles and they mostly adhered to those roles prescribed to them by their parents. He also states that good parenting is essential to our society’s development and we should all start to accept how powerful parenting is (Brooks 1).

Hirshman does her best to malign these elite mothers for their poor decision-making, but what the reader comes away with is a woman attacking other women for the choices she thinks they shouldn’t have made. One can’t help but wonder why does Hirshman care so much? How do these womens’ decisions affect her personally? Why can’t she just let them be?

In conclusion, while both argue vehemently for their differing viewpoints, David Brooks is the one with the more sound argument as tenuous as it may be. He really hits the nail on the head when he writes that Hirshman is presenting an “unapologetic blast of 1970s time-warp feminism” (Brooks 1). This statement could not be more accurate. He is spot-on when he criticizes her antiquated views of what feminism should be. The last thing we need, as women, is another woman telling us what to do, how to think, and how to live our lives. Hirshman would say that’s progress. But is it? Is that what we have been fighting for all these years? We as women, should be hopeful about our future, because as much as Hirshman would have us believe there are not enough powerful women in the world, the reality is that there are far more women in power today than there were in her heyday. She may not acknowledge them but they are there. They are CEO’s (Meg Whitman of HP, Denise M. Morrison of Campbell Soup, and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, for example), movie producers (Diablo Cody, Kathleen Kennedy, and Nina Jacobson), television producers (Alex Borstein, Tina Fey, Elizabeth Meriwether, and Amy Poehler), directors (Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, and Callie Khouri), etc. The list goes on and on and on. Now, that’s what I call progress.



The 50s: An Examination-English 101 Journal

Posted by Elle Latham on March 10, 2013 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

What we miss about the 50s, according to Stephanie Coontz, is the facade that was portrayed on TV and in our daily lives. We saw on our favorite TV shows a glimpse of what we wanted to be. It was the quintessential nuclear family. It was the mother doing housework, the working dad who knew best, and the perfect little family of white people. Minorities weren't represented but the music of that era presented a change that would occur in the 60s with the civil rights movement. There was a bunch of competition between suburban families. You always wanted what your neighbor had. Appliances were introduced and jobs were available for people with a minimal amount of education.

This took place after the war and people needed to build up an illusion while still pretending to hold on to their morals. Pregnancy was not shown on TV until the groundbreaking series I Love Lucy which was not the most flattering portrayal of married life in that the wife was always in trouble and her husband had to control her and keep her from working. But it was realistic for what the expectations were in that time period.

What we don’t miss is the very prevalent racism and sexism that permeated throughout the decade but it’s not like they don't exist anymore. There are a lot of issues with every decade so nostalgia is not a good idea when you really think about it. You like certain things but you would never actually go back. The grass is always greener on the other side. It’s best to just be content with where you are now than to retreat into the past.

In conclusion, it seems that the times were changing but what you were left with were twisted ideals and a world that was great for some people yet downright terrifying for the rest. While so much good was happening to the White men of the time, the women and minorities were being stifled and treated as second class citizens. (Be it ignoring a husband’s abuse of his wife or denying Black men and women the basic rights to drink from the same fountain and go to the same schools and sit in the front of the bus.) When it comes down to it, what we really miss about the 50s is the Amercan Dream that was shown but not given to us because it never really existed in the first place. It was only a fantasy that never materialized into reality.