The American Dream: Not What You Thought

SINCE THE ARRIVAL of the Puritans at Plymouth Rock, America has been a dream, a hope, a possibility. It continues to be so today, except for many Americans themselves, who have instead adopted the very beliefs that drove our forebears from Europe to America, where they lived lives of privation, danger, and early death. Why would anyone leave the comfort and safety of Europe for the malaria-infested shores of a distant, uncivilized continent?

One reason alone: freedom. The Puritans were not so much headed for America as they were escaping oppressive European governments, which had limited their religious freedom, their right to assemble, and their right of self-determination--the very rights guaranteed two hundred years later in our own Constitution, but now largely forgotten by most Americans, judging from the polls. Important rights today seem to be the right to not be offended by another's views, the right to cradle-to-the-grave healthcare, and the right to 100+ cable channels and a 2000 calorie Whopper.

I do not make this charge lightly, for it has been my habit over the last twenty years, whenever I talk to someone who is disgusted with American foreign policy, to ask them what exactly does America stands for? What, precisely, is the "American dream"?

What I usually hear is a monetary version: "Home ownership," is the most common response, a kind of updated Depression-era "chicken in every pot" homily. But even 80 years ago the dream started to turn into a nightmare, reducing the core value of political, religious, and personal freedom to mere creature comforts. Back then it was a chicken dinner, in the post-war period it was home ownership, now it's universal health care, none of which satisfy the innate human need for freedom. Creature comforts merely make life more easier, not better. Interstate highways, better cars, 24-7 sports channels, 3-day weekends, safe consumer products--all this seems to be the goal of most Americans, but none of these is why America came into being, and none of them are why it should exist today. In short, America should not stand for the easy life--it should stand for a better one.

Except for tours of French museums and Mexican cruiseship dockings, most Americans have never really been in another country. In Rio, the world's worst slums lie less than a mile from Ipanema Beach, but no tourists go there. Calcutta squalor is seen through the viewfinder of a camera and dismissed just as easily. For two years I lived in Ecuador, one of the poorest countries in South America. I saw first-hand how hard life could be without the creature comforts I grew up with. Even getting water involved walking a mile to the common well. At first I was horrified by the sub-standard living conditions: In the tiny hamlet of Jipijapa there were no paved streets, no running water, very little electricity, and cockroaches as big as your fist. For many days after my arrival, I focused on what these people did not have, until I met a carpenter who dreamed of coming to the USA. "Life is better there, no?" he asked.

"It is," I said. "We have everything."

"Yes. You have freedom," he said simply.

I looked at him. Freedom? Well, sure, we had that. I'd never thought about it before.

"You can live your life as you please," he added. "Any way you choose."

Yes, that was also true. Then he began to tell me how Jipijapa was ruled by a jefe, a strongman owner of a coffee plantation, who paid the workers a pittance, fired them if they complained, and ran off or killed those who opposed him. He was a government that had never built a school or a post office.

"But the liquor is very cheap," said the carpenter, smiling ruefully. "It puts us to sleep."

At that moment I began to see how this simple man--who earned one dollar a day--saw the world, and I realized he was more informed about it than I was. Life was not about cheap liquor (or food or gas or homes or TV or you name it). It was about the freedom to choose one's own life, and this simple Ecuadorian carpenter believed in that dream because of the USA. Nothing in his world even remotely mimicked the freedoms we enjoy; but he'd seen Dallas on TV, and instead of being jealous at the incredible standard of living the characters on that show enjoyed, he saw a weekly morality play: good prevailed, wrongs were righted, and evil people were eventually punished. After all, J.R. was shot.

I returned to home to a different country than I had left. In truth, I was different, and I've never ceased to see the crucial connection between our standard of living and the freedom that underwrites it. But I fear many of my countrymen, who've never lived in another country, do not recognize that the foundation for our life is not capitalism; it is the freedom to choose how we live our lives.

So what does America stand for? Freedom. Freedom to fail, freedom to succeed. Now, with that in mind, where do you come down on the issues of the day? Should the government guarantee that no one ever stubs his toe? Should the government be blamed for every minor inconvenience we experience? Should everyone have the unlimited right to absolute personal safety?

Or should America merely be the level playing field where we get to see what we're made of? Will we win or lose? If I get injured, isn't that part of the game? If the other team scores, should they be required to let me score as well? If they have a star player, shouldn't he be required to play half the game for my team? When I'm tired, shouldn't the coach let me rest? And should I let the attractive cheerleaders divert my attention from the game?

When people say George Bush is the worst president ever, I just smile. Sure, as a conservative, there are many things I dislike about his administration--the unbridled growth of the federal government, to name just one--but for me, he will go down in history as a great president because of just one thing: he gave the freedom to choose to 40 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq. They may choose wrongly. Afghans may return to an opium poppy economy. Iraq may break up into a dozen warring provinces. But President Bush gave them the unprecedented freedom to choose. And that, in my book, not only makes him a great president, but it makes him a great president of a great country, because the freedom is what we stand for. It is our greatest export and the very reason for our existence.

So this Fourth of July I will bow my head and offer a prayer of thanks for those 4,000 Americans who freely gave their lives so that 40 million strangers could experience freedom. And the kind of person who would give his or her own life for another is the natural outgrowth of a nation "conceived in liberty."

God bless America, and may God bless Americans to remember what it means to be an American.