American Dream Deferred

originally published February 15, 2018

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – The Declaration of Independence.

This is not my American Dream. I don’t know what happened to mine, but this isn’t it. The dream we’re in must belong to someone else.

Before I begin, it’s worth acknowledging that I come from one of the most jaded generations in modern history: the notoriously lazy and pessimistic Generation-X. Why do you think I’m a writer? Very few things feed the self-loathing ego of a Gen-X’r more than putting his or her every thought out there for the world to see. And writing is just about as lazy a way to do it as I can imagine. Hell, our generation invented blogging and social media, for crying out loud.

So bear in mind that my generation already had a pretty pessimistic outlook on the so-called “American Dream.” We were raised in a post-Vietnam, post-Nixon world. We saw Iran Contra live. The dream of space died in front of our innocent eyes in every classroom across America. We watched the first ever televised war. We saw a State Treasurer’s suicide live via satellite, and homicide became our nightly television consumption. Madonna’s serpentine dance seduced our bodies on MTV, and Kurt Cobain’s screams penetrated our brains in an orgy of angst.

But this isn’t Gen-X’s notorious angst coming back to haunt me. I’ve spoken to many Millennials that feel this way as well. And the old hippies have been sadly crying, “We told you so.”

I did my part in the Dream, too. I graduated high school and went on to college. I joined the Army. Fought in a war, even. I toured the world – from Denver to Deutschland, Kuwait to Korea, and a few ports of call in between. I learned to respect my enemy and love his culture, and I saw us as he did. And we were just as much a terrorist to him as he was to us. It made me remember when, as a child, I asked my Dad, “Were you a good guy or bad guy in the war?” And he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “There are no good guys or bad guys.” It is a lesson I wish I had never come to learn.

But I came back and tried. I really did. I had the plan, the same plan of soldiers of yore: come home, use your G.I. Bill to get a college degree, get a nice job and buy a house for your wife and two and half children. Things didn’t quite go as planned, however.

For one thing, the G.I. Bill hasn’t exactly kept up with the skyrocketing costs of college. Yet I was able to manage a comfortable living by combining school with some part-time work as a pizza delivery guy while my wife worked the graveyard shift at Denny’s and her mother watched our kids.

Unfortunately, even back then I was having problems with the rest of the world. I was aware I had PTSD but, because the Veteran’s Administration takes so long to process claims, I had no choice but to try to suffer through it to provide for my family. And, while we were making enough to provide food and shelter, we started falling behind on other bills. Pretty soon we found things in collections and creditors came a calling. By the time I graduated our combined credit was shit.

Then the Great Recession hit. Which pretty much eliminated any chance we’d ever have to buy a house.

But I plodded on. From one part-time job to the other, from one class to the other, from one bottle to the other, I made it through school and just right then my disability was approved. More than six years after first filing.

Now I sit pretty comfortably where I live. Sadly, on disability payments (and factoring in the benefits), I make much more than the median for my county. My health care, and that of my family, is mostly taken care of. My children will have much of their college paid for. But I am a unicorn amongst my peers, in that aspect. Their future, and the future of their children, is not so certain. They have to balance the cost of health care against the cost college. They have to debate the pros and cons of taking out loans simply to get an education. They watch as their taxes go up and their standard of living goes down.

No, simply put, this isn’t the America we were promised in the American Dream. That ephemeral belief that in America all things are possible. Anyone can grow up to be anything. A poor man can become rich if he just works hard. You can be an astronaut, a rock star, even the President.

“There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.” – Poet Archibald MacLeish.

With the American Dream comes Rights. The Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Right to be treated equal. The Right to have your own religion, or to not have one. The Right to speak freely against your government without fear of reprisal.

But all these Rights come with a caveat: as long as they do not infringe upon the same Rights of others.

“What is the ‘American Dream’? The American Dream is one big tent. One big tent. And on that big tent you have four basic promises: equal protection under the law, equal opportunity, equal access, and fair share.” – The Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Yet here I sit staring at the news every day. I see a President who outright attacks the freedom of the press. I see the press deliberately spinning lies to appease said President. I see Civil Liberties being trampled upon daily. From people of color living in fear that their next encounter with a police officer could be their final moment, to women summoning the courage to speak out against their attackers only to be dismissed as rumor or gossip, sometimes even by the Leader of the Free World.

Wages have stagnated for three decades for the vast majority of workers. Meanwhile, the richest one percent grew exponentially richer while they saw their taxes drop.

Health care is so expensive in the United States that in some cases it is cheaper to fly to a foreign country to get treated. Medical bankruptcy is one of the leading causes of financial ruin for the middle and lower classes. We have the highest infant mortality rate of any developed country.

Hundreds have been killed or wounded in just this last year in mass shootings. Eighteen schools alone have had gun-related killings. The people of Puerto Rico, citizens of the United States, languish in the Third World as we drag our heels on helping them rebuild. Detroit looks less like the Motor City and more like Thunderdome. The drinking water in Flint, Michigan is poison and the U.S. Attorney responsible for investigating it was ordered to resign by President Trump.

Neo-Nazis marched with pride in the open in the streets of America.

Klan members took their hoods off on television – no longer afraid of being known as racist.

A pedophile was a Republican Senate candidate, and a Neo-Nazi is a current candidate.

Just this week a suspected member of a white supremacist militia group allegedly killed seventeen students at a high school in Florida. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has been accused of funneling ill-gotten Russian money to the GOP in order to prevent any gun legislation.

And the worst part about all of this? Over half of our government seems to want this to be the status quo. And they don’t even hide their desire for it. And, of course, a large percentage of the other half certainly secretly wants this to remain the status quo, even if they have to frown and “tut-tut” about it in public.

“I think the American Dream used to be achieving one’s goals in your field of choice – and from that, all other things would follow. Now, I think the dream has morphed into the pursuit of money: Accumulate enough of it, and the rest will follow.” – Colonel Buzz Aldrin, USAF/NASA.

This isn’t my American Dream. This is a Dream Deferred.

And I want to wake up.