Monday, June 27, 2011

The Death of the American Dream Part I

One of my parents' favorite films is Far and Away.  The 1992 film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is one of Ron Howards' early efforts as a director.  I think my parents relate to the story because of their own Scotch-Irish heritage, since the film tells the story of the Irish immigrant experience in America as seen primarily by the two main characters, Joseph, played by Tom Cruise, and Shannon, played by Nicole Kidman.

As the film opens in Ireland, we see that Joseph is from an extremely poor family who  farm the land as sharecroppers for Shannon's wealthy father.  As a poor Irishman, Joseph has no real rights in Ireland, no genuine hope of a better future, and no recourse against the abuses and indignities heaped upon him and his family by those wealthier than he.  Shannon, on the other hand, is the spoiled only child of a wealthy family, but although she has everything she rebels against her parents' control and ambitions and longs for the freedom that America promises.  Persuading Joseph to go with her, she steals her family's prized spoons to pay passage for both of them to America, where she has read that land is so plentiful that the government is actually giving it away.

Once they arrive in America, both Joseph and Shannon experience culture shock.  As Irish immigrants, they experience harsh discrimination from non-immigrants, and gross abuse by the Irish bosses who run Boston.  Although it was Shannon's idea to come to America, she quickly finds out that life is very hard for a single young woman with no money (immediately upon her arrival she is robbed of her spoons by a con man) and that America is not exactly what she had in mind.  But Joseph is intrigued by America and the opportunities that it offers to a young man who is willing to work and fight for a better life. While Joseph had no hope, no future and no opportunity in Ireland, he soon discovers that he can set the course for his own life in America, and even though he faces discrimination from those who are not Irish and theft and abuse by those who are, he understands that he can seize control of his future in this country in a way that he never could have in Ireland.

The climax of the movie comes at the end, when after many hardships and adventures, both Joseph and Shannon make their way--separately--to Oklahoma to race for free land.  This was the real purpose of their trip and of all of the hardships they have endured--a chance to own their own property, to be masters of their own homestead.  And as we watch Joseph and Shannon line up at the start line to join the rest of the Oklahoma Sooners, we understand that everything that they have experienced has been worth it to get them to this moment--their own individual chance at the American dream.

As we prepare this week to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday and the anniversary of our nation's independence, we as Americans tend to reflect on what our country has given to us.  For over 230 years, America has symbolized the fulfillment of dreams--dreams for self-employment, dreams for home ownership, dreams for a better, freer life both for immigrants and for those of us born in this country.  Like Joseph in Far and Away we tend to look at America as a place where our dreams have the power to take flight.  Even if our circumstances are difficult today--if we face persecution or discrimination or mistreatment--nevertheless we ultimately have the chance to set our own course for the future and to write our own story.

Unfortunately, if we are honest about our country's situation, in 2011, the American dream as it has been traditionally defined--home ownership, self employment, opportunity for success through personal initiative--is dying.  In its place, we are being told that we need to look to the New American Dream where freedom from responsibility is better than freedom to succeed.

This week, as we prepare for Independence Day, I am taking a look at the ways in which the American Dream is being reshaped and redefined to mean something that it is not.  As we celebrate July 4, next Monday, I hope that each of us will take a serious look at the freedoms and opportunities we are losing and to ask ourselves the question, "What is freedom?"  Is freedom merely the absence of responsibility, or is it the ability to work toward and achieve our goals?  I hope you will join me.     
For other articles by Alexandra Swann, visit


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