American Pastoral and the need for a new American Dream



I am reading the novel American Pastoral by Philip Roth at the moment (a really thought-provoking novel) and I was struck by this passage in the book – a speech that the narrator imagines himself giving to his fiftieth anniversary high school reunion, but never does.

Let’s remember the energy. Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan. The war-crimes trials were cleansing the earth of its devils once and for all. Atomic power was ours alone. Rationing was ending, price controls were being lifted; in an explosion of self-assertion, auto workers, coal workers, transit workers, maritime workers, steel workers – laborers by the millions demanded more and went on strike for it. And playing Sunday morning softball on the Chancellor Avenue field and pickup basketball on the asphalt courts behind the school were all the boys who had come back alive, neighbors, cousins, older brothers, their pockets full of separation pay, the GI Bill inviting them to break out in ways they could not have imagined possible before the war. Our class started high school six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.

The same day as I read this summary of American post-war enthusiasm and power, I read Gary Younge’s article in the Guardian: My travels in white America – a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain.

The article paints virtually the flip-side of Roth’s narrator’s analysis of just over seventy years ago. It is a picture – in working class white America in particular – of failing health,  a national opioid epidemic, a lack of jobs and prospects, and a loss of belief in the idea of social mobility – that crucial myth at the heart of the American dream that no matter who you are and where you come from, you can make it in America. It’s a startling picture of how far America has fallen, especially when you contrast these two pieces together.

Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, or ‘MAGA’, is an admission of this slump in fortunes; it essentially says: ‘we lost’ – the implicit premiss is that America is no longer great. So how do you appeal to a set of people (white Americans) who, accustomed to at least feeling like victors and having the sense that opportunity is at their fingertips, suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of history? With an emotive call to bring back the glory years, of course, however wrong and misguided that may be. And before you start thinking that this is the thesis of a snooty Brit, a similar thing is happening this side of the Atlantic as well, though here the slogan is: ‘Taking back control’.

The death of the American dream is a theme that has been around for as long as the American dream has been a thing and in Roth’s novel, written in 1995, the dream turns sour for its hero ‘Swede’ Levov, just as it does in The Great Gatsby, written before the Second World War. Yet for an outsider, as I am, it strikes me that America has lost its way now – and the American dream has become so problematic to so many – because, in a number of crucial areas, America is spectacularly ill-adapted to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Of these, America’s interlinked love of fossil fuels and its egregious per capita consumption,  stand out in particular as being utterly unsustainable in a world in which resource shortages are likely to become more and more acute. This article in Scientific American gives an overview of just how insane this level of consumption is when compared to almost every other nation on earth. For instance, with less than five per cent of world population, the US uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 per cent of the coal, 27 per cent of the aluminum, and 19 per cent of the copper. The average American use as many resources as 35 average citizens of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than the average person in China. And it’s not only developing nations that America outstrips, but developed ones as well: American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain and two and a half times that of the average citizen of Japan.

It strikes me that rampant consumerism does not have to be an essential part of the American dream, yet it has come to be synonymous with it. Nowhere in the American constitution does it guarantee the freedom to consume. And surely the expectation of needing to consume enormous amounts of raw materials is part of the problem of setting expectations about what life can offer for Americans. The opioid crisis is more than a drug crisis – it’s a spiritual band aid for diminished material aspirations and the slow, dawning realization that the post-war idea of the American dream is properly dead.

Trump’s big theme (other than himself) is freedom, a theme at the heart of the American dream and a theme which he embodies with a careless abandon – constantly demonstrating his own freedom to offend, to be inconsistent, to do what he wants, when he wants. He represents a kind of unashamed philistine  grossness – that it’s okay to be offensive, that greed is good, and that violence is not only necessary but to be encouraged. Since being in office, he has defended the freedom of companies to pollute and contribute to climate change, and the freedom of American citizens to carry deadly assault rifles, amongst others.

George Monbiot has convincingly shown how the excuse of ‘freedom’ is used to justify all manner of terrible things. He writes:

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

This kind of destructive freedom is the same kind of freedom that is at the heart of America’s unbridled consumerism and Trump is its enthusiastic ambassador. The trouble is that a freedom for one group can often mean the restriction or deprivation of other people’s freedoms; and, increasingly, America’s indulgence in its freedoms is not just a problem for the wider world, but a problem for itself as well.  The scientific consensus is that man-made climate change is making events like destructive hurricanes and flooding, drought and wildfires more common – and these are wreaking terrible damage in America. Not only that, but the lifestyle expectations that accompany these levels of consumption are no longer realistic and will become even less so as the fossil fuel age begins its inexorable decline. Trump is a throwback and what America needs is a way of working out how the idea of the American dream can survive in an era of diminishing material aspiration.


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