June 26, 2005

Living the American Dream

The American Dream has never been just about greed although the rules under Bush make one think this is so. Under Bush, we've watched much of the spirit of our nation shrivel into one that is closed, selfish, paranoid and vengeful. A nation where only "true Americans" are allowed to express their opinions. A nation where the President never talks to people not already pre-screened unless it's the foreign reporters who come with a visiting dignitary. A nation where it's okay for people like Karl Rove to define Democrats or Liberals as traitors and anti-American.

Well, that is not the America I grew up with. And it is not the America that made people dream. This week, Barak Obama freed the American dream from the prison it had been thrown in by the Bush paranoia and arrogance. And he reminded us that being American should be something of which we can be proud and something for which we should be willing to fight. And yes, he reminds us, it isn't for just ourselves for which we stand, but for all people. Senator Obama certainly knows how to articulate what it really means to live the American Dream:

But as I was thinking about the words to share with this class, about what’s next, about what’s possible, and what opportunities lay ahead, I actually think it’s not a bad question for you, the class of 2005, to ask yourselves:

“What will be your place in history?”

In other eras, across distant lands, this question could be answered with relative ease and certainty. As a servant in Rome, you knew you’d spend your life forced to build somebody else’s Empire. As a peasant in 11th Century China, you knew that no matter how hard you worked, the local warlord might come and take everything you had—and you also knew that famine might come knocking at the door. As a subject of King George, you knew that your freedom of worship and your freedom to speak and to build your own life would be ultimately limited by the throne.

And then America happened.

A place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that, against all odds, they could form “a more perfect union” on this new frontier.

And as people around the world began to hear the tale of the lowly colonists who overthrew an empire for the sake of an idea, they started to come. Across oceans and the ages, they settled in Boston and Charleston, Chicago and St. Louis, Kalamazoo and Galesburg, to try and build their own American Dream. This collective dream moved forward imperfectly—it was scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, shaken by war and depression. And yet, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, people kept dreaming, and building, and working, and marching, and petitioning their government, until they made America a land where the question of our place in history is not answered for us. It’s answered by us.

Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail when you embark on your own American journey? You surely will. But the test is not perfection.

The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstance decides life’s big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams.

[snip]

So today I’m here to tell you what most of you already know. This is not us—the option that I just mentioned. Doing nothing. It’s not how our story ends—not in this country. America is a land of big dreamers and big hopes.

It is this hope that has sustained us through revolution and civil war, depression and world war, a struggle for civil and social rights and the brink of nuclear crisis. And it is because our dreamers dreamed that we have emerged from each challenge more united, more prosperous, and more admired than before.

So let’s dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let’s imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.

What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new economy? If we made sure that college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and we said “Your old job is not coming back, but a new job will be there because we’re going to seriously retrain you and there’s life-long education that’s waiting for you—the sorts of opportunities that Knox has created with the Strong Futures scholarship program.

What if no matter where you worked or how many times you switched jobs, you had health care and a pension that stayed with you always, so you all had the flexibility to move to a better job or start a new business? What if instead of cutting budgets for research and development and science, we fueled the genius and the innovation that will lead to the new jobs and new industries of the future?

[snip]

Now, no one can force you to meet these challenges. If you want, it will be pretty easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face. There is no community service requirement in the real world; no one is forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says that you should want, that you should aspire to, that you can buy.

But I hope you don’t walk away from the challenge. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It’s primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.

And I know that all of you are wondering how you’ll do this, the challenges seem so big. They seem so difficult for one person to make a difference.

But we know it can be done.

In Obama's America, greed is not the driving force, working together to create a more perfect union is. So go read the whole thing. And remember to dream.

Posted by Mary at June 26, 2005 12:19 AM | Philosophy | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |
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