Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The American Dream?

We all know what the “American dream” has been.  As the phrase is generally used, it has meant the material benefits of freedom … upward mobility, financial success, home ownership.  That hard work will pay off and that each successive generation will be better off.  

African-Americans have never as a group had that dream for obvious reasons … their history of slavery, Jim crow in the South, segregation and discrimination in the North.  These facts … ongoing discrimination, segregation, and poor education, with the resulting lower income and for many poverty … form the context of their dreams or better put, lack thereof, for most blacks.

But this dream is what drove the tens of millions of immigrants who came to this country after the Civil War and in the 20th century, including more recently Latinos.  Since immigrants and their descendants now form the majority of Americans, their view of the American dream has predominated.   

It was thus with great surprise when several days ago I read an article in The New York Times based on data from a National Opinion Research Center survey that found a very different concept of the American dream to be current among Americans.  I should start by saying that NORC is one of the most respected survey research organizations (note I did not call it a “polling” organization) in the country.  (I must also note that I am a former NORC employee.)

The survey found that for the vast majority of Americans today, regardless their income, ethnic, or racial group, the American dream was “freedom of choice of how to live” and “a good family life.”  About 40% felt they had achieved that dream and another 40% said they were well on there way to doing so.

Huh?  This was a surprise in two respects.  First, not lusting after material prosperity seems almost un-American.  Second, given what has been happening to people, what the majority of people have experienced, in this country over the past four decades (starting with the Reagan presidency), most people feeling positive about their lives was unexpected.

But on reflection, that very fact … that excepting the top 20%, most Americans have been so battered financially over the course of the past 40 years … plus the fact that blacks have been constantly disappointed by the promise of the American dream ever since emancipation, offers an explanation for the survey’s surprising findings.  I believe that in order to cope psychologically, the definition of the American dream for most Americans has changed to something that they feel they either have or is within reach.

The good news is that most people report feeling pretty good about their lives.  The bad news is that this is mostly based on an illusion.  First, they don’t really have “freedom of choice of how to live;” one of the things that made America exceptional … that very freedom based on upward mobility …  is no longer the case.  Most people only have freedom of choice of how to live today in the sense that the government doesn’t tell them what life to lead, as in Communist countries of old, and they have choices regarding what to buy and what services to use.  And “a good family life?”  If surveys and anecdotal stories are to be believed, this is also an illusion; there is much dysfunction in the typical American family.

So despite the article presenting a very rosy take on this transformation of people’s definition of the American dream, this report is not something to feel good about but rather something to read with concern.  

If my take on the survey results is correct, it may be the explanation for the phenomenon that has been noted often with concern that so many young men are little better than slackers.  It is women who have more drive today, and that also makes sense against the backdrop that women are more emancipated today than ever; they can see themselves being more than their mother’s were.

What has made America great and powerful over the years has been the American people pushing the envelope of their lives as well as pushing the envelope of what is known, what exists.  They have done this within the context of American democracy and freedom, but it is what they have done with their lives which has made the real difference.  If Americans lose the drive to make their lives better by pushing the envelope, America will deteriorate into a second-class nation.

Donald Trump does not understand what has made America great, so nothing he is doing will fix what is currently wrong.  It’s not as simplistic as creating jobs or fixing trade imbalances.  

There are many things that are currently wrong in America, but what most impacts America’s greatness is paradoxically it’s corporate culture.  Rather than strengthening America, as it did for many decades, corporate culture is now bleeding America.  It is the corporate culture which must change if America is to regain its greatness, if young people once again are to have hope in the future and thus have the drive to push the envelope.

And how do we accomplish changing corporate culture?  Part of it certainly starts in the business schools that educate future executives.  Part of it comes from a change in the general culture which has elevated greed … one of the seven deadly sins … into a virtue; that wanting as much money and material things as one can amass is a good thing. 

It means a return to values that served America and its citizens well for 200 years.  Progress is not always to be found in going where no man has ever gone.  Sometimes, progress is returning to the past.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Political Correctness to the Extreme

The question is, should Governor Northam of Virginia resign because he possibly either put on blackface or a KKK robe for a picture that found its way into his medical school yearbook (which he first admitted and then denied), or because he now admits that he blacked his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest when he was in the Army?  Both of which he has appropriately apologized for.

All leadership elements of the Democratic party nationally and in Virginia are calling on him to resign.  This is part of the Party’s zero tolerance towards aberrant behavior, whether it involves sexual harassment or other offensive behavior.

But as applied in this case, is their action the correct one?  We are talking about actions that Mr. Northam took as a young man 35 years ago.  To do what he did in the early 80s showed at a minimum an extreme lack of good judgment and sensitivity.  But given the state and the peer group he grew up in, the victimless nature of the offense, and his impeccable actions on social and racial matters as an adult in the years since, should he be hounded out of office for this offensive and juvenile behavior?  I would say, no.  People do grow up; they do adopt a larger worldview.

That the Democratic party has reacted as they have is in large part I think because they have aggressively accused the Republicans for not disciplining its members for inappropriate behavior.  And so they feel they have to have this zero tolerance policy or else the Republicans will lambast them for hypocrisy.  

Given the way the voting public reacts to sound bites these days, rather than reasoned argument, there is reason to fear the impact of such a charge.  But that does not relieve Democrats of the responsibility to act conscionably.  Is this just?

Or are they worried about a charge of hypocrisy relating to their stand against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for actions he was accused of as a college student?  Certainly such a charge would be made by the Republicans if Democrats accepted the governor’s apology for his young adult behavior, but I don’t think that the actions that are in question here are in any way comparable to the seriousness of those that Kavanaugh stood accused of.

Date rape, whether a single instance or repeated behavior as some of his accusers claimed, is criminal behavior.  It is forcibly violating a woman’s person.  This cannot be compared to the “innocent” albeit offensive and inappropriate behavior of Mr. Northam.  The comparable behavior would be if Mr. Northam had abused a person of color in some way, or if he gave a racism-tinged speech, but those are not the facts.

The Democratic Party should stand firmly for what they believe.  They should not treat their own differently than Republicans.  But they should not treat their own more strictly because they fear being called hypocrites by the Republicans.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

Unfortunately, at this point there is no way out.  For the Democratic leadership to back down now without some new evidence would indeed appear to be hypocritical.  And for Governor Northam to continue to refuse to resign hurts his own reputation. For the good of all concerned, he must resign.