The American Dream: Fact or Myth
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The American dream that one can become something from nothing is the main reason why America is the fastest growing country. It is often seen as a melting pot encompassing many different religions and nationalities. People move to America with dreams of becoming wealthy, but many of the ideologies that have existed within the country for years inhibit these dreams from coming true. In this essay, I will discuss Horatio Alger’s depiction of the American dream and I will present a supported case for why it is destructive. This support consists of iconic examples from popular American culture such as O.J. Simpson, the character Othello, and Colin Powell. I feel that O.J. Simpson’s life greatly embodies the argument that Harlon Dalton poses in his essay Horatio Alger, about the limits on black success in America. I will also present many statistics and reference articles revealing the flawed aspects of Alger’s American Dream.
It is Harlon L. Dalton’s belief that Horatio Alger’s writings, during the mid to late 1800’s, promoted a destructive myth that overlooked the realities of society. Dalton specifically targets Alger’s story Ragged Dick, about a young man who devoutly works his way up the American corporate ladder slowly succeeding based on his merit. Dalton feels the myth implied by this is that the American dream is accessible to all those who are willing to work for it. Alger has been a highly acclaimed writer in American culture, and the popularity of his work partly suggests that most Americans have an inherent belief in this myth. If this mindset is a part of the mental tapestry of America, and it is as destructive as Dalton claims it to be, it would mean that American’s are inherently delusional. One might argue that this is only the problem of the minorities in this country, but Dalton protests that part of the want for most Americans to believe in this myth is fueled by a white discomfort with addressing the reality of a racial problem in America. He identifies this when he says,
By interring the myth of Horatio Alger, or at least forcing it to coexist with social reality, we can accomplish two important goals. First, we can give the lie to the idea that Black people can simply lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. With that pesky idea out of the way it is easier to see why White folk need to take joint ownership of the nation’s race problem… (Dalton)
This idea of dual ownership for racial injustice is a concept Dalton feels most whites avoid and is a concept we see on many occasions being played out by the media in daily society.
There are many real life examples of the destructive nature of American prejudice, on the black pursuit for success. In many cases we see examples of blacks who appear to be on top of the world. Dalton points out that Alger is often brought up during conversations about people like Colin Powel; this is also true of Oprah Winfrey. Both figures rose from impoverished situations to become incredibly rich and powerful; both are black, and could be used to protest that there is no racial problem in the United States, and that Alger’s ideals are in fact not myth. The truth is the racial problem still exists in America, only it is more subtle than it was when Alger disregarded it. This great amount of prejudice can be seen in O.J. Simpson’s life, and his rise to, and fall from success.
The O.J. Simpson trial has become one of the key events of American history. It embodies all of the socioeconomic and legal politics of our country’s structure. A modern day tragedy, Simpson’s rise and fall, in America, struggles to escape an immediate comparison to the plot of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is a true life classic tale encompassing themes like: the black man’s burden, immoral aristocracy, and the contradictions between social justice/injustice. On top of that, his life story has become a pop-culture phenomenon, due to its themes of love, sex, betrayal and murder. His story also sheds light on the fact that the racial ideology of our past has a heavy lingering influence on the way our society still functions. William Shakespeare’s Othello is one of his most controversial tragedies. In part because, it is a love story about deception and betrayal, but mostly because it involves a love affair between an interracial couple. Considering the era in which the play was written, it’s no surprise why Shakespeare is held in such high regard for being ahead of his time. Horatio Alger disregards the same concepts of race and ideology that Shakespeare is wise enough to confront in Othello.
Dalton points out this incompetence on Alger’s part when he mentions how Alger wrote more for popularity and his own success than for deep meaning. The story starts out with Othello attaining great glory and acclaim from the people of Venice. An African (Moore), he earns the love and admiration of the beautiful Venetian Desdemona, which warrants him access into a predominantly white Italian aristocracy. Ragged Dick and Othello are exact opposites, because Shakespeare is actually socially conscious. The story of Othello takes place during a time period in Europe when cross cultural relations weren’t even considered, let alone frowned upon. Othello is considered to be a Muslim by the Christian Venetians. Yet, he is called upon by the duke of Venice to defend them from the Turks, who are also Muslim. After victory is inadvertently achieved, Othello is a hero, but he is still considered a black Muslim, in a white Christian society. A major theme that can’t be avoided in the play is that of racial separatism. Despite all of Othello’s accomplishments, he is still vilified for being black by the culture he has assimilated into, once it is discovered he murdered his wife. The message expressed in a story about a black man who is celebrated as a hero, changes his religion and even marries into the society, but still can’t achieve full acceptance is a very timeless and socially conscious message.
When you take an in depth look at the attitude that is truly necessary for one to make a lone effort towards furthering the genuine full racial integration of America, it puts characters like O.J. Simpon (murder aside) and Othello in a positive light for their rebellious loner-like natures, and their fearless inclination towards cross cultural confrontations. It also condemns all those who settle into social tribes of convenient sameness. Both Othello and Simpson are absolute anti-heroes compared to Alger’s Ragged Dick, whose ethnicity isn’t even considered. In a world defined by white and black, sociologically, Othello and O.J. tread a shade of grey.
Their circumstances embody the characteristics of the American Dream as it applies to black America. By being fearless toward cross cultural interaction, they create an identity separate from a solely ethnicity defined existence. This is what they all have in common, and on this they can build a relationship. Those who isolate themselves from anyone different and congregate in their same race unions conform along with a growing distance from cross cultural understanding. Eventually the only trait they hold in common with those of different races is a distrust and sense of threat. It’s ironic that Dalton cites the fear of threat as one of the key ingredients to hate and violence; because as we see here, segregate views are the core cause of this type of fear.
Social injustice warrants the in depth analyses of some of the key correlating conflicts within the Black Man’s burden. The type of social exclusion both Othello and Simpson experience to certain individual class and race stances on morality. I think morals legalize our sense of justice by identifying what we owe to whom, and whose needs, views, and well-being count, and whose do not. We use this sense of morals to decide who we accept into our social circles. Those who do not fall into the specific criteria, be it a certain race, class religion etc.., they are subject to exclusion. Before Simpson’s trial, he was welcome and accepted in all of the most elite of social circles. When O.J. was in the lime light of the public eye, he was considered an all American hero.
He was doing Hertz commercials, and staring in films, like Naked Gun; he was America’s poster boy of racial equilibrium. Publicized as the social opposite to Jim Brown, who was just as prominent of a running-back, but still held underlying label of too black to market, O.J. had gained full acceptance in white America. He had money, fan admiration, and a beautiful white wife. The same moral community which accepted him would be the group of people to destroy him. This is the limit to success Dalton feels is placed on blacks. It’s very similar to a statement Chris Rock once said in his stand up; he says, when you’re white the sky is the limit, but when you’re black the limit’s the sky.
Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden would most likely disagree with this statement. In their essay From Colin Powell: Straight to the Top, they praise the man for his accomplishments and present him as the embodiment of the American Dream. The essay serves as more of an advertisement for the United States’ armed forces program than anything else. It is also a modern day example of the same type of propaganda Alger uses to promote his myth. Only this is a myth directly saying the American Dream is a black dream as well.
This is actually a hot topic because it points out a gradual change in ideals as well as a tendency of Americans to maintain the status quo. Ragged Dick is a very bland and two dimensional character in the story. On top of this, he never actually shows hard work or discipline. The sole reason for his advancement is the fact that he saves a rich man’s son, which argues that success is not based on merit, but who one happens to know. As I have already shown, there are many complex divides between black s an whites preventing black from the necessary social interactions for success. Dalton would most likely question the real life version of Alger’s story if Dick were a young black male. Alger’s rags to riches genre is constantly brought up in discussions on people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Colin Powel. In fact, it’s often the media’s use of icons like these men that help perpetuate an unjust playing field in American society. If Colin Powel were to cross the same line as O.J., all of his past successes would no longer matter. The same as Simpson’s victories were taken away from him. There are still many who argue that O.J.
Those in favor of the status quo of American society might argue that there is no factual information to prove that Colin Powel would be disregarded by white America, if he were to make a mistake, because it hasn’t happened yet. They would most likely consider this view to be predictive speculation. Those who might argue in Alger’s defense point out that slavery still existed during Alger’s lifetime and that he lived in a different era. These same people don’t tend to think that there is a racial problem in the United States; and like Dalton points out, they would rather not address it than to be confronted with a discomforting reality (Dalton).
If this is the level of injustice in the economic structure today, I can only imagine the stat it was in during the late 1800’s when Alger popularized his books. Dalton points out in his essay that many Alger supporters feel that the myth is necessary for one’s psychological survival. He does this by quoting Shelley Taylor’s view about the human mind that, [T]he Human mind is oriented toward mental health and…at every turn it construes events in a manner that promotes benign fictions about the self, the world, and the future. The mind is…oriented towards overcoming…(Taylor). The key idea Dalton attempts to point out is that for some blacks the reality of their plight might be so unbearable, they would rather be delusional to feel they have a reason to try. This makes the American Dream a positive myth to be upheld, and not something to be seen as destructive.
In sum, I feel the American Dream is a myth, but its value is dependant on the realities we choose to accept. The same realities we are subject to today existed as far back as the days of Shakespeare. On top of this, blacks can’t allow themselves to be persuaded to role themselves after icons like Colin Powel, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. They must learn to be individuals, and remember that O.J. Simpson was once America’s golden boy as well. This is the real ideology that drives these great men. The ideal of individuality, in spite of being categorized, is what allowed these men to maintain their focus and achieve their immeasurable success. A successful state of mind is aspiration of anyone who truly has plans to succeed. It has absolutely nothing to with race and it is the trait that can overcome it. This is the message I believe Dalton was trying to infer, and this is the message that Alger spent his career avoiding.
We need to make a series of hard choices, followed by yet more hard choices regarding how to live with the promise of less. Confronting that reality is made that much harder by a mythology that assures us we can have it all. -Harlon L. Dalton
This statement being the boiling point of Dalton’s case against Alger, and the key purpose of his argument, though true, it has its weak points. I expected more. He is addressing a conflict that is much more complex than just being satisfied with less. Just as there are sociological barriers, there are also those who can never find satisfaction, and this trait is the cause of human greatness. The American Dream and its relationship with inequality poses a more loaded decision for one to make than how to live with the promise of less. There are many minorities in our American society who have demonstrated the human resolve not to settle for less. I agree that Horatio Alger’s version of the American Dream is a myth, because it overlooks the major concern of racism. For the good of the American community, and society as a whole, racism and prejudice are unjust and inhumane. But, when it comes to an interaction between Horatio’s myth and reality for the purpose of producing the best human specimens, I do not think Alger’s concept is destructive. In fact, the combination of Alger’s myth and reality is the cause of some of the greatest people American society has to offer.
This idea corresponds with a few of the arguments I previously touched upon. The basic idea is that within a system that inadvertently makes black success more difficult than white success, through being outnumbered and ill-supported, the black who do manage to make it to the top and maintain their status are probably more deserving of their positions than their white counter parts. This idea is often protested by those who feel affirmative action unfairly places minorities in positions they don’t deserve. What should also be recognized is that a lot of these blacks are often dealing in predominantly white corporate social networks that don’t welcome them and aren’t making it too easy for them to accomplish their jobs, but they surpass their adversities. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.