A disturbing video about ‘the American dream’

After watching the video below, please tell me if the American Dream is really still presently attainable in the United States.

I understand that what I may be leading myself into here is a very (very) complex issue that might be too simplified, but then again maybe not. I would like to think that simplicity might be just what we need to finally break down the idea Americans seem to have ‘that it is my fault as an individual that I am in the predicament that I am in’, be that socioeconomically poor, living at or below the poverty line or elsewhere on the graph. We make our beds, no matter what.

“From dishwasher to millionaire” is one of  my students favorite saying about the American Dream, similar to the saying, “from rags to riches“, which assumes that one believes they can go from one end of the graph to the other. The reality is that this outcome is really very unlikely. Americans like stories of underdogs making it against all the odds and the more real the story the better, even if it is Hollywood telling the story or the local nightly news – the reality is that the odds are against us, especially these days. Americans are optimistic if nothing else though. We’d rather hear our politicians tell us hyperbolic stories and sound bites than the truth of the matter, because we too often live that truth.

I am not quite sure Americans or America may ever be comfortable with the brutal honesty that may be required to help better distribute the wealth and hard work in our country. Every person who works believes they work hard, whether they actually do or not is rather subjective. To tell a worker who feels they work very hard that they need to work harder, or that their work is not as meaningful or significant as another person’s just because society doesn’t seem to value them equally is a true injustice which helps perpetuate this major income inequality and American’s collective acceptance of it.

I’ve been rereading The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair and this particular passage from chapter 12 really struck me as being highly relevant today in America too with regard to many of the people in the 47%, or the 1% or the 99%. The most significant section is in bold text, but the rest offers more context and food for thought:

[…]

This time, however, Jurgis did not have the same fine confidence, nor the same reason for it. He was no longer the finest-looking man in the throng, and the bosses no longer made for him; he was thin and haggard, and his clothes were seedy, and he looked miserable. And there were hundreds who looked and felt just like him, and who had been wandering about Packingtown for months begging for work. This was a critical time in Jurgis’ life, and if he had been a weaker man he would have gone the way the rest did. Those out-of-work wretches would stand about the packing houses every morning till the police drove them away, and then they would scatter among the saloons. Very few of them had the nerve to face the rebuffs that they would encounter by trying to get into the buildings to interview the bosses; if they did not get a chance in the morning, there would be nothing to do but hang about the saloons the rest of the day and night. Jurgis was saved from all this—partly, to be sure, because it was pleasant weather, and there was no need to be indoors; but mainly because he carried with him always the pitiful little face of his wife. He must get work, he told himself, fighting the battle with despair every hour of the day. He must get work! He must have a place again and some money saved up, before the next winter came.

But there was no work for him. He sought out all the members of his union—Jurgis had stuck to the union through all this—and begged them to speak a word for him. He went to every one he knew, asking for a chance, there or anywhere. He wandered all day through the buildings; and in a week or two, when he had been all over the yards, and into every room to which he had access, and learned that there was not a job anywhere, he persuaded himself that there might have been a change in the places he had first visited, and began the round all over; till finally the watchmen and the “spotters” of the companies came to know him by sight and to order him out with threats. Then there was nothing more for him to do but go with the crowd in the morning, and keep in the front row and look eager, and when he failed, go back home, and play with little Kotrina and the baby.

The peculiar bitterness of all this was that Jurgis saw so plainly the meaning of it. In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him. They had got the best of him—they had worn him out, with their speeding-up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away! And Jurgis would make the acquaintance of others of these unemployed men and find that they had all had the same experience. There were some, of course, who had wandered in from other places, who had been ground up in other mills; there were others who were out from their own fault—some, for instance, who had not been able to stand the awful grind without drink. The vast majority, however, were simply the worn-out parts of the great merciless packing machine; they had toiled there, and kept up with the pace, some of them for ten or twenty years, until finally the time had come when they could not keep up with it any more. Some had been frankly told that they were too old, that a sprier man was needed; others had given occasion, by some act of carelessness or incompetence; with most, however, the occasion had been the same as with Jurgis. They had been overworked and underfed so long, and finally some disease had laid them on their backs; or they had cut themselves, and had blood poisoning, or met with some other accident. When a man came back after that, he would get his place back only by the courtesy of the boss. To this there was no exception, save when the accident was one for which the firm was liable; in that case they would send a slippery lawyer to see him, first to try to get him to sign away his claims, but if he was too smart for that, to promise him that he and his should always be provided with work. This promise they would keep, strictly and to the letter—for two years. Two years was the “statute of limitations,” and after that the victim could not sue.

What happened to a man after any of these things, all depended upon the circumstances. If he were of the highly skilled workers, he would probably have enough saved up to tide him over. The best paid men, the “splitters,” made fifty cents an hour, which would be five or six dollars a day in the rush seasons, and one or two in the dullest. A man could live and save on that; but then there were only half a dozen splitters in each place, and one of them that Jurgis knew had a family of twenty-two children, all hoping to grow up to be splitters like their father. For an unskilled man, who made ten dollars a week in the rush seasons and five in the dull, it all depended upon his age and the number he had dependent upon him. An unmarried man could save, if he did not drink, and if he was absolutely selfish—that is, if he paid no heed to the demands of his old parents, or of his little brothers and sisters, or of any other relatives he might have, as well as of the members of his union, and his chums, and the people who might be starving to death next door (n.p., Gutenburg.org).

*I originally discovered the video via Mashable.com, but the video above was posted on YouTube on November 20th, 2012, by politizane.

**While I don’t always support reading the comments of posts like the video above on the Mashable site, for further context about how Americans feel about this issue I do encourage you to scroll through some of them at your leisure. Of course, some of the commenter are simply trolls, but some comments address decent questions and offer insightful responses.

As always I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, so please feel free to leave me a comment.

2 thoughts on “A disturbing video about ‘the American dream’

  1. As someone born into poverty with only a GED high school equivalency diploma, through hard work I am currently in the 92.7th income percentile. No special skills or talents, no privately held corporation, just hard work and independent study to improve myself.

    Tell me again how the system doesn’t work?

    From my perspective, the issue is work ethics. With each generation, people joining the workforce feel more ‘entitled’ to higher pay and authority yet don’t think they should have to work for it.

    • Hi Mike, Thank you very much for your comment, seriously!!

      I agree with you, to a degree or point. I feel my parents raised me with a very strong work ethic while attempting to give my sister and I a comfortable life without entitlement. To that end, I have spent much of my adult life in vrious volunteer positions helping other people and my community. In my opinion, it is safe to say that an individual may fall “in the middle” (economically) if they are working (full-stop), have some sort of roof over their head, can eat 2-3 meals a day – or in other words, have some to most of their basic needs met. There will likely always be someone better off and worse off than you, at least that is what I assume. This assumption is somewhat flawed too though, since there are millions of people who would, by my standards, fall “in the middle” but still live in poverty or even on the other end of the economic spectrum too.

      Still however, I must admit that there have been times in my life, especially during my college career, when I have felt that some paid jobs were beneath me, or as you might put it ‘entitled’. I specifically remember once thinking I could go work at a minimum wage fast food job, potentially pretty easily, but that I had maneuovered my life in such a way that doing so would have been off the “trajectory” that I thought I was on, that I had established for myself. At that point in my life, it was the first time ever that I struggled to find work. The work I ended up finding was at a bar, being a cocktail waitress once or twice a week, under the table making at least $80 a week (sometimes more, since the three of us on staff would split the tips equally among us). My circumstances worked out in such a way that made that possible. If it wasn’t then I really would have had a rude awakening and would have had to suck it up and apply for a fast food job. During that time in my life I kept busy volunteering for about 50-60 hours a week as a volunteer/recruitment manager recruiting and maintaining over about 200 plus volunteers for voter recruitment. I didn’t have to pay rent because I was living with my sister and I didn’t drive at the time, so I rode my bike everywhere.

      That said, I still had the privilege of coming from an middle-class white family originally from the suburbs. The cards were stacked in my favor upon my birth, mainly because of the hard work my parents put forth. Being white itself comes with its own privileges as does being educated, even though I was the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree, let alone two! Being female can be debated as being a privilege or not, but I would say because I was born into a western country, it works more in my favor than against it. At worst in my life, I’ve only ever really experience sexism, but it doesn’t mean that racism, classism, or ageism hasn’t also happened to me. I also have complete use of my body and mind, I am in no way hindered by a physical or mental disability that might otherwise change the outcome that I’ve already described above. Those of us who often benefit most from the system of power in place are not too often educated to see our positions in that system as a privilege, but that it was hard work and perseverance that got us where we or our parents or family are. I’m not saying it is all a big lie – that does very often apply, but it also equally doesn’t apply. To say that privilege isn’t a factor would be buying into this system.

      After all of this, I would say simply to you that it isn’t that it doesn’t work – it does to help quite a few people realize their dreams. Why else would so many people be emigrating to the USA. However, I do not believe that our system is necessarily inclined to help its people either. The cards are increasingly stacked against the people and it has been set up in a way as promote that when it doesn’t work out for the individual/participants it is their own fault – their work ethic, their education, their drive to succeed. When in reality, they are playing ‘the game’ as they understand it to be, but the cards are/were stacked against them from the beginning. This is why we have laws against various ‘isms’ and workers rights. This is is also why our country created a ‘safety net’ to help protect it’s people from a number of issues and situations that could render their own American dream out of reach. Unfortunately, the system isn’t perfect; some people work that system and abuse it, others fall through that safety net and others still choose to live below their potential.

      This response could possibly be another blog post in itself in order to give it the space it deserves, since I can only hope what little I’ve discussed here makes sense and is somewhat supported and not just general rhetoric or generalization. I am afraid though that because of the length of this response that is somewhat unavoidable.

      Thanks again for sharing your comment! I hope my response was easy to follow and understand. I wrote it before I had my first cup of coffee, so it is likely a little flawed itself.

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