The American Dream: Why the West is Not a Metric of Success

The farthest stretches of our imagination are incapable of only few things. Of those, one might rank high: how many countries constitute the world? A mental estimation almost often exceeds the number 200 – but beyond that, approximation holds the key. The concept of being a ‘global citizen’ has further blurred our geographical boundaries and rapid migration coupled with the importance of diaspora has served to diminish our cultural differences. Each of the 222 nations covering roughly 3% of the Earth’s surface area is embellished by the richness and uniqueness of their convoluted histories. Yet, we are conditioned to inevitably turn our heads West in acknowledgement of all that is ‘modern’ and ‘developed’. The West is synonymous with larger-than-life success stories and million dollar baby narratives. It is the birthplace of every second Bill Gates and the abode of every third Warren Buffet. To be specific, the West in colloquial exchange has come to represent just one country: the United States of America (USA). No wonder it opens its arms to every three in four NRIs.

The primary question here, lending scope to conjecture, is not whether an individual has memorized the catalogue of countries to the T. What we ponder about in this piece is of a greater importance: is the West really the epitome of achievement as we perceive it to be?

The research of 20th Century American sociologist Robert Merton treads along the path of this subject. He put forth his path-breaking theory where he mapped the contours of crime in the American social life. It is important to study Merton’s theory in the mould of the American Dream in this regard. The American Dream is an institutionalized notion which seeks to correlate certain values with material affluence. It emphasizes the tangible idea of success. Success, as codified by American society, is a commodity to be achieved by hard work, perseverance, education, talent, endeavour et al. The unique selling point of the great American Dream happens to be the delusional idea that irrespective of one’s stand at the social ladder, one can climb up the rungs of monetary success. This delectable idea has been served on marketable dishes to non–white Americans particularly owing to their deprived state. The innate idea is better summed up by James Truslow Adams in who first coined it in his book Epic of America, “…there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.

Merton premised his theory on Emile Durkheim’s concept of Anomie. He discovered that there exists a strain between reality and the values taught by the American society. This strain, as validated by several evidences, reflected the reality that people irrespective of their hard work and implemented values are denied success. Instead, they are deprived of their rightful needs by those superior to them in birth. They are shamed and stigmatized for the lack of material excellence. Condemnation by the very system which teaches them to dream strangles the inner belief. The deficit of tangible success ushers in a sense of helplessness which gradually progresses into frustration. As a result, the working classes (having idealized the dream of a successful life) are rife with desperation and poverty. Merton further inferred from official statistics that a majority of blue-collar crimes for “immediate financial gains” were committed when people were exposed to the strain.

The American dream and its purported claims of deriving success have found merit in several works of narrative fiction and non–fiction. Arthur Miller in his Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman creates a typical American working-class character in Willy Loman. Pining to be a successful salesman like Dave Singleman, Willy faces mental and physical degeneration. Miller’s commentary on the American dream and the machinations of capitalist masters, projects life as a suffocating cycle of routine and dissatisfaction brought about by a system which swallows one whole. Willy dies penniless, almost desolate, and unfulfilled. In The Great Gatsby penned by Scott F Fitzgerald, the narrator Nick Carraway, observes, “…a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.” In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama talks about the American dream when he says, “I began to harbor doubts about the path I had chosen; I began feeling the way I imagine an actor or athlete must feel when, after years of commitment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he realizes that he’s gone just about as talent or fortune will take him.

It must be kept in mind however, that the American dream in certain instances has been overly rewarding to that section of underprivileged society constituted in popular culture.

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