Windows on the world


The American Dream

At stake in the current war being waged by America and her allies against terrorism is the American Dream.  Middle America expects freedom, and believes the rest of the world should have the chance to live the American Dream.  Fundamental Muslims expect to live and die for Islam, and so resist the erosion of their traditional values by the global tide of American-led consumerism.

Dreams and freedom are hard to define.  Most Americans would talk about family values, the security of a good job, the comfort of a nice home, and their constitutional right to pursue happiness.  What outsiders see is a political system undermined by the scandals of Watergate, Monica Lewinski, and the vote-counting debacle of Florida; a political system based not on democratic wishes of the people but on cash, cynicism and big business.  Personal happiness is sought in fast food and entertainment.

World imbalance
Even if other nations wanted it, the American way of life cannot be exported round the globe.  Americans consume significantly more than their fair share of the world’s resources and produce far more than their fair share of the world’s pollution.  The American way of life can only be sustained as long as the majority of the world’s population accepts this imbalance.  American indifference to the consequences, interpreted as arrogance, is the basic element of a resentment that sometimes spills over into hatred.

What went wrong?  When Maslow developed his psychological model of the Hierarchy of Needs in the 1950’s it must have seemed so simple.  Until we have satisfied basic survival needs we are not going to be too concerned with the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.  Maslow presented a pyramid which the human-being would climb in an orderly fashion.   In ascending order, we would seek out food and drink, safety, love, esteem, and understanding, which would give us the ability to appreciate art and beauty.  Finally, each of us would find fulfilment, or self-actualisation, realising our full potential.

In the 1950’s, of course, the world was recovering from the devastation of global war, and twentieth century labor laws were beginning to provide the working man with leisure time and a living wage.  In earlier centuries farm and factory workers’ lives were desperate struggles for survival.  Religion offered only the distant reward of heaven.  Maslow thought he was predicting the future.

Then along came consumerism.  We have sufficient food and drink, but we want more, in greater variety, not to fill our stomachs but to make us obese.  Not content with basic shelter and clothing, we want bigger and more sophisticated housing and the latest designer labels.  And then, of course, we must possess the latest models of cars and audio/visual/communications/entertainment devices.  As our health deteriorates and our possessions accumulate we spend more and more time trying to prevent their damage or loss. There is a short-circuit, and we are trapped on the lower levels of the pyramid.

This is the American way of life, embraced to a greater or lesser extent by all western democracies.  Americans demand the right to consume, accumulate and pollute at the expense of the rest of the world.  To defend this position the US spends more on its military budget than the rest of the world put together and imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country.  By contrast, overseas aid accounts for just 0.1% of US Gross National Product, the lowest percentage of all the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Common Enemies
The US has always been uneasy with her place in the world, a super-power wanting to be admired but otherwise left alone, reluctant and slow to fight tyranny in two world wars, and opting out of global agreements to protect the environment. But at the same time she is a nation expecting her allies to fight with her in wars of her choosing.  Vying with a desire for isolationism is the worry that the rest of the world is not American, and perhaps this brings us to the true meaning of freedom.  Americans want the freedom to be American.  Anything that is un-American is a potential threat, and so communism had to be resisted wherever it reared its ugly head.  There is a real danger that further polarisation between western and Muslim worlds could see Islam replacing communism as the perceived common enemy.  Regardless of America’s actions over the coming months and years Islam needs to unite in distancing itself more firmly from terrorist acts.

This is not the whole story.  The USA has made significant global contributions in the fields of science, social reform, economics and culture. Many systems in other countries are corrupt, shallow and intolerant.  But if we want those nations to relinquish what they have there has to be a more attractive alternative.  We have to kick our addiction to wall-to-wall consumerism and break through to the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid.  Until then, we should recognise that in some parts of the world the American Dream is seen as the American Nightmare.

© Harvey Tordoff
November 2002