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The Death of the American Dream


ISSUE:  Fall 2009

In December 1967, following the success of his first book, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson sold to Random House a project he called The Joint Chiefs—but which the publisher and editor wanted him to title The Death of the American Dream or Who Killed the American Dream? As summer drew near, though, Thompson was already hopelessly bogged down and felt an acute lack of focus. He wrote to Jim Silberman, his editor at Random House, on June 9 to update him on the project. Complaining about the inability to absorb the information he deemed necessary before beginning to write, Thompson then suggested a possible method of composition:

[T]he idea that came to me tonight took the form of a query letter (a form letter of sorts) to perhaps 30 of the people I might be dealing with in this investigation sort of “Dear Sir, I’m investigating a rumor that somebody killed the American Dream and since the neighbors recently reported screams from your apartment, I thought I’d ask if you might possibly be able to suggest an explanation for these rumors, and perhaps name a few suspects.” [. . .] Let’s make the bastards answer: 1) Is the American Dream still pertinent? 2) If so, how does it apply in re: The War in Vietnam? The US Balance of Payment? Andy Warhol? The Politics of Joy? The editorial policies of the New York Times? Ed Sullivan?

In order to jumpstart the halting project, Thompson convinced Silberman to obtain him press credentials for the Democratic Convention in August. Mingling among the protesters outside the convention and mixing among journalists covering the event, Thompson witnessed police violence, which would forever scar his psyche and become a constructive factor in virtually all his subsequent writing. When Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut called on Mayor Richard Daley to halt the “Gestapo tactics,” Daley responded (in full view of news cameras): “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch. You lousy motherfucker!” After the convention, Thompson wrote a forlorn letter on September 22, thanking Ribicoff for being “a bedrock of decency” and opined: “I went to Chicago to research a part of a book on the ‘The Death of the American Dream,’ and needless to say my trip was a rotten success.”

In a letter to his middle brother Davidson, written on October 16, Thompson described the effect of the police violence in Chicago. “It was a real Hitler scene, the air smelled of fear and desperation,” he wrote. “I’m trying to write about it now, as part of my alleged new book, but it’s hard to explain except as a final loss of faith in whatever this country was supposed to stand for, all that bullshit in the history books.” Here, there is no hint of Gonzo, none of the overstatement or wild exaggeration or self indulgence which would become Thompson’s trademark style. There is merely abject anger, frustration, and despair. This mood stuck with Thompson for most of the following year and came to a head at the end of the summer when he wrote Silberman on August 30, 1969:

I see a lot of connection in my head that I can’t make on paper, and consequently I have no real image of what I’m doing. That “American Dream” notion becomes increasingly meaningless—mainly because it fits everything I write, and most of what I read. You might as well have told me to write a book about Truth and Wisdom. The slower I come to the necessity of linking Nixon, Chicago & the NRA, the more I wonder why—and if—anybody should waste their time reading this kind of bullshit … .

Thompson’s struggle to shape a coherent manuscript from his thoughts on an unraveling nation occurred four decades ago (and was chronicled in the second volume of Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters in 2000), but the problems he saw then are more striking now than ever—and more than superficial. Our government is currently engaged in enormously costly and seemingly unending foreign warfare (on two fronts), involved in internal surveillance rivaling the days of McCarthyism, has just purchased somewhere around one-third of the entire domestic auto industry, and taken a controlling stake in the largest insurance company in the country. (It already owned the largest mortgage lenders.)

If Thompson was outraged at what he saw as a faceless cabal of the Military Industrial Complex personified by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ruling the country, then I perceive that many of my generation are equally concerned—just drop the epithet Military. Industry and Bankers are now the faceless power behind the throne. Four years at West Point is no longer the quick avenue to real power and influence; in the twenty-first century it is four years at Goldman Sachs. But my concern stems not from the fact that bankers and industrial executives have grasped the reins of influence and power. My concern flows from a different fount.

There has always been a politics of envy in Britain, a genuinely Marxian desire to revolt against those who have. This polity has never existed in America. The old joke was that in Britain if someone saw a Rolls Royce parked on the street he would key it, while in America the same person would wonder how he could earn enough to own one. But over the past twelve months I have watched a polity of envy against the haves emerge in America and coalesce into an inchoate zeitgeist, and its existence frightens me. Envy is very different from anger—and an admission of the real death of the American Dream.

The term “The American Dream” was coined by the historian James Trusslow Adams in his book The Epic of America in 1931—the absolute midst of the Great Depression. The term is used only in the book’s polemical epilogue:

If, as I have said, the things already listed were all we had had to contribute, America would have made no distinctive and unique gift to mankind. But 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 … It is not the dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position . . . Once the frontier stage is passed,—the acquisition of a bare living, and the setting up of a fair economic base,—the American dream itself opens all sorts of questions as to values. It is easy to say a better and richer life for all men, but what is better and what is richer? In this respect, as in many others, the great business leaders are likely to lead us astray rather than to guide us. . . . Those on top, financially, intellectually, or otherwise, have got to devote themselves to the “Great Society,” and those who are below in the scale have got to strive to rise, not merely economically, but culturally. We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share in it. It can never be wrought into a reality by cheap people or by “keeping up with the Joneses.”

It is important that Adams defines the American Dream precisely as something more than the ability to acquire material comforts—“keeping up with the Joneses.” Neither Adams nor Thompson would view the American Dream as simply having a house in suburbia, two cars, two children in private colleges, and a healthy job for life with a corporation—the way it came to be seen during the post–Second World War industrial boom. (I might call it the “Ward and June Cleaver” version—though I believe they only owned one car).

Furthermore, that corrupt version of the American Dream is not available to my generation. None of us expects to earn more than our parents, and we have watched the life savings of our grandparents dissipate into the miasma of nursing home and hospital bills. Our perception is that we will spend our working lives funding the retirement of the Baby Boomers and will end up with very little (if anything at all) left of our compulsory Social Security savings plan—and people have the nerve to call Bernie Madoff the architect of the largest Ponzi Scheme in American history. Anything that we managed to earn in the first twenty years of our working lives has been pretty well annihilated by the latest Dow crash. We are hopeful we can rebuild our nest egg before we turn sixty-five (or whichever age we will become able to retire), but what we see before us is a prospect of survival, not one of flourishing.

It was this same pit of despair that consumed Thompson in 1968 and 1969, and he eventually abandoned the idea of writing about the American Dream—instead fulfilling the Random House contract with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which made both the press and the author fantastic sums of money. But oddly, fourteen months after he witnessed the police violence in Chicago, Thompson regained his faith in the American Dream as a concept, if not a project, when he became peripherally involved in local politics in Aspen, Colorado.

Thompson had been angry for some time about developers moving into the area and inflating land prices, and over the course of 1969 (using paperback royalties on Hell’s Angels which allowed him to write a $10,000 check for a deposit) had managed to purchase the farm he was renting in his beloved Woody Creek. Numerous letters from both 1968 and 1969 contain complaints about the degeneration of the “frontier” nature of Aspen, and subsequently Woody Creek, into a corporate-controlled vacation community for the rich. Finally, the local “original” residents—the hippies, freaks, and native Colorado locals—organized a political campaign of their own and ran a candidate named Joe Edwards for the position of mayor of Aspen. On November 19, Thompson wrote to Silberman, elated at the results.

With a 29-year-old candidate, a local head and bike-racer known as the “hippy lawyer,” we mounted a campaign that made the Old Uglies seem like Norman Rockwell cartoons. The aging liberals refused to support us; they went with a silly old Republican shop-keeper lady who was compared, in Time to Lindsay . . . so we had to fall back on whatever clout we could muster in the name of Freak power. Incredibly, we won the actual vote by 6—then lost the absentee-ballot count by 7 . . . and even now our tying vote is wandering around somewhere in Guatemala, unreachable by phone or cable. . . . For my own satisfaction, I wanted to give “the system” one more chance—so I could honestly say, when the time of the firebombs came, that I’d gone as far as I could in that other game, and found it wanting. . . . The joke in all this is that I suddenly see a bedrock validity in the American Dream; the Joe Edwards campaign was a straight exercise in Jeffersonian Democracy. In a sense, it was an echo of the ’68 McCarthy campaign, but the difference lay in our ability to politicize people who never knew or cared about the difference between Gene and Joe. . . . In a nut, what we proved here is that Freak Power is no joke; this is our country, too, and we can goddamn well control it if we learn to use the tools … Which leads me to believe that we may have a story here—if only because it has changed my whole notion of what’s possible in America … We can take the machinery of reality away from the Fatbacks; they are too far gone in slow-witted corruption to deal with a serious challenge.

And so that was it: Freak Power restored Thompson’s faith in the American Dream, and it was a dream of a wider society in which all could better themselves through self-determination. There are striking parallels between Thompson’s language and what is being said by the general populace in 2009. That last sentence could have been written by any one of a thousand bloggers, and the hope that the Freak Power campaign of Joe Edwards for mayor embodied in the Aspen and Woody Creek community has relevant and deep running parallels with the hope embodied to a large section of the American population by the Obama campaign. But it is now the fall of 2009 rather than the summer of 2008 and hope is rapidly turning to dust—or rather to anger and envy.

Here’s a hard fact: those among us who are solvent will end up in some measure bailing out our fellow Americans who have racked up credit card debts and car payments and signed mortgages based on pie-in-the-sky estimates of “new” equity to pay off the original loan. In response, I see a fury at the banks for making bad loans in the first place, and a fury at financial institutions for paying their employees for making them a profit—and there’s little question that those institutions failed in their responsibility to counterbalance their profit motive with a devotion to the Adamsonian “Great Society.” But I see few standing up and saying, “As a society we lived beyond our means,” thus violating our individual responsibility to resist giving ourselves up “to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements.”

Matt Taibbi’s article, “Inside the Great American Bubble Machine,” in the July issue of Rolling Stone, is a good example of this one-sided fury. It will probably be most remembered for its first sentences:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

The article goes on to accuse Goldman of actively causing the Great Depression, the dot.com boom and bust, the housing bubble and crash, the inflation in the price of the commodity of oil that resulted in $4 per gallon gasoline, actively rigging the Federal Bailout, and currently attempting to create a further boom which will soon go bust in the new field of carbon credits. He describes the high cost of oil in 2008 as follows: “It was a repeat of both the Internet craze and the housing bubble, when Wall Street jacked up present-day profits by selling suckers shares of a fictional fantasy future of endlessly rising prices.” The penultimate paragraph of his article is worth quoting in full:

It’s not always easy to accept the reality of what we now routinely allow these people to get away with; there’s a kind of collective denial that kicks in when a country goes through what America has gone through lately, when a people lose as much prestige and status as we have in the past few years. You can’t really register the fact that you’re no longer a citizen of a thriving first-world democracy, that you’re no longer above getting robbed in broad daylight, because like an amputee, you can still sort of feel things that are no longer there.

This would seem to sound the death knell of the American Dream, but it is really an end to “keeping up with the Joneses” and the “Ward and June Cleaver” suburban dream. The goal should be to refocus on the real American Dream: the Adamsonian concept of a society in which each of us has a stake—for those of us on top to devote ourselves to the common good and those of us on the climb to strive for more than the mere trappings of wealth.

We confused the American Dream with simple accumulation. We spent vastly beyond our means in an attempt to give off a false impression of achievement, and that wild spending of borrowed money drove the current crash. I have no simple suggestion for how to undo such a pervasive cultural misperception, but it would be well to remember that Adams specifically coined the term “the American dream” to warn of its possible death.

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