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Is the American Dream a nightmare?

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 29, 2009

Action Speaks!, AS220's panel discussion series, continues with a topic near and dear to us here in little Rhody — failure.

With an unemployment rate of Rust Belt proportions and Providence College and URI basketball teams that never quite got it together this season, we've been feeling a little blue of late. A little down on ourselves. But maybe, just maybe, it's time to rethink it all. The panelists will ask if America's mythology of success and failure is a little out of whack — if the American Dream is, in fact, little more than a dream.

The discussion, as always, will center around an underappreciated date in American history. This week, it's "1949: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman First Produced."

We caught up with Scott Sandage, a cultural historian at Carnegie Mellon University who will share the stage on Wednesday, May 6 at 5:30 pm with Kym Moore, a visiting professor of theater, speech, and dance at Brown University; Monica Teixeira de Sousa, a professor at New England Law Boston; and Jim Ruens, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist and the author of OverSuccess: Healing the American Obsession with Wealth, Fame, Power, and Perfection; and moderator Marc Levitt. Sandage, whose commentaries have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and Fast Company magazine, is the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.

Over the years, Americans have clung to the notion that they can succeed if they just work hard enough — even in the face of economic downturns suggesting there may be bigger factors at work. Has the current downturn, and all the talk of an America in eclipse, shaken that belief?
If anything, hard times have usually intensified this American creed, at least for people who were formerly high achievers. Even when reversals of fortune are epidemic, as in the Great Depression, the line of thought runs something like, "Hard times may excuse other people, but I should have been smart or diligent enough to escape this."

Many Americans get caught in what I call the paradox of failure. We are raised, as you said, to believe that success is the reward of hard work and that failure is blameworthy. And yet, even in prosperous times, every family has at least one member who does everything right and never gets ahead. Our macro belief is to stigmatize losers, but our micro attitude is to understand them. Except that when it happens to you, it's easy to get caught in the middle.

Do the men of the millennial generation, born after 1980, view success and failure in fundamentally different ways than their fathers and grandfathers? Or are there limits to the re-imagination of American manhood?
Judging only from the college students I've taught in the past 15 years, young women and men have most of the traditional American attitudes toward failure. I have seen a bit of a shift, however, not since last October but rather since about 2000. Those born after 1980 came of age just when impossible things began to happen: a botched presidential election, the dot-com bust, the 9/11 attacks. That was a triple whammy for a generation raised to believe that the world was at their feet.

How might we tailor the government's economic stimulus package to match up with new ideas of success and failure?
Put it into education and teach young people not to fear failure so much? Or repeal or revise draconian bankruptcy act of 2005. In Providence, there is a Jenckes Street, presumably named after Congressman Thomas A. Jenckes — the father of modern bankruptcy legislation, which he fought to pass during and after the Civil War. He believed that public policy should not be driven by moral presumptions about craven debtors, but rather by the frank acknowledgement that credit, debt, and failure were indelible aspects of modern capitalism. Here we are, 150 years later, still learning that lesson the hard way.

CORRECTION Last week, we mentioned a $60,000 grant for Action Speaks! It came from The National Endowment for the Humanities, not the National Endowment for the Arts.

  Topics: News Features , Culture and Lifestyle, History, World History,  More more >
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