Wednesday, February 21, 2007

All Aboard The American Dream/Nightmare!

Just a few words about a great book.
Chasing The Red, White, and Blue: A Journey in Tocqueville’s Footsteps Through Contemporary America, by David Cohen.
My alternate blog-title was "Disparity, but not Despair-ity" but I settled on what you see above.
One thing this book says loud and clear is that the once direct relationship between hard work and the American Dream has never been more fragile.
Things have changed, and are ever changing!
Cohen's book shows us that for some, the American Dream is alive and well... but for a far greater percentage of Americans, the dream has become a nightmare. This work is a real eye-opening 20/20-like expose, and one that reads like a freight train blasting through myth.
The word "chasing" in the title is an accurate description of the pace.

The premise is brilliant and engaging.
Cohen, an award winning British/South African journalist comes to America to retrace the 170-year-old steps of Alexis De Tocqueville, writer of the famous treatise "Democracy In America".
The itinerary includes New York City; Flint, Michigan; The Ohio River Valley; The Mississippi Delta; The Deep South; and Washington, D.C.
Cohen diverts from Tocqueville's original journey only by adding California, the new frontier and command center of the information age.
What struck Tocqueville most, back in 1831, was the "equality of conditions" among the Americans then. This, and "self-interest, properly understood" were Tocqueville's greatest impressions and formed the basis of his praise of the American way of life.

Cohen is an expert on Tocqueville and is well-versed in the great man's journals. As he makes his way across America he interviews a diverse sampling (in my opinion, a well sought-out cross-section of the haves and the have-nots) and compares these findings against the fulcrum of "equality" Tocqueville described.

What does Cohen find?
An ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots!

He finds that Tocqueville's work is full of unqualified conclusions and summary statements that do not possibly reflect the general populace of America in the last half century.
Beyond being out dated and inaccurate when applied to modern times, it's questionable whether it was even all that accurate at the time it was originally written. By marginalizing his findings on blacks and Indians, Tocqueville trivialized them. By failing to qualify his conclusions he helped to perpetuate an idealized view of an America that he never saw.
Tocqueville's findings are further skewed (says Cohen) because the people he interviewed were not a balanced group. Not an unbiased cross-section of "Americans" at the time. They were always successful, professional elite (privileged aristocrats of the time) always male, and always white.

Cohen wants to avoid a similar mistake this time around, so he rides the buses to find the pulse of the common man/woman. Every indication seems to point toward a widening gap between the rich and the poor in America, and the author tells the story in an engaging, (humorous where appropriate) way. There is a section where he sends fictitious e-mails to Tocqueville and I just loved this section. The whole book is a gem, and no part lags.
By the way, it is just as NOT anti-American as it is NOT pro-Anything Else... it is just disturbingly truthful.
Amazingly, in spite of the facts, it shows that the American spirit is alive and well... as I mentioned above, there is unquestioned disparity, but not despair-ity!
But perhaps the prevailing message of this book can be expressed by the guy right there in Chapter One, the chapter on New York. There was most assuredly a time [and not that long ago] when any American would have said that a million bucks would be enough to quit working forever. This guy in New York though, he says, "Twenty million and I'll walk."
Twenty million!
Twenty million?
That's how far we've progressed along the "wealth" continuum... some people honestly feel that they will need twenty million before they quit chasing the red, white and blue!
All aboard!
How much would it take for you to quit working forever?
And if your answer is, "I would not quit working for any money because I love what I do for a living," I just want you to know in advance, I may be forced, upon reading such a response.... TO HATE YOU!
Cip, the Vocationally -Challenged Blogger


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.
I might also recommend Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.
There are plenty of people who are sounding the death knell of the infamous middle class in America and linking this phenomenon to our lack of initiative and marketable skills as well as our outsourcing a lot of our work.

Ehrenreich actually went out and tried to make a living at the so-called "loser" jobs (cleaning toilets, working as a greeter at WalMart) and found them so exhausting and demoralizing that her entire concept of her own self worth was immobilized.

This post goes well with your Death of a Salesman entry.

Though the approach differs, both express the same humanist cry: "Attention must be paid..." when we have a social construct that makes WORK a defining feature of a man.

I have heard that it is more common in America to ask of a new acquaintance the question "What do you DO" than it is in other countries. But what I "do" is often quite separate from what I "am."

To think that the human would be so tied inextricably to what he does to put bread on the table and his kids in school. . . in my mind, there is something wrong with that. But I don't know how to fix it.

Love your work, cipriano.
Nice photos too. . . So now to the heart of the matter: Not so much "What do you "do?" as "When do you get off work?"

See you then.

cipriano said...

What terrific comments.
Much better stuff here than my original posting, but that's OK.
Regarding what you said here:
I have heard that it is more common in America to ask of a new acquaintance the question "What do you DO" than it is in other countries. But what I "do" is often quite separate from what I "am."

I have often felt that we would learn much more accurate personality-type information from new acquaintances if we could just train ourselves to ask them the following question:
"So. What is it you like to do when you are not working?"

Do you agree, anonymous?

Anonymous said...

I do agree.

I (sorry) do love my work and sometimes I even feel apologetic for it because so many people do not.

I guess I ask myself, why should I have fallen into a profession (because it was really not the one I would have chosen for myself) that I enjoy so much?

I don't even consider it to be work most of the time.
(Monday morning is a notable exception.)

But it is not "me."

So, yes. I think your alternate question is the far better one. But I am afraid that as long as we are lured by enticements of "success" as equaling money and things, the leading question "So. What do you DO?" will continue to be a conversation starter.

May said...

I read the book cited by the Anonymous and liked it so much that I gave to a friend to read (never came back and it's out of print now, sigh).

Stefanie said...

This sounds like a great book. The authors had a series of essays on this topic a year or two back in The Atlantic Monthly that were very good. As to how much is enough for me to not work? I could probably get by with a million but I'd like to maintain my lavish bookish lifestyle so I'd prefer 2 million :)

danielle said...

This sounds like a great book. I think there is a wide gulf between the haves and have nots--even the have lots and lots and the have enough to get by (and maybe I should just be content with that--I do have a damn good library if nothing much else!). I could be happy with a cool million by the way...

cipriano said...

Hey, I am with the consensus here, I would quit it all for a cool mill$$$!
If I had like... an extra million, I would follow my life's goal. To visit as many coffee shops as I possibly could, in the entire world. And write about them.
And not work.
And call people on the phone and tell them that I'm not working.

patricia said...

I would certainly take a million. And immediately pay off the mortgage! Woo-hoo!

But I wouldn't quite working. I love what I do! Sorry.

Does this mean you hate me?

cipriano said...

Patricia, the answer is YES!
Yes I DO!
Just kidding.
I could never hate you, even if you were a happily-working gazillionnaire.
But...... I might ask to borrow some dough from ya... you know? I'll pay you back and all, as soon as my brother straightens out!
[Umm. P.S. --> He's a hunchback....]