American Pastoral

I just read Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral.  It is the story of mid-20th century America

The protagonist Swede (Seymour) Levov is the All American Ideal, an allegorical icon, the handsome perfect athlete in high school.  Enters the Marine Corp at the end of World War II.  A hard working assimilated Jewish man who inherits a business built by his father and marries Miss New Jersey an equally hard working lower class Irish American woman.

Together they do every thing right, everything perfectly

They struggle with a daughter who stutters.  Gradually as this daughter grows up she turns into a monster.  During the Vietnam war she sets off a bomb in their small suburban town’s market/post office.  This bomb kills a Doctor who is again a hard working paragon of virtue.

Over the course of the book Swede’s family is destroyed, everything he worked so hard for is in tatters.

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about 1967 and the hippie years.  I was a hippie, anti-war but never willing to go down the road to bombs and that level of violence.  Very few of us were, yet the right wing tries to hang the guilt for the action of a very few people on the majority of us.

But one thing that is forgotten about the 1960s, lost in the music that is still played today, lost in the long hair, legalized pot, organic foods and yoga, is that very few of us were hippies.

Most of us were more like Swede and his wife Dawn.  They did everything right.  Paid for all sorts of things to make their lives and the lives of their children better.  The finest schools, lessons, therapy.

They built their businesses, their careers in fields they were told would insure their futures.  They saved, they bought stocks, bonds, IRAs.  They did all the right things.

They went in debt and sent their children to the finest universities they could afford.

If they were lower class they went to church, they worked hard.  Some had industrial jobs that paid well enough for them to take vacations, maybe own a cabin somewhere with a fishing boat.

Life was sweet.

Then came automation, computers, off-shoring, H1B visas (that undermined the tech jobs people retrained for). Neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism, bubble economies, stock market crashes, health care crises.

People, who did everything right saw their lives and everything they worked for turned to shit.

It’s hard to pin point the end of the American Dream, the one where following the rules, working hard and conforming to expectations would lead to success.  Perhaps it was a myth all along, one born of advertising in what we call the Golden Era of television and the big glossy magazines.  Maybe we were just basking in the afterglow of defeating Hitler. But I remember the optimism of the 1950s when Eisenhower was President and we as a nation solved problems rather than turning our backs on them.  I remember the expansion of Civil Rights and the battles fought.  The optimism of JFK saying we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Maybe the American Dream died in Dallas in November of 1963, or in Mississippi a year later, perhaps it died in Vietnam.

By the 1970s cynicism seems to have replaced optimism.  Until Trump came along was there ever a greater icon of cynicism than Tricky Dick?

Yeah, by the gas crisis of the 1970s and inflation the bloom was off the rose and the tarnish was showing on the great American Dream.

Gen X, the children of the Boomers.  What did they inherit? Academics playing the game, biting and clawing for tenure.  A class war between those who received legacy admissions to college and kids who were economically drafted in to a military that progressives despised.

In the 1980s computers came along and people, who lost their jobs when manufacturing fled the rust belt for the Third World, retrained for the promising new careers that were offered by high tech.  Retrained for careers that often times barely lasted long enough for people to get their student loans paid off.

Big box stores out on the highways outside of town gutted out local businesses killing the American Dream of having your own business and killing the down towns where generations before had grown up.

Progressives and conservatives alike played the game of telling poor white people how they were privileged and much better off than people of color even while economically there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference.  The resentments and racism grew.

Times got harder for so many.  2008 cost many thousands of people their homes.  Put so many into bankruptcy and the neo-con and neo-libs had arranged it so filing bankruptcy doesn’t really help ordinary people any more.

Now I think Obama was a good President, one of the best we have had in my lifetime.  The right wing prevented him from doing things that would have benefited most people.

I voted for Hillary.  I knew she was the better choice because I still have an optimistic streak.  I can still envision that American Dream as being real.

I was raised on the mythology of America, the American heroes from before the Revolution on down to today.  I still believe in what I jokingly call Team USA.

But I look around and major portions of this country have become a dystopia where the American Dream died long ago and pain pills, booze and credit card debt are facts of life.  Where there is no vision of tomorrow being better.  No faith in the idea that with hard work you too can be a success.

Instead a lot of people have decided The American Dream is dead.  Fuck you. Trump speaks to our rage.

I don’t have an answer to that…

I’m old I still believe in Team USA and an American Dream.  Perhaps a smaller one than what was once possible but an American Dream nonetheless…

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