July 29, 2004

Convention talk

There was a lot of talk at the Democratic convention last night about opportunity and the American dream. It was notable that each speaker presented him- or herself as the example of what is possible: fleeing the honest hard-working lives of their parents to rise to positions of power and affluence.

John Edwards talked about his "two" Americas, but then emphasized how his aspirations beyond mill work should be the model for all and that people who follow his path should be rewarded. Looks like there's three Americas, Johnnie: those at the top, like yourself, those who aspire that way and ought to be humored for it, and the people you write off as losers for not fleeing a life of honest toil.

So there's the problem with this presentation of "the American dream." It's not about making life better and more fulfilling however one might live. It's only about striving. Edwards is right that striving has gotten harder. But why is there such a desperate need to "better" one's situation? This ethic of striving necessarily discounts those who don't strive. The consequence is that we are justified in ignoring their plight because it is their fault they are poor, so we are justified in keeping them poor. After all, such a caste system makes it easier for the strivers.

John Edwards' plan for helping the middle class does nothing towards making all labor dignified, or at least enabling of a decent life. A mill worker is as important to society as a trial lawyer, a cotton picker as important as a senator, a mother as important as an entrepreneur, an artist as important as a policeman. In one America, every person would enjoy the fruits of our shared life, not just those who earn it according to the arbitrary criteria of our "leaders."

We can not all rise like John Edwards did. Most people have to stay "behind" to make things and clean up for him. By definition, in a competitive society, only a few can "win" -- the vast majority are losers. But that's what makes winning so gratifying, and why we hear nothing from the "winners" that would actually improve life for most people, such as single-payer health care or allowing unions to organize again.