I’ll never forget the Memorial Day when my Uncle Paul slapped his daughter across the face because she used a small American flag as a plaything.
It happened when we were little kids—about the age of the girl in the photo—and the memory of World War II was still vivid for people like Uncle Paul, who himself had not served.
Back then, my family spent Memorial Day at the church cemetery, with the priest conducting a brief service at the grave of each fallen soldier or sailor. There were so many. It took all day. And we kids, hot and thirsty under the sun, amused ourselves with made-up games—like playing with the little flags that were all around.
On Memorial Day weekend 2015, a time of holiday parades and picnics, I have to wonder if we still share The American Dream for which so many suffered and died.
We all are children of that dream, descendants of John Winthrop’s vision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a place of limitless opportunity for material, social and financial advancement.
Governor Winthrop’s vision of his “City on a Hill” was one in which individual ambition was to be tempered with charity and decency.
It was to be a community whose citizens had the freedom to make the most of their lives by developing essential virtues—justice and mercy chief among them.
But this vision has degraded since he articulated it in 1630. The focus has shifted from community to self.
The American Dream we dream today is one of unquestioned access to unfettered personal freedoms. We won’t have anybody tell us what we can or cannot do or think about anything—unless we are already in agreement.
We have ambition for and anticipation of self-satisfaction in every aspect of our public and private dealings and relationships.
And we won’t have it any other way.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, has been called “the purest expression of America's promise of success.” Even though the author was at the height of his fame, people hated the book and refused to buy it because it debunked The American Dream.
Fitzgerald’s fame faded and he eventually sank into alcoholism and obscurity, with 23,000 unread copies of Gatsby rotting in the publisher’s warehouse at his death.
But the dream lived on.
In 1939, a year before Fitzgerald died, a movie was released that sentimentally but convincingly captured what America wanted to believe—despite the darkness of war that was falling on Europe. Its most memorable song, sung by a little lost girl:
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
In this new time of turmoil, maybe we need to get back to our beginnings and remember that The American Dream is about more than ourselves alone. It’s still a dream of individual ambition—but one tempered with charity and decency, justice and mercy.
In my next blog, “Good Vibrations?”