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Neal Gabler

The new American Dream

It’s no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection

(Gary Hovland for The Boston Globe)
By Neal Gabler
March 31, 2011

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A DISGRUNTLED New York mother recently filed a lawsuit against her 4-year-old daughter’s preschool, charging that the school had reneged on its promise to adequately prepare the girl for an Ivy League education. Apparently the kids were playing with blocks when they should have been discussing Wittgenstein. Understandably the suit was met with ridicule as another example of overbearing parenting, but it is also an example of how many of us, especially in the middle and upper-middle classes, not only aspire to be perfect; we expect perfection.

Though Americans have always been cockeyed optimists, they didn’t necessarily think they would find nirvana on earth. The American Dream, as it was devised in the late 19th century, referred to opportunity. The idea was that anyone in this pragmatic, un-class-conscious society of ours could, by dint of hard work, rise to the level of his aspiration.

But over the past 50 years, the American Dream has been revised. It is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection. Many Americans have come to feel that the lives they always imagined for themselves are not only attainable; those lives are now transcendable, as if our imaginations were inadequate to the possibilities. In short, many Americans have come to believe in their own perfectibility.

It was historian Daniel Boorstin who wrote in the early 1960s that his was the first generation to live within its illusions. This was a time when Americans had assimilated images from movies and television, books, and advertising as part of their consciousness. They saw fabulous worlds and wanted to enter them. As Boorstin said of the movie star: “His mere existence proves the perfectibility of any man or woman.’’ To want to enter these worlds wasn’t entirely novel. What was novel was the conviction that we could. In effect, America had become the first country to democratize dreams.

What Boorstin couldn’t have foreseen was that perfectionism was encouraged not just by the media, popular culture, and an expansive post-war economy but by the country’s political institutions. Ronald Reagan, as much as any single individual, promoted the idea that the only limit to our success was our own inadequacies — a bromide, to be sure, but one that came with an unsettling corollary: To be less than perfect was to be inadequate. And this corollary also had a patriotic corollary of its own: Anything less than perfection was both a personal failure and a national affront since Americans weren’t inadequate. We owed it to the nation to live perfectly.

It is difficult to say whether the overstuffed 1980s fed this attitude or this attitude fed the 1980s, but whichever it was, success was redefined from personal satisfaction to public vindication. There was a great national competition in which many Americans felt they had to prove their value to everyone else. And the best measure of that value was not just wealth or a glowing career or a trophy wife or a beautiful family. It was all of it. If anything, that competition has only intensified since.

Thus not only have the terms of success changed but also the very terms of life. For a person who can live within his illusions, the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect. We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it — everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

Or else. And that’s another thing that a perfectionist society has engendered. It has removed failure as an option because we realize that there are no second chances, that mistakes are usually irrevocable, and that you have to assume there are other people out there — your competition! — whose wives will always be beautifully coiffed and dressed or whose husbands will be power brokers, whose children will score 2,400 on their SATs and who will be playing competitive-level tennis, whose careers will be skyrocketing, whose fortunes will be growing. In a world in which perfection is expected, you must be perfect. Otherwise you are second rate.

Not that this is easy. To live within your illusions is also to live within the pressure to sustain them, which is the pressure of middle-class America today. It is to say that the birthright of a 4-year-old girl in New York is to be a rich, beautiful, brilliant, powerful, Ivy League-educated Mistress of the Universe who will live not just the good life but the perfect one. That’s the new American Dream.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’