Essex column: The cruel flip side of the American dream
I’ve long recognized a dark side to the American dream.
I believe that it’s the driving factor in the elevated suicide rate among white men and that it played a major role in the election of Donald Trump as president. It’s also the best explanation I can think of for rich white men last week celebrating passage of a tax cut for them that’s projected to take health insurance away from 24 million Americans.
The idea that this nation affords each of us the opportunity to be what we want comes true for many, but certainly not all. Unspoken is the converse implication: If you don’t make it, it’s your fault.
Individuals can define success differently, but our upbringing and cultural norms teach us that we keep score in America in dollars and creature comforts. The Joneses are the model and we are raised to keep up, even as aphorisms caution against it.
If we are not born into money, it is at once freeing and motivating to believe our lot is not cast, that we can attain meaningful employment and have enough money to live comfortably.
That’s my story.
My parents were raised on Nebraska dirt farms and graduated from high school during the Depression. Though rich in values and character, they barely rose to lower middle class.
My dad joined the Army out of high school and finished his enlistment shortly before Pearl Harbor. He was recalled to Fort Riley, Kansas, but was sent home to work his parents’ farm.
Thus he was not killed in the war, as were many of his cavalry peers, but he also did not qualify for the GI Bill and got none of the education or housing aid that helped so many of his generation. He farmed, drove a truck for the county and finally became an artificial inseminator of cattle.
I remember Dad saying years later — not with resentment but as if he appreciated the joke — that when he was recruited for the job, he was told he would be driving a Cadillac and Mom would be wearing diamonds.
Instead, until I was 14 and Mom inherited $8,000, we rented an acreage that did not have an indoor bathroom for $40 a month.
But Dad’s job did provide inexpensive health insurance at around the same time that Dwight Eisenhower unsuccessfully proposed a federal investment to make insurance more widely available, particularly in rural areas. Insurance made a big difference for my parents, who lost a daughter born at home in 1947. It paid for emergency surgery for my older brother and for my birth by Caesarean in 1958.
Dad, who died in 1996, was a fundamentally happy person whose aspirations mostly weren’t material. Fishing and listening to Nebraska football and St. Louis Cardinals baseball provided balm amid his dawn-to-dark work schedule. His life wouldn’t be cited as fulfillment of the American dream, but he sure wasn’t a failure.
I recognized and resented that we were poor. I was teased for wearing shabby clothing and rarely had friends over out of fear they would need to use the bathroom.
Teachers and my mom, an avid reader and capable letter writer, told me early in life I could go to college. As much as anything, I saw it as a way to avoid further embarrassment.
Public education from kindergarten through college lifted me from poverty and helped me cultivate interests and abilities that have enabled me to live a sufficiently comfortable life. I’ve never wanted a mansion or prestigious car, but I do have a really nice road bike.
So for me the American dream has been real.
I had good teachers, good mentors and got a couple breaks, including that I was born white.
I do not know all of the expectations put on little girls or non-white Americans, but I know that little white boys learn that if they don’t succeed, it’s because they aren’t smart enough, savvy enough, determined enough or hard-working enough.
This implicit message can be crushing if, as adults, we fall short of our or others’ expectations.
This is, I believe, why men account for 70 percent of suicides and the white suicide rate is nearly three times that of Hispanics and blacks.
I believe it is why white men supported Donald Trump’s barren promise that America, ruled since its inception by white men but facing inexorable change at home and abroad, would start winning again.
And I believe it is why Paul Ryan and his ilk were able to back-slap each other over passing a health insurance law that slashes Medicaid and casts people with high blood pressure or who have had cancer to the mercies of state lawmakers and profit-driven insurers.
Simply put, they’ve made it. They’ve attained the dream and forgotten any public support, such as Ryan’s Social Security survivor benefit, that may have helped them along the way.
If someone can’t afford insurance, well, they just haven’t worked hard enough and don’t deserve it.
Their vision is a cruel, uniquely American nightmare.
Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.
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