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OPINIONS

The American (Wet) Dream

The night before flying back to Stanford, I was with a few old pals at a bar playing, for the first time, Cards Against Humanity. A particularly vicious variant of Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity is a card game in which players construct absurd and intentionally inappropriate phrases with their drawn word cards. Every round, the most inappropriate phrase wins. I was surprised to find myself laughing — the game is acutely tuned to our generation, its pop culture and its humor.

There was one phrase in particular that caught my eye and unanimously won: “Q: What came out of my butt?” and the answer, “The American dream.”

The next day aboard a long flight, I did what all traveling people do: catch up on all the movies you would never pay to see or never even knew existed, along with all sorts of modern ideologies being flushed out of Hollywood.

I never sleep well on those kind of flights — in fact, I am astonished at my acquired ability to watch five movies in a row — which led to an in-depth exploration of what exactly was this “American dream.” What made people think it was a reality, and why is it today that we now laugh at the American dream? Is it our own dream anymore, or is it merely an outdated ideal exported to outsiders wishing to move to the XXL land of purple mountain majesties, computer chips, Coca-Cola, phone apps, etc?

I believe that at some point, following the craze of the “Great Gatsby” era, the American dream took a turn away from the frenzy on Wall Street and a material lust that so demanded headstrong ambition.

Flying at 35,000 feet, I saw how Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn symbolized the new dream. The dream became more personal, taking on the values of the “ideal” family and the “American way of life.” The American way of life developed, and eventually this expanded (civil rights, for instance) to represent ideas, morals, and principles.

It would be nice to say we made some progress as a whole, for these priorities seem like a feasible and noble aim. But somehow, we’ve changed once more: We’ve tossed that idealism aside in favor of “Jobs and “The Social Network,” becoming once more the wolves of Wall Street (though I have yet to see that film). Sure, the characters that populate these films may have faults, but who really cares now, considering that they embody man achieving the impossible? The means they employ are irrelevant to us, we think: Like in your typical Hollywood film, only what happened in the end matters.

Outside America, as in the film “American Dreams in China,” the acts we perform still take precedence in the dream. And yet here in America and especially at Stanford, this old ideal is not the reality: Living in a garage and losing your friends is not indicative of a failed (American) dream, but may be the startup of the next big thing that will take you there, to the podium (of TED talks!).

And what else is “there”? Well, the empty house of Steve Jobs, the empty office of Cheng Dongqing, the empty office of Mark Zuckerberg. The process of success, once idealized in the American dream, has been divorced from its goal: It is empty, and has instead become an amorphous idea of being a somebody, a purée (this, I’ll admit, was originally a typo, but I like the imagery) of potential.

We haven’t moved very far, to say the least.

In “The Pleasure of the Text” Roland Barthes points out the difference between true pleasure, in which the strip tease as a whole is euphoria itself, and the schoolboy’s pleasure, in which the actual striptease is irrelevant and only the final garment’s displacement matters.

This is precisely what we have today. We are the schoolboys (or girls) waiting for the last obstacle to fall so we can become an embodiment of what we want to resemble. And we become less concerned with the greatness of the future’s strip.

As a result, we find ourselves empty-handed, defeated at the first slip.

This is why we laugh at the American dream — it is now a dead-end suburban street. Why would you want, as they put it in “21 & Over,” “a big house, a big family, a minivan, driving to work,” when you could change the world — when you could be something truly “great?”

The American dream has shriveled; we over-excited it into some premature recoil. The backlash has become the paradigm. There is no longer the dream, but the fantasy.

It is one no longer reflective of the popular image of Americana, with its endless roads, different for every individual. It is twisted and distorted into the fantastical Cinderella stories that are easily shoved into Hollywood films and watched on planes.

What do I make of this? Well, nothing. But I wonder: What do you wait for? If it’s for the final strip of the garment, you may as well close your eyes until you’re there, but if on the other hand you can love the entire bumpy dance, then keep those eyes open wide.

 

Contact Kevin Rouff at krouff@stanford.edu

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