One of the ominous undertones of debate about the economy’s wobbles (usually not spoken aloud in polite company) is whether we might be forced to do with less over the long term. Whether we might have to give up on the American Dream of ever-increasing comfort and wealth. Perhaps sensing this deep fear, Obama has been making encouraging noises about how we’ll be back, better than before (on display especially at his speech to Congress last month).
To those who still cling to business as usual, we seem to be faced with two possibilities: a choice between our identity as a place where dreams can come true and our reality of needing to scale back our consumption in the face of ecological catastrophe (and I don’t just mean climate change).
This is a false choice.
The falseness of it was made clear in an odd place this month: Vanity Fair. This is a curious magazine, which I would probably not ever read if there were not a subscription delivered to the house. For one thing, it stinks; there are always perfume samples scattered throughout (although fewer these days), which make my eyes water. It is full of glossy ads, often featuring poorly-clad, malnourished women with ugly makeup. It is so full of these ads, in fact, that the table of contents (which was traditionally found at the start of a publication so you could open right up and use it to find the other contents) is split onto several pages. This month (April), the table of contents can be found on pages 22, 26 and 30. In December, before the loss of advertising caused the mag to shrink somewhat, it was on 24, 58, and 91. Really.
In comparison, my other regular magazine is The Economist. It typically weighs in at a total of about 100 pages, which is about as thick as the VF table of contents.
Despite its shortcomings and creepy name, Vanity Fair mixes unusually smart commentary with a bit of preoccupation with high-rolling status names that mean nothing to a peasant like me. For example, this month included a very interesting piece about Iceland, and how its hypermasculine banking economy was created out of nothing and is now returning to nothing. It is a good piece, but marred by this cryptic and elitist observation: “A bankrupt Holiday Inn is just depressing; a bankrupt Ian Schrager hotel is tragic.”
But I digress. The point is that Vanity Fair is mostly not my style, but there are always a couple of good (if smelly) articles, and so I keep reading it.
David Kamp’s “Rethinking the American Dream” is one of these. Kamp traces the evolution of the American Dream (beginning in the Depression, no less!) and its rather grotesque mutation in the last couple of decades. It is telling that in both 2003 and 2006, CNN polls found that the majority of those surveyed believed that the Dream was unachievable.
So if we couldn’t live the Dream back when the economy was in a fantastic froth, how can we delude ourselves into trying to get back there now that the house of cards has collapsed, after we see the little man behind the curtain? That isn’t even what the Dream was about in the first place.
Don’t believe me, believe the magazine that is perhaps the epitome of high-rolling opulence (at least, for those who are not truly in the elite). If they are trying to snap us out of the nightmare of ever-rising consumption, we had better wake up quick.
Fortunately, when we do, we’ll still have the old(er) American Dream, the more sensible one. We may not be something as extreme as the violent mood swings in Iceland, but ultimately it is the same dynamic. We got away from our basically egalitarian values, and now it is time to get back.