Tomorrow’s Independence Day. A day to celebrate the American Dream. Now quick—tell me what the American Dream is.
Yes, it’s a trick question. Were your first thoughts are about having money and things, security and comforts?
We are surrounded by messages that tell us that’s the American Dream, so if you don’t watch it, you can slip into accepting that dumb idea. When I see the American Dream defined as getting and spending, I get hostile—the same way I get when white supremacists wave the stars and stripes. I want to yell, Drop it! You’re not what that flag’s about and you don’t get to pretend that you are.
People who want to sell you more stuff pretend that the American Dream is about guess what?—buying stuff. They define us, they address us, not as citizens, but as consumers. I resent that.
It’s true that a lot of our ancestors came here because they couldn’t make a living where they were. But what about the ones who came because they dreamed of being free? The ones who came to escape political oppression? What about the ancestors who came here in chains and dreamed of being free in White America?
The dream of being free citizens of a strong democracy—that’s the American Dream that rings a great bell in the heart. Forget that dream and we can allow ourselves to become nothing nobler than consumers of stuff.
The Founding Fathers counted on strong citizens to make the nation work—they created a system that balanced a presidency, a legislature, a court system and an informed, active citizenry. (I know, they didn’t include all of us, but now we’ve fixed that and we’ve all got the vote.) We are the essential fourth sector of this democracy. You and me. Us citizens.
Those whose American Dream really is nothing more than to consume, find their lives are consumed by stuff—by getting it, tending it, using it and protecting it. Keeps you really busy—keeps you out of the hair of people who want your vote every few years, but may not want you watching too closely, in between elections. Informed, active citizens can really bug politicians—which is what the founders of this democracy counted on us to do.
Being a citizen can mean going to city council sessions instead of to the mall, writing your Representatives instead of watching your favorite TV shows. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun—I’ve been to county and state meetings that were absolutely hilarious—and they don’t even charge admission.
But it’s still all too seriously true that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. If we are just consumers, if we give up the power the Founders gave us—we get just what we deserve—a city, a state, a country that run the way other people want them to, not the way we want them to.
Tomorrow, when I’m flipping hamburgers and watching fireworks, I’ll be celebrating the real American Dream—the freedom to be a watchful, involved, caring, pushy citizen.