In pursuit of the American dream

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 19 Mar 98


Why can’t Trinidadians create and follow their own?

 

‘American riches are intricately tied up with a belief that America has worked hard for its fortune and deserves it and Americans are proud of that’

 

‘Our founding fathers have failed miserably, I’m talking a big fat zero, to articulate a dream and pass it on to us the younger generation’

 

Countries, like people, come with an aura, a blurry light by which we label them. France is glamorous, and closed. England, deeply traditional, laced with eccentricity. India, like Africa, tribal, quick to take offence, rooted in notions of honour and land. Asia, efficient, clever but closed. China, menacing, silent, strong. Nobody comes out and says things but our impressions are shaped partly by the image it chooses to give out to foreigners and partly by actual events taking place in these countries. 

 

America is both too easy and too complicated. But we are able to form stronger opinions on America. Maybe because we can get up to 150 television channels from there, or we are geographically close, or because wealth, power, luxury, innovation and beauty (which these days takes time and money), emanating everyday from our television, appeals to all of us.

 

I can never forget the sight of people lining up snaking across blocks and blocks in Rome when the first Kentucky opened there, oblivious and impatient of all the ancient treasures and relics that were part of their Italian heritage, ignoring the 18th century frescoes on KFC’s ceiling and concentrating on the fries on their plates. Greasy fries apart, America has another self image which has served it well. It is the self-appointed Big Brother of mankind. Keeping the peace in Bosnia and Nicaragua. America does this so well and so convincingly because she genuinely believes that she has the moral authority to do it because she has been good. The Protestant ethics of hard work, thrift and sacrifice of the first settlers in America have now jelled into the national psyche. It is on these ethics that America has built its dream.

 

On hearing of General Powell’s imminent arrival to Trinidad I looked him up on the Net. Here I found a speech which he delivered during the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996, which spoke clearly about the American dream. Here are some choice extracts:

“I am honoured to be here with great Americans... George Bush the statesman and my boss who led us to a great victory in the Persian Gulf War... Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, who gave voice and image to the power of democracy as the way to a better future for all the people of the world.”

 

The power of General Powell’s speech lies in plain talking. In each phrase he pays homage to American values which allowed him to rise from the son of Jamaican immigrant parents in the Bronx to the highest position in the Department of Defence - the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989-1993.

“I come before you this evening as a retired soldier, a fellow citizen who has lived the American dream to the fullest. As someone who believes in that dream and wants that dream to become reality for every American.”

 

General Powell articulated that dream (as many American leaders around him and before him have, and do) in a series of superbly constructed sound bites, all of which are designed to tug at American hearts with a tender, proud nationalism. Its appeal lies in its hope for the poorest American, and justifiable pride for those who have achieved the dream.

“My parents came to this country as immigrants over 70 years ago. They came here, as millions of others, with nothing but hope, a willingness to work hard and a desire to use the opportunities given them by their new land. A land which they came to love with all their hearts. They found work that enabled them to raise a family. Work that allowed them to come home every Friday night with the fruits of their labour, a decent wage that brought sustenance and, more importantly, brought dignity into our homes. They raised two children to whom they gave a precious gift - a set of core beliefs. A value system founded on a clear understanding of the difference between right and wrong and a belief in the Almighty. Integrity, kindness and Godliness, they taught us, were right. Lying, violence, intolerance, crime, drugs were wrong and, even worse than wrong, in my family, they were shameful. We were taught that hard work and education were the keys to success in this country. My sister and I were taught to believe in ourselves. We might be considered poor, but we were rich in spirit. We might be black and treated as second-class citizens, but stick with it, because in America justice will eventually triumph and the powerful, searing promise of the founding fathers will come true...”

 

Powell is a compelling figure to us in the Caribbean because he is the son of our own people - born to immigrant Jamaican parents, Luther and Maude Powell (on April 5, 1937) in New York and raised in South Bronx, he could be any of us. He could have been a cousin removed or uncle or grandson of one of our own Caribbean people. He has lived the American dream using the tools of the first settlers in the New World. He is an example of how the Protestant work ethic pays off.

 

Education: He earned a Bachelor’s degree in geology at the City College of New York. He attained an MBA degree from George Washington University. Discipline and hard work, and fearless devotion to his job and country: He was a professional soldier for 35 years and oversaw 28 military campaigns including Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and attained the highest military position in the Department of Defence. Of “values” which earned the trust of three presidents to whom he was advisor, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

 

Immense wealth, big cars, big steaks, big buildings, big roads are the reward for such hardy apple pie American virtues of hard work, family values and education. This wealth allows America to produce multi-million blockbusters which fill screens from Shanghai to Prague and Bangalore to Tobago. It allows more than 150 American channels to operate almost around the clock in every part of the world. America is in the living room of homes everywhere from Karachi to Nairobi. Levi’s is the American uniform worn by millions worldwide. Hamburgers and Coke the choice of the new generation. It is the land of opportunity where anyone can make it, if they are willing to work. The land of excess riches where people throw food on one anther’s faces for fun, where millions of dollars are spent on blowing up a building for a shot in a movie. American riches are intricately tied up with a belief that America has worked hard for its fortune and deserves it and Americans are proud of that.

 

No wonder General Powell speaks of “the pride of bringing home that first paycheck” in the same breath as “the thrill you can’t help feeling each time the band strikes up the Star-Spangled Banner.” We get a taste of the American dream second hand in our living and bedrooms through a box.

 

But what is our dream? What is the Caribbean dream, the Trinidad and Tobago dream? Most successful middle-aged men and women began their lives in the fields and suburbs in this country. Most, like the Americans, lived in little homes with many siblings. They have become Prime Ministers and Presidents, business tycoons and respected academics. They too lived a dream. They battled against colonialism and poverty. They studied and worked hard and sacrificed. We have produced world class technocrats, rich businessmen and women, shrewd managing directors in high positions, intellectuals and academics and many actuaries and lawyers who will one day make money but a dream which we all share? Sorry, no dream. Our “founding fathers” have failed miserably, I’m talking a big fat zero, to articulate a dream and pass it on to us the younger generation. And our toddler children will have even less. All we have are glimpses of scraps. We hear echoes of  “massa day done” and “land is the best asset” and we quibble amongst flimsy scraps in our various pockets little communities for racial supremacy, decrying one another’s way of life.

 

There is no unifying voice teaching us as it did General Powell, the son of Jamaicans, that “hard work and education were the keys to success in this country.” So we, struggling with a halfway identity,  poverty, illiteracy and crime, adopted a foreign dream. But we got the second-hand dregs. All the American “values” which made the dream possible have escaped us, but our appetite for the products produced by the American dream has whetted our appetites. So we watch hopelessly, like poor people looking into a rich shop window decorated with Nikes and shoes and clothes. Further off we see flashy cars and cameras and gold chains and CDs. Occasionally we can afford to get some small thing from the rich shop which faces us every day. But when we can’t get it we become frustrated people with broken dreams, people who cry “it’s unfair,” why do some have it and some don’t. Some of us try to steal or even kill people who can afford to come out from the flashy American shop (a shop, that is all the American dream means to us). Others, to mollify ourselves, speak like Americans on the radio, or walk like them or dress like them.

 

America can afford to have the flash, because it also has substance, the universities where research is flourishing, the publishing world, the arts and the humanities. Technology is moving apace. Powell admitted while speaking to the Republicans that “in this richest nation on earth, we still have not solved the problems of poverty, of hunger, of poor health care, of inadequate housing, all of which tear away at the roots of strong families.” This may be the case, but they are a damned sight better off than we are. We have not even begun to think of how to tackle the cycle of poverty=broken families=illiteracy and lack of “values” =drugs =crime =fear, all of which equal NO DREAM.

 

I was at a Clico awards function recently where I heard Mr Duprey for the first time. In that 20 minutes his mood shifted many times. He roared, he smiled, he rallied, he got mad, he encouraged and preached but he never failed to be charismatic, to hold his audience. He pounded the message home - that Clico was not just about an insurance company, that its agents had a duty to the country to help people to help themselves. That saving will allow us to invest in ourselves, keep the profits at home. “It is your duty,” he said, “to send the message out there - save brother save, own your homes. Save, so our country can use the money to invest, and create jobs, and help our people to help themselves.”

 

The Hon Mervyn Assam who came on to the podium after him remarked that Duprey sounded like the Rev Jesse Jackson when he was here a few months ago. My hope is that with his presence and his words, this great American who knows about being “poor but rich in spirit” and “black and treated as a second class citizen” will help us to tap our own spirit so we can begin in to dream our own dreams. And if we have no other point from which to start with we may look to Powell to whom we lay some claim in because he has roots somewhere in our part of the world for a beginning.

 

“All of us, my friends, must be willing to do with less from government if we are to avoid condemning our children and grandchildren with a crushing burden of debt that will deny them the American dream.” America, says General Powell, has opened its arms to “those who strive and struggle each day against daunting odds to make that dream come true.”

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur