The American Dream: “the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.” (Walter Lippmann, 1914)


William Jennings Bryan

(Note: this is half again as long as my regular posts here. In all likelihood it comes across as being elitist and even a little unkind. I’m not an elitist, and I try to be a kind person.)

Talk about senescent! My first vote in a Presidential election was for Hubert Humphrey in 1968! I missed getting to vote against Barry Goldwater (1964) by a bit more than a year. The voting age then was 21, and I reached majority in January of 1966. I made up for not being allowed to vote for Lyndon Johnson by working long and hard as a volunteer for Humphrey in the Ontario-Upland (CA) office (a dilapidated house on Euclid Avenue) of the Democratic Party.
___I could not then, and still cannot, imagine Richard Nixon as President of the United States. Four years later I was the chairman of the McGovern Campaign against Nixon’s reelection in Ontario, CA. I got to be great friends with our allies, including the president (a woman!) of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) ―the flatiron production plant of General Electric plant was in Ontario until 1981 (a couple thousand jobs lost when it closed and that had nothing to do with the TPP). I guided Sen. John Tunney around the area on a campaign trip (what an arrogant, mean-spirited horse’s ass he was). The highlight of the campaign for me was being one of the co-hosts for a county-wide campaign bus trip for Eunice Shriver (a woman of elegance, graciousness, and intelligence).
___A few years later I met James Earl Carter at a home precinct meeting in Iowa City when he was still “Jimmy Who?” Jimmy quoted Rheinhold Neibur ― and not the “Serenity Prayer” ― at that meeting in Iowa City! I remember it still.
___Since then I have had no “volunteer” involvement in any election campaign. Because I know too well what “all politics is local” entails. The cream of the crop of ordinary citizens gather together to work their butts off for people who are almost without exception people you would not want seated at your dining table at home. Eunice and Jimmy were the exceptions.
___Part of my preparation for involvement in politics was seeing the movie Inherit the Wind (1960) which was released when I was in high school. You may recall it’s the story of the trial of a high school teacher in Tennessee charged with breaking the state’s law against teaching evolution.
___The controversy over evolution was not new to me, the Baptist preacher’s kid from western Nebraska. Not long before, I had heard Mary Kalen, a friend from childhood, ask my father if he believed in evolution. He got that wonderful droll almost-laughing twinkle in his eye and said something to the effect, “The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth. It’s not very specific on just how he did it.” That was enough for Mary Kalen and me. She went on to use her interest in biology to become a college professor in Florida and serve on a commission of the State of Florida that went around the world explaining United States space exploration from Cape Canaveral (Kennedy).
___I concluded after Inherit the Wind that ignorance/stupidity should not be rewarded with the privilege of law-making, and that my political involvement would be necessary.
___Not too long ago a good friend told me that the physicist Michio Kaku “. . . believes that global warming is manmade and . . .  [he, my friend, is] willing to get off the fence in some areas when someone [he] really respect[s] holds a certain position.” I agree that it’s a good thing for Kaku to appear on FOX now and then to explain scientific news.   Kaku’s self-identification as one of the founders of String Theory notwithstanding (work in the theory began before he was born), he is an important popularizer of scientific information. However, his relationship with FOX in no way makes his opinions about global warming more believable than, say, the scientific investigation and experimentation of Michael E. Mann who has spent his entire career studying climate.
___I find it comforting that in 1757 Pope Benedict XIV announced that textbooks saying the earth revolves around the sun would no longer be banned in Catholic schools so poor mother earth could finally get on with what she’d been wanting to do for billions of years.
___In another (seemingly unrelated) realm, I cannot even pretend to get inside the mental process of an educated friend who, because she is a literalist Christian, told a mutual friend that she believes absolutely that God created the heavens and the earth in six factual actual days. She believes (knows?) carbon dating of Lucy the Australopithecus at 3.2 million years old is woefully misguided pseudo-science pretending to be God. Educated. In public schools. In Germany.


Lucy of Ethiopia

___Often when I begin writing a piece like this, I have only the vaguest idea where I expect my thought processes to conclude. If one does not know, I used to tell my college rhetoric students, what the substance of a piece of writing is, one cannot figure out and present a logical thesis. I think I may have worked around to a thesis. I should go back to the beginning, find a way to introduce the thesis and get it at the beginning so my reader would know all along what I am arguing. On the other hand, it is possible to make an argument and reveal only at the end what the argument is.
___And so, I now state my thesis. Much has been written lately about the influence of “fake news” on our recent Presidential election and, indeed, on the regular communal discourse in this country. It’s scary, hair-raising, to contemplate that state of affairs. However, I think the fake news is not the problem but a symptom of the problem. The problem is willful ignorance. Fake information can only fill a void. Too many Americans have chosen to live in a la-la-land bereft of ideas and information on which to make sound judgments.
___I have no proof of that. I’m not a social scientist. I have taught critical thinking in a prestigious university for 15 years and am acquainted with the abysmal state of ignorance about almost everything that the elite students of such a school bring with them to be trained to be money-makers and trend-setters.
___But it’s not simply lack of knowledge that shapes this ignorance. It’s a way of denying the truth in order to cling to a mystical idea of how our society has functioned in the past, and how it ought to function in the future. It’s a mystical idea attached to a dream, “The American Dream.” And if the science of climate change does not fit our mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it. And if the age of Lucy of Ethiopia does not fit our religious interpretation of the mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it can be true.
___In his article “‘From The People, By The People, To The People’: The American Dream(S) Debut,” Journal Of American Culture 37.2 (2014), Demitri Lallas traces the origin of the term “the American Dream” to Walter Lippmann’s book, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. Without trying to force Lippmann to support my finally-exposed thesis, I will simply offer a passage quoted by Lallas and admit that all of this writing is an attempt to say that I find Lippmann’s ides compelling, that the “American Dream” is not something we are hoping for but a dreamy unwillingness to face reality:

The past which men create for themselves is a place where thought is unnecessary and happiness inevitable. The American temperament leans generally to a kind of mystical anarchism, in which the “natural” humanity in each man is adored as the savior of society. . . .  “If only you let men alone, they’ll be good,” a typical American reformer said to me the other day. He believed, as most Americans do, in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense. A critical outlook seemed to the reformer an inhuman one; he distrusted, as [the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, the basis of Inherit the Wind, William Jennings] Bryan does, the appearance of the expert; he believed that whatever faults the common man might show were due to some kind of Machiavellian corruption. He had the American dream, which may be summed up, I think, in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.

(Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914, pages 177–78. )

About Harold Knight
Retired English prof, SMU. Old man. Musician. Passionate about justice, equality, freedom. Therefore, I am a fervent supporter of and advocate for the Palestinian People as they struggle to survive genocide. That also means, of course, I have no use for US 45.

One Response to The American Dream: “the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.” (Walter Lippmann, 1914)

  1. Pingback: “. . . a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. . .” (Walter Benjamin) | Me, senescent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: