The essence of the American Dream can be captured in two words: upward mobility. On more than one occasion, I have written about how for those left behind by the Great Recession, the American Dream has become a dream deferred.
Research recently reported on in the New York Times suggests that the problem is deeper than I imagined:
“Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. ‘Movin’ on up,’ George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion. But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.”
Perhaps it is time to wake up from the so-called American Dream. Perhaps it is time to dream bigger than the opportunity of upward mobility in the material sense. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of America’s greatest sons, offered an alternative kind of dream. While “deeply rooted in the American dream” its branches stretched to the heavens:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”
Dr. King’s dream was about acquiring the kind of wealth that is invulnerable to market forces and the chances and changes of life. His dream was about becoming rich in love and justice in our personal lives and in the nation. His dream was not just about upward mobility but upward nobility.
This kind of wealth demands just as much urgent national debate as the material kind. In fact we will never truly achieve the later without the former. I believe this is what ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921, meant when he made the following remarks while visiting the United States in 1912:
“Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics… Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity. This is the important thing for you to do… Economic questions are most interesting; but the power which moves, controls and attracts the hearts of men is the love of God.”
King’s life and death were an incarnation of this kind of deep love. As we commemorate the day set aside in his honor, let’s consider the implications of his dream for the economic questions of this election year and beyond:
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
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