Ten years ago this week, I had a conversation with my roommate. We were in graduate school together in New York, and he, a Brit, was telling me what he felt the differences were between growing up in the United Kingdom versus the United States.
"I think the major difference," he said, "is that we're not told we can be anything we want to be ... because we can't. That seems like a quintessentially American ... dream." His final word trailed off, trying (in that British way) not to offend my jaunty constitution.
His father was a postal worker, but he had come to the states to study playwriting, assuming he would go back to the UK after graduation, get a similarly routine job and write plays at night. I, of course, believed I would be shipped off to Hollywood to write high-budget features while sipping Bellinis poolside and farting through silk robes.
A few months prior, from our living room window, this friend and I had watched the Trade Center towers smoke and fall. I didn't realize it, but I was embarking on an entirely new America in 2002 — an America that was ready to punch me in the mouth. His world was going to stay more or less the same because he expected it to be brutish.
Which brings me to the question: With what our country has been through over the last decade, how far are we from adopting that same stiff and distrustful upper lip as our mentors across the pond?
We Americans have always been both a buoyant and gloating sort. The bastard children of Horatio Alger and John Calvin, were we to wake up to discover a 10-foot money tree in our living rooms, we would believe that we must've dropped the seed somewhere along the way. Our country runs on the (flex) fuels of optimism and delusion.
Even Mitt Romney, who, as the most viable primary candidate is supposed to tell it like it is, is running on a ticket of "Defending the American Dream" and "the America we once knew." Just because his utopia is of the small government variety doesn't make it any less utopian.
You'd have to have a tin ear to listen to Romney, or anyone else who owes his fortune to politics or the ties he gained there, and not hear a false ring when they say they want to abolish the cash cow that fattened them. We know you wouldn't destroy anything that helped you, Mitt, only the things that might help us.
A few months ago, my British friend and I converged again in New York. I reminded him of that conversation and he said, "You were curious about the British Empire, and now you've become it, haven't you?"
A stagnant economy that produces almost nothing, an intransigent class system, little to no thought of upward mobility, and what changed from January 2002 to January 2012 is that we lost that "particularly American ... ."
Staggering inequality is something we're used to, but a side effect of the new Gilded Age is that, be we Tea Party, Occupier or the most of us in between, we hate the 1 percent. We believe that if you are so garishly wealthy as to be part of it, you must've come about it unfairly. And from the examples we've seen lately, what else should we think? Our financial collapse was a combination of delusional mortgage-buyers, banks who — from their rarified, unregulated perch — told us that housing prices would rise ad infinitum and the few plutocrats who knew better and gambled on its failure.
Time has passed. Here at home, the streets seem meaner, colder, less safe.
The American Dream is finally over. Huzzah. We know because, whether we're blaming our government or the rich, people have taken to the streets. If America is still in its cultural adolescence, this disappointment seems like a necessary rite of passage and may be the best thing for us. It was a dream born of envy, but we can't envy what we no longer respect.