The Siren Song of the American Dream

Sheltering in our homes, we watch the myth of the American Dream slowly unravel, burying (as usual) the most hard-working amongst us. The unquestioned certainty – the truth – that hard work leads to a richer, happier life has become another victim of the virus.  

We are adrift, far from the comforting shores of the social norms of hard work and success that gave meaning to our lives. We stare back at those shores, like a drowning man, yearning for the solidity of the familiar. 

In these times, let the shore recede. Swim further out to sea, dive beneath the surface of our previous contentment. All the way to the bottom, to the sea floor of why we ever believed that financial success and happiness were the same thing. 

We spent most of our lives in jobs we didn’t like, harmonizing with workplace demands, comforted in the knowledge that it is rational to devote ourselves to skillfully negotiating the often tortuous landscape that will lead us to the financial ladder of success. 

We became proficient at shaping our beliefs and behaviors around the dominant societal norms of a free enterprise system that was never free and never rewarded enterprise. We didn’t need to be coerced to conform; we did so willingly.

We turned our ears to the siren song of the oligarchs; its lyrics are familiar: “money, more money, obscene wealth, a house, a bigger house, two bigger houses, a mansion with twenty-five bathrooms you will never see or use, this is what will make you truly happy.” We regulated our lives to achieve this happiness. We obeyed its devious demands because we believed in it; it functioned as knowledge, it was truth, it was reality.

We were comforted in the conviction that we had recognized, and adhered to, a truth of life. If others didn’t agree, that merely enhanced the stew of satisfaction with the spice of superiority.

We received pleasure not from any absolute truth; we had no idea if other more egalitarian forms of life would bring us greater happiness. The siren song never values the contemplative life. So we floated on the surface, distracted from what lies exist beneath the waves. The surface seemed so tranquil and glisten-y.

Entranced by the shimmering waves, we jumped through the hoops of life we’d been conditioned to believe in. We procreated to produce a new generation to whom we earnestly imparted our knowledge of the financial hurdles that lead to a successful life. Happiness is a race, a competition, we told them, and there can only be one winner. 

It was crucial that our children believed that what we had given them was the truth.To doubt our truth was to doubt that we were the truth-givers. It was to question our beliefs about ourselves. 

Most parents would be devastated if they paid four years of tuition at a university only to be informed by their child they wanted to live in an ashram seeking spiritual truth. A spiritual life is not a successful life, the parent would declare, you’ll never be truly happy without the bigger house, the BMW, and at least 2.3 kids. 

We repeated that mantra often enough that our offspring came to believe it. And they were grateful that we had opened their eyes to this reality, to this truth, to which they eagerly conformed. And we found contentment knowing that we were the kind of parents who could recognize, and impart, the truths of the world to our children. 

But the calm surface has now lost its luster. The virus has shoved our heads beneath the waves. This is where the creatures lurk. Below the seductive incantations of the American Dream swim the monsters of the deep; in constant motion, devouring the many to feed the wealth of a few.  

When the virus is over, when we eventually rise above the surface, will we remember what we have seen? Will we remember the atrocities we have obediently floated upon for so many years? When we once again stroll casually out of our homes into waiting arms, will we finally tune out the siren song?

Artwork by Bryan Syme


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;