I was on my Facebook page today and saw a banner ad asking me to become a fan of Morgan Freeman. I have liked Mr. Freeman since I watched him on PBS’s ZOOM as a kid. So I read on: “Freeman was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Mayme Edna (née Revere), a cleaner, and Morgan Porterfield Freeman, Sr., a barber who died in 1961 from liver cirrhosis.” And the authors are betting that imparting this information, liver cirrhosis and all, will convert me to a fan of Mr. Freeman.
Reading Mr. Freeman’s short bio reminded me of the Democratic and Republican conventions last year. Each politician was introduced in a way that was meant to garner the respect and trust of Americans. Almost without exception great efforts were made to weave some story of the politician emerging from a common, if not downright poverty-stricken, background sprinkled with human tragedy (i.e. the loss of a sibling, parent or spouse) and great obstacles.
I never really noticed this type of rhetoric when I lived in the States because I was marinated in it. It strikes me now because I live in Sweden. I don’t hear those stories being told here. For two reasons: First, stories with such rich contrasts can’t emerge from a social welfare state that has all but abolished social contrast. And second, I see a tendency here to put all of one’s trust in the opinions of other people and institutions when assessing someone’s merits than in your own observations and judgement.
As a result I usually see the back story being spun 180° in the opposite direction here. Ties to power, wealth and institutions are emphasized. Growing up in the right city with a “good address” and attending the right school and associating with the right crowd win favor here. Ancient ties to royalty through some dusty title is even more coveted and, to my constant amazement, respected.
The folks who wrote the bio about Mr. Freeman had to sell me on him in 40 words or less. They could have told me of his famous roles and awards, or how he has become one the wealthiest or most powerful men in Hollywood, or even the humanitarian projects he has worked on. Instead they chose to impart to me the image of a black child living living in one of the poorest and racially divided states in the union with mom scrubbing the floors of a public restroom and dad passed out in some cheap gin joint. And that’s what I love about America.
Like 3-year-olds captivated by Nemo even though they have watched the DVD 47 times, we never tire of hearing the story of the American dream. We eat it up. We believe it. And well we should. Because Morgan Freeman did overcome poverty, racial prejudice, his dad’s death and who knows what else to become one of the wealthiest and most respected actors in the world. He “made it” and so did millions of other Americans who believed in the dream and were willing to work and sacrifice to achieve their potential.
If you grew up in America your parents or grandparents probably tried to impart their version of the story to you. Their personal proof that the American dream can work. I hope you were listening.
Living abroad, I realize that the dream is at the center of what makes America and Americans unique. I believe it is what drives us, provides us with hope, helps us endure hardship and overcome obstacles. I also believe our future depends on keeping that dream alive.
That means more than dreaming. It means ensuring that America is a place where those who dare to believe in the dream with their heart, soul and sweat are rewarded for doing so and allowed to share their story with the world. Many of those stories will bring injustice and cruelty to light. And when they do we should pay attention and strive to keep wrongs from being repeated. We could learn from the stories and use what we learn to make the American dream increasingly accessible to all who are willing to work honestly towards it.
Having lived in a culture where dreams are actively discouraged by the state, I no longer see the “American Dream” as a quaint cliché to be made light of. I suspect I see it more as our forefathers saw it: something to distinguish the American experiment from the European ones that preceded it; something as real and as important to human progress as any philosophy, religion or rule of law. And if you don’t believe me just ask Morgan Freeman.