Op-ed: the American Dream is now about attaining perfection

The American Dream is a popular topic: politicians, businesses, citizens, and immigrants have all had a hand in defining this set of values and goals. A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by Neal Gabler suggests that the end goal of the American Dream has changed in recent years from seizing opportunities to attaining perfection:

But over the past 50 years, the American Dream has been revised. It is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection. Many Americans have come to feel that the lives they always imagined for themselves are not only attainable; those lives are now transcendable, as if our imaginations were inadequate to the possibilities. In short, many Americans have come to believe in their own perfectibility…

We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it — everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

Or else. And that’s another thing that a perfectionist society has engendered. It has removed failure as an option because we realize that there are no second chances, that mistakes are usually irrevocable, and that you have to assume there are other people out there — your competition! — whose wives will always be beautifully coiffed and dressed or whose husbands will be power brokers, whose children will score 2,400 on their SATs and who will be playing competitive-level tennis, whose careers will be skyrocketing, whose fortunes will be growing. In a world in which perfection is expected, you must be perfect. Otherwise you are second rate.

I wish Gabler had some more space to expand on this idea. When he says we are chasing “perfection,” what exactly does he mean? I’m guessing that this does not refer to perfect lives: no one has these as we all have troubles to face and obstacles to overcome. We all face failure at some time or another. I wonder if by perfection, Gabler really is getting at something else, something along the lines of, “perfect enough to be better than most others.” When do we or would we know that our lives are perfect or is it more about being perfect enough?

When I read this piece, I was reminded of sociologist Juliet Schor’s argument in The Overspent American: in recent decades, Americans have spent more money and time chasing richer and richer reference groups. Even if we enjoy our house, we see better houses that supposedly middle-class families have on TV or in movies. Even if our kid is smart, we read newspaper stories about the kid who got a perfect on their SAT and seems to have every opportunity available to them. If we are always chasing other people, we might indeed get to a similar point – until other people have even more or something different. But we often only assess where we are at by comparing ourselves to others.

In this sense, perfect is not perfection but rather good enough to be better than most. Or perfect enough to look better than most. As Schor suggests, this could become an endless cycle of keeping up with the Joneses. Or as Gabler puts it, we are seeking to “live within [our] illusions” and to “live not just the good life but the perfect one.”

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