On becoming a 21st-century adult

First, Samuel J. Abrams:

Over the past weeks, I published two articles which argued that the American Dream is not only alive and well for the overwhelming majority of Americans, but that the meaning of the Dream has evolved; it is not about material success, but about individual choice and the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses.

While many appreciated the optimistic findings, quite a few emails and letters were sent my way questioning the finding that Americans value individualism over financial success. So, I will provide historical context to the Dream that challenges conventional presuppositions along with data from our recent AEI survey to support my claim.

American literature professor Sarah Churchwell, in her new history of the American Dream, argues that, at its conception, the Dream had little to do with wealth but was “a dream of equality, justice, and democracy for the nation.” Churchwell offers that the Dream evolved through successive generations and lost its meaning during the Cold War. She adds that it “became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. Our ideas about the “American Dream” froze in the 1950s. Today, it doesn’t occur to anybody that it could mean anything else.” This materialistic view of the Dream seems to be dominant in public discourse today and is maintained by many such as Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Laborwho recently stated that the Dream was, “the faith that anyone could move from rags to riches — with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone.”

There are, however, broader interpretations of the Dream which promote education, social mobility and the pursuit of opportunity. Moreover, there are interpretations that promote individualism such as that of noted artist Maya Lin who stated that, “To me, the American Dream is being able to follow your own personal calling. To be able to do what you want to do is incredible freedom.” JamesAdams, a writer who coined the term “American Dream”, felt similarly. In 1931, he argued, “the dream, has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

Our AEI survey intended to unpack the antecedents behind the Dream and did so by presenting a large national sample of Americans with eight distinct factors that could be considered components of the Dream. Participants were asked to rate the importance of each factor in accordance with their personal opinions on the American Dream. Included in the list were choices such as “to become wealthy,” “to have a better quality of life than your parents” as well as “to have a good family life” and “to have freedom of choice in how to live one’s life.”

Read the full AEI Survey on Community and Society here.

The aggregate results tell a very strong story: family life and freedom to live one’s life are the highest valued components by far with 83% and 85% of Americans asserting that they are essential to the realization of the Dream. In contrast, only 16% believe that becoming wealthy is essential. Additionally, less than half of participants answered that having a successful career and having a better quality of life than one’s parents are essential to the Dream.

When the survey is broken down by race and ethnicity, freedom of choice in how to live one’s life is the highest rated answer with all groups stating at levels of 80% or more that this factor is fundamental. The least important factor is wealth; 9% of whites and 29% of blacks and Hispanics state that wealth accumulation is critical to the Dream. Further, family and individual choice are the highest rated across all surveyed races and ethnicities. Similarly, when broken down by income, freedom to live one’s life as one chooses is again the most important factor; with a selection rate of 80% for those earning under $35K per year and nearly 90% for those who earn over $100k.

After a thorough examination of the data, it is clear that the public conceptualization of the American Dream stresses individuality and community over material pursuits. This is a non-trivial finding and would explain why data from our AEI survey revealed 82% of Americans believe they are on their way to, or have already achieved the American Dream, while only 18% believe that the Dream is out of reach.

Americans truly value their individualism and their community life, and the post-Cold War conception that achieving the American Dream is inextricably linked to wealth accumulation is erroneous. Americans realize that when they wake up in the morning, they can make choices about how to live and engage with the world; many of these choices do not require bringing wealth into the conversation.

One doesn’t become an adult by graduating from school, or getting a high-paying job, or becoming a parent. Adulthood is really about fulfilling responsibilities. Which brings up, of all things, Star Trek Discovery, in the view of James Aaron Brown:

If Aristotle was correct when he said life imitates art, then “Star Trek: Discovery’s” Captain Christopher Pike is an opportunity for the science fiction genre to reshape the American narrative on masculinity.

Pike inspires his people to “be bold, be brave, be courageous.” In contradiction, sitcom television and college campuses influence Americans to believe that men are solely misogynistic buffoons. In fact, men are so incompetent, they stand over their barbecue grills watching their sons fight with each other as some form of weird ritual. How did we ever reach some sense of civilization over the past 5,000 years with men at the helm?

“Star Trek: Discovery” is the successor of 50-plus years of the Star Trek universe as well as one of the greatest franchises to explore the human condition. Discovery uses the fictitious Captain Pike to reexamine the masculine archetype, long downtrodden in our postmodern society. The series and its writers (inadvertently) recaptures one of the greatest virtues of science fiction long gone missing in other genres: a strong, self-sacrificing, masculine hero.

Such masculine archetypes are sorely missed in television. Welcome back, Captain Pike. Welcome back. America has a great lesson to learn from you and Star Trek.

In the original Star Trek series of the late 1960s, viewers discovered Captain Kirk was not the first captain of the Enterprise. Instead, fans learned Captain Christopher Pike served for 13 years before Kirk assumed command.

In the “Menagerie” parts 1 and 2, Kirk and Spock meet Pike, who is confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate due to severe gamma radiation burns. Pike, the eager hero, met this fate when he saved several cadets from certain death. Ultimately, Spock breaks Federation law to return Captain Pike to Talos IV, where Christopher can live out his remaining days in peace and tranquility with a sense of healing from his wounds.

Set 10 years before Star Trek’s original series, Pike startlingly joins the U.S.S. Discovery to investigate a series of indeterminable signals that appear immediately after the end of season one’s conflict with the Klingon Empire. When Pike takes command of the Discovery, a look of dread appears on the faces of female crew members.

Their fear of a new captain stems from season one, in which Discovery was captained by Lorca, a despotic, achieve victory at all costs, tread everyone under foot leader. He is the antithesis of the heroine captain, Philippa Georgiou, whom everyone loved and admired. Captain Georgiou was killed by the nationalistic, male-driven warrior race, the Klingons.

Pike is the opposite of the despot Lorca. He asks men and women for their opinions and possible solutions. He praises his female and highly competent first officer, Number One, played by Rebecca Romjin. When danger arises, Pike is the first one to put his life on the line, which he does numerous times throughout the 14 episodes.

Federation leadership feared if the Klingons won, then a contingency must be made to preserve the greatest exemplar of all that is good. Someone with strong virtues must remain alive to rebuild a crushed Federation if the Klingons succeed. Pike is that exemplar, and he feels tremendous guilt for following orders to stay out of the war.

Pike lives out the virtue of commitment when ensign Tilly is trapped by an alien race. Captain Pike issues a ship-wide announcement, “Starfleet is a promise. I give my life for you. You give your life for me. And no one gets left behind. Ensign Tilly has every reason to expect us. Good luck and God speed to us all.”

With this promise they go after their lost comrade while two female officers share an approving glance with each other. The healing is taking root among the crew just like the healing of the male archetype narrative can take root in America.

Toward the end of the second season, Captain Pike must travel to the Klingon planet Boreth to retrieve a valuable crystal. To possess the crystal, Pike must accept an impossible future: in ten years he will save cadets from an explosion of gamma radiation, which will leave him in an almost vegetative state, burned beyond belief and confined to a wheelchair. Or Pike can reject the crystal’s curse and leave empty-handed to continue his unfettered life.

Faced with this horror, Pike digs deep. He reminds himself of his core values and the virtues that guide his daily life. He’s not worried about which craft beer he’ll miss out on. Nor is he worried about his alpha-female wife’s condescension. Pike chooses to practice the virtue of self-sacrifice for the greater good of others living in a jeopardized future.

Historically, Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek, sought to address the societal challenges of the 1960s through the adventures of the Enterprise. Racial barriers were non-existent on the starship despite those of the day. The misogyny of the ‘60s received confrontation while exploring narratives of true, respectful love. If Rodenberry were with us today, perhaps he might see one of the greatest societal plights is masculinity in the 21st century.

Like the original series, “Star Trek: Discovery” proves itself contemporary on the subject of masculinity, even if unwittingly. The show champions the virtues of the masculine archetype for a society that needs masculinity’s inspiration, not more fodder for sitcom television. If art imitates life, then our sons and daughters should tune in to one of the best offerings of science fiction known as Star Trek in hopes to imitate their lives after great art.

“Discovery” gives us Captain Pike, a character who can inspire our sons to “be bold, be brave,” and “be courageous,” inspirational words that commend young men to be who they are born to be before television and college campuses buffet their gaze to the ground. Be bold, be brave, be courageous men we hope our daughters will discover instead of being conditioned that their only hope is to settle for a man they will also need to raise alongside their children.

If art imitates life, then Captain Christopher Pike shapes the imagination to model the virtues of masculinity.

Finally, Mariia Chaplia:

I’ve been called a feminist many times in my life even though I’ve never considered myself one. I thought that if feminism had to do with equality of opportunity, then what was the point in inventing a new word? We already had individualism for that. However, the term “feminism” surpassed its initial meaning long ago. The successes and failures of the movement have also expanded much further into our daily life.

The first problem with feminism, regardless of what meaning you put into it, is that even the term itself singles out a particular group of people—women—by appealing to the “feminine.” It is often argued that the term is used to outline the target group of the movement. However, when one group marks itself out, it contributes to the segmentation of society. Nothing is wrong with this until the group starts calling for privileges and unnecessary concessions. This special treatment is justified by claiming a certain sect of society is responsible for their woes.

The feminist movement has been especially effective at promoting all sorts of measures aimed at ensuring women are as free to pursue their goals as are men, such as gender quotas. It is key to distinguish between equality of opportunity—which is one of the pillars of individualism—and equality of outcome, which undermines individualism.

The concept of welfare rights, such as a right to education, enshrined in many constitutions, is exercised through redistribution. I, for one, would like to see governments all over the world moving away from practicing redistribution. However, realistically, these social rights are entrenched in society and will persist. Despite this, it is unacceptable on the side of governments to meddle with women’s right to get an education on equal terms with men.

Just because women have been historically underrepresented in some areas, such as politics and business, doesn’t mean we should try to compensate for it by hiring more women in those professions now. This course of action is deeply flawed. It is impossible to correct the injustices of the past due to the lack of knowledge. More importantly, it undermines the advancement of the merit-based notion of success.

Another (and probably much more important) problem caused by feminism is that it teaches women to compete like men. Paradoxically, by appealing to the “feminine,” feminism lessened the role of the feminine. It also triggered a lot of anger and defensiveness toward men due to them being seen as enemies.

The famous Sun Tzu saying, “Know your enemy better than yourself,” seems to me to be at the core of radical feminism, which has demonized men. Any type of feminism presupposes competition. However, its essence as understood by feminists is different from that embraced by individualists

Women have been trying to compete with men on men’s terms. Those who have failed are generally the loudest in the queue for privileges—similar to uncompetitive industries calling for subsidies.

Using your competitor’s tactics can help you maintain your place, but it won’t help you win the race. For this very reason, feminism hasn’t won yet and never will if it carries on in its current form. The victory of feminism is only possible if it dissolves into individualism.

Margaret Thatcher put it best:

The woman’s mission is not to enhance the masculine spirit, but to express the feminine; hers is not to preserve a man-made world, but to create a human world by the infusion of the feminine element into all of its activities.

Individualism is a philosophy that treats all individuals equally, regardless of their gender, race, upbringing etc. It is a merit-based system of beliefs and, therefore, is mainly concerned with the value every individual can bring to the world. Individualism encourages us to leverage what we have and to harness our new sides.

Teaching girls to compete like men is a flawed and poisonous strategy. It’s time we started teaching girls to compete like individuals and to use feminine to their advantage in fair and value creation-oriented competition based on equality of opportunity.

 

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