“Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh, ‘Wait for me, wait for me’
I’ll be coming home, wait for me.”
These words written by Hy Zaret and sung by countless performers since the publishing of ‘Unchained Melody’ in 1955 were originally attributed to a lovesick fellow who hasn’t seen his lover in a “long, lonely time.” But in the artistic hands of celebrated filmmaker Eugene Jarecki and powerfully voiced by Elvis Presley just months before his death, they provide a fitting metaphor for both the trajectory of Elvis’ life since the 1950s to his early end and that of the American Dream, as we know it today. Will the American Dream ever “be coming home” or, like Elvis, has it “left the building” forever?
Jarecki, in his documentary The King, wheels Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce on a musical road trip across America, searching for Presley’s legacy and what is left of the American Dream. In the film, Jarecki explores the helplessness experienced by many these days as the promise of the ‘Dream’ evaporates and now seems compromised by our culture’s deification of greed, power and the raw pursuit of money.
Is the guiding flame of our nation’s ‘Dream’ now extinguished and destined to end up like Elvis after he ‘cashed in’– overfed, medicated and doomed to an early end? Or will the outrageous excesses of today’s political plutocrats energize an activism that steers our country back to its origins, when real democracy and economic equality were valued over extreme capitalism?
Elvis, as we wistfully remember him, sparked 1950s America with optimism, excitement and a rock and rolling soundtrack. It was an addictive brew that captivated young Americans and terrified television producers, who worried that Elvis’ gyrating hips might shake mature viewers into shock. With his unbridled cool soaring above a thumping groove, the King provided the backbeat for the post war, baby booming enthusiasm that invigorated America and beckoned its citizens to dream about upward mobility and grasping the security of the American Dream.
Those soaring times featured the automobile industry taking off and comfortable housing, stimulated by affordable mortgages for returning servicemen, being within reach for more people than ever before. Many businesses and corporations had bigger hearts back then too and shared the wealth with their employees, whom they often thought of as partners in their businesses, by offering guaranteed annual wages, long-term employment contracts and many other benefits. More Americans were becoming financially stable and proudly viewed themselves as members of the growing middle class.
And the suburbs took on a life of their own. Everyday Americans found that they had the resources to move out of the city and slide into the ‘burbs, where there were more housing options to accommodate bigger postwar families. Highways built to connect cities to the suburbs and their new shopping centers hooked up customers and retailers like never before. And a massive federal interstate system was constructed to link all of the regions of the country together. It all helped to fuel the wanderlust of creatives like Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and young Americans everywhere, who wanted to embrace the enticing prospects that Elvis’ rock and roll and their new found dreams of prosperity foretold.
But eventually Elvis got lazy and dove headfirst into a morass of bad movies and interminable Las Vegas engagements that provided plenty of dough, but little artistic satisfaction. Business owners and corporations, as well, stopped being so generous with their time and money. Employees went from being viewed as partners, and members of the family in some cases, to more like interlopers receiving too much salary and too many benefits. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which had fueled hope for the previously disenfranchised, soon became targets of privileged wealth, who no longer wanted to share their good fortune or their suffrage with citizens not inclined to vote like plutocrats. And unions, created to insure fair wages and working conditions, seemed to many business owners a luxury they could no longer afford.
The American Dream was on life support.
The Koch brothers and other secretive dark money patrons funded governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who skewered unions by stripping their collective bargaining rights. They poured millions of dollars into far right politicized efforts to rewrite tax codes, undo environmental protections, privatize public resources and drastically cut aid to public education in favor of private schools. And these wealthy cadres institutionalized fully implemented strategies to fund voter suppression efforts so that rich minorities could dictate policy over America’s democratic majority.
Famed jurist Louis Brandeis once warned that we as Americans, “must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” America’s pendulum of history was now swinging away from economic equality, a strong middle class and democracy, toward the wealthy legions of greed that Brandeis had cautioned us about.
Wasn’t the ‘Dream’ supposed to be about making it easier to acquire a home, count on justice and work for fair wages? Didn’t we as country, not too long ago, revere the idealistic zeal of historians, philosophers and artists enough to provide the public resources necessary to fund civic studies and the liberal arts? Did we not once venerate creative leaps of aesthetics, imagination and introspection? That kind of education traditionally was the main reason people went to college, but not anymore. Bachelor degrees in the liberal arts have fallen by more than 15 percent since 2006, at a time when the total number of degrees rose by 31 percent, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute.
Is economic “freedom” in America now all about passing legislation that protects the avarice of modern day tycoons and absolves them of all responsibility to aid those not so lucky or rich? Is brute self-interest, without interference from others who hold different values, really who we are as a country? It is for many right-wing intellectuals, well-heeled conservative politicians and dark money benefactors. You can be sure they’ll defend an individual’s pursuit of exorbitant riches every time over the health of our democracy.
As Nancy MacLean writes in her tour de force expose of unfettered capitalism, ‘Democracy In Chains’, far right, dark money forces have subsidized promotion of a social contract in which “individuals treated one another as instruments toward their own ends, not fellow beings of intrinsic value.” They bankrolled institutions of higher learning that produced judges and politicians seeking “a world in which the chronic domination of the wealthiest and most powerful over all others appeared the ultimate desideratum.” Clearly, she wrote, in their eyes, “Democracy was inimical to economic liberty.”
A new analysis by the Washington Post found that the 400 richest people in America now own more than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60%. Furthermore, citing the World Inequity Database, the bottom 60%, which owned 5.7% of the nation’s wealth in 1987, held only 2.1% in 2014.
Clearly, we are at a crossroads in American history. Will our democracy be a vessel for a moral and virtuous government that looks out for us all? Or will workers continue to work longer hours and receive less wages, fewer benefits and little job satisfaction in return. Will employees be cherished as individuals of worth in their companies or are they destined to be replaceable cogs in an impersonal economic equation?
Malcolm Harris, author of ‘Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials,’ laments that millennials’ entire lives are now “framed around becoming cheaper and more efficient economic instruments for capital. That, taken to an extreme, has pretty corrosive effects on society, particularly young people.”
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, since the early 1970s, worker productivity in America has increased 246.3 %, but hourly compensation has only risen 114.7%. When you consider statistics like this and add up the massive student debt many millennials drag around today, it’s easy to understand why cynicism is more prevalent in our youth than dreams.
So are you ready to do something about it? Injecting moral authority into the economic inequities that exist in our politics will not come about by good wishes. There are too many gazillionaires in power who do not value the collective good to assume that economic justice will come about on its own. Activism will have to ignite and make the case.
As we go forward as a capitalistic democracy will we “call out the best of who we are and not the worst,” as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker implores? Will we somehow find our way and summon our ‘Better Angels’ to insure that “the arc of civilization is forever upward” as historian Jon Meacham believes. Or have we become a society in monetary bondage? A kind of serfdom forced on the majority by an aggressive, strategic minority determined to run roughshod over anyone who stands in the way of their so-called “economic freedom?”
We can only hope that a vigilant and concerned citizenry is energized and animated enough to ensure that the American Dream does not become an American nightmare. In the immortal words of Elvis, that would really render the ‘Dream,’ “All Shook Up.”