This weekend in The Financial Times' Life & Arts section, one can find author Adam Haslett's interesting piece on preppy style, and his belief that it reflects a perhaps peculiarly American worldview. That worldview, in Haslett's opinion, is one that espouses the inviolable truism of upward mobility; not necessarily a lack of class structure, but an undying faith that hard work can help one to break the shackles of whatever circumstances one was born into to make one's own mark on the world.
This has been defined in a few simple words by countless authors, immigrants, citizens and politicians alike as 'the American Dream,' a phrase which both represents infinite past successes and hopefully informs countless future examples. According to Haslett, it is the 'aspirational identification with the rich and leisured' that leads people of every class to wear the preppy clothing that WASPs have long been known for, but it is the 'illusion of classlessness (through upward mobility) that underwrites Americans' famous capacity for optimism.' Therefore, wearing preppy clothes merely reflects a belief that hard work will one day place the wearer side by side with other risers in places where such clothing is de riguer, namely richly manicured golf courses and immaculate tennis courts; it really only should be a matter of time.
In the same article, Haslett contrasts this idyllic vision of America, represented by polo shirts and frayed chinos, with the fact that it has never actually been further from reality for average Americans. Quoting Timothy Noah of Slate Magazine, Haslett points out that 'the class elevator began stalling decades ago,' as the US currently has the greatest income inequality in the developed world. He points out a fact which may be surprising to some, that socially democratic nations such as Denmark and Sweden are now better qualified than the original nation of dreams to claim that imminent rise is possible, as a citizen of the middle class in such European states has a far better chance of elevating his or her status than counterparts in the United States.
Though Haslett points this out to emphasize his point, a recent poll has found that at least some average Americans are catching on to the notion of inequality. Among a few statistics pointing to a general mistrust of politicians combined with a blanket lack of faith that either party is better than the other, an ABC News/Yahoo! News poll released about two weeks ago represented that only about half of Americans still believe in the American Dream. Additionally, over 40% believe that it is more a thing of the past. Maybe Haslett's thesis is incorrect then. Maybe his counterfactual is actually the reality. Perhaps Americans have given up hope. Perhaps preppy fashion is very simply that, a fashion choice...
I, for one, think not. Though his thesis is perhaps a bit overblown, there is something to be said for presumptuous dressing, yes, but far more critically the inherent beliefs that lead to doing so. Therefore, though I would question the extent that preppy dressing reflects a belief in the ability to rise, I would not argue with the validity of the statement nor the belief system that, to whatever extent Haslett's thesis is true, it represents. I count myself among the 50% of Americans who still believe.
However, maybe this is simply reflective of my age. In another interesting Life & Arts piece, though from last week, Francesco Guerrera notes that one's view of the original Wall Street film is instructive; if you view it as a cautionary tale, you are catching director Oliver Stone's point, whereas if you sense it as a rags to riches story, you are trying to see the American Dream in it. Though I can certainly identify that Gekko is a 'bad guy,' I place myself firmly in the latter camp as I was always impressed by Bud Fox, his work ethic and his drive to reach the top. Morally stumbling along the way was simply a representation of his fallibility, particularly when faced with the specter of disappointing an idol.
Guerrara notes that the youth of today, perhaps with worldviews shaped more formatively by financial crises, Enrons, Tycos and the like are more likely to be in the former category. This, of course, is why many believe that the long-anticipated sequel will be so widely understood by the filmgoing public; rather than ambiguity surrounding whether certain characters wear white or black hats, today's well-informed (and perhaps more cynical) audience is savvy enough to tell the difference, and are therefore wearing the correct lenses to grasp Stone's vision.
Enough on metaphors and allegories however (at least for this post...). The fact remains that, of a presumably representative sample set, around 50% of Americans still believe that there is a dream with their name on it. In the midst of 'The Great Recession,' and a time of 10% unemployment, famously unpopular politicians and horribly unpopular wars, one could argue that isn't really that bad. Indeed, if the American Dream didn't exist, one of the hot buttons of the day, immigration policy, would no longer exist; presumably if that belief in obtaining what is currently unattainable didn't exist, nobody would risk life and limb to chase it. So what if 1% of Americans own 25% of the nation's wealth? If you want a piece of that apple pie, go and get it...