Michelle Obama gave an amazing speech last night at the DNC. It is true that I was chopping onions and leeks as I watched this, but she had me crying by the end of it. As I’ve said before, I’m cynical about my politics, but I can get behind what the First Lady is saying. I’d encourage you to watch this all the way through, if you haven’t yet.
I think the “American Dream” is deeply problematic and, historically and presently, it has been used to some upsetting ends. Most notably, the idea that if you work hard enough you’ll then succeed means that those who need (government) assistance are consistently read as lazy and irresponsible. If you haven’t achieved the American Dream, the argument goes, then you are not applying yourself and you deserve your fate. I suppose that’s a comforting idea, because if all it takes is hard work, then we all know how to prevent a similar fate from showing up on our own doorsteps.
The American Dream that Michelle Obama is talking about here is something different, though. She says:
Our families…simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.
By using words like “supposed to” and “should be able to,” she’s calling the “promise” of the American Dream on the carpet, and in a way, she’s flipping the logic of the American Dream as it’s been used. Throughout her speech, she insisted, instead, that in America, hard work should always be recognized and rewarded. In a way, she’s calling on us to rely on the American Dream, not as mythology or means of measuring other’s (lack of) success and how deserving they may be of their lot in life, but as a standard by which to measure our success as a nation. And let’s use her definition of success while we’re at it:
Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.
That might sound like a cliche bumper sticker, but as a guiding philosophy within the context of politics? It’s profound and important. When it comes to politics, I am liberal because I believe that if we raise up the lowest members of society, everyone benefits, (and, for what it’s worth, I’m willing to pay higher taxes to live in that kind of a country). For me, the power of this speech is in the many ways it puts that value forward. Take us out, Michelle:
If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire, if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores, if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote, if a generation could defeat a depression and define greatness for all time, if a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream — and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love — then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.