An Alternative Discourse of the American Dream: See the trailer here
The media routinely present American audiences with narratives that portray America as the land of opportunity, the richest and greatest country in the world. Indeed, most media texts offer a normative view of American social reality and rarely challenge conventional wisdom. However, We Have a Table for Four Ready: The Story of the St. Francis Inn is different; the text directly challenges commonly held beliefs about the American Dream, and importantly, the ethic that all those who work hard can achieve material success. Furthermore, the text pierces the preferred meanings of American legitimizing myths through raw emotional appeal and powerful direct experience with poverty, aging, mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, and other social problems that plague America. In fact, it is difficult to watch A Table for Four without being moved by the plight of people living in the margins of society and the love, hope, and faith of the St. Francis Inn family. Indeed, this author was deeply touched by the text, and could not avoid the question, why is this so? How do Americans, a compassionate people, allow so many to suffer under the tyranny of poverty, hopelessness, and despair? What follows in this paper is an attempt to shed light on these questions by examining the social terrain depicted in the media text through communication theory, in the pragmatic tradition. In fact, this author will borrow from a variety of traditions, both objective and interpretive, based on their usefulness and explanatory power.
In the opening of the text, amid raw images of the dilapidated neighborhood of Kensington, Pennsylvania, the text challenges the audience with an uncommon view of America. As a Franciscan Friar explains, “I know it’s hard to believe, but I live in the shadow of the cradle of democracy, less than two and a half miles from here is the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall” (Straub, 1997, p. 1:50). Of course, the America of the Table for Four text differs profoundly from the commonplace discourses found in mainstream media that emphasize America as a place of equality, where material success is the reward for hard work. Rather, in Kensington, “not everyone is created equal, people are born into situations and circumstances that are horrendous” (Straub, 1997, p. 4:35). On the contrary, Americans generally do not link extreme poverty with circumstances, instead believing the poor are welfare recipients who reject the values of independence and hard work (Bostrom, Douglas Gould & Co, & Ford Foundation, 2002). Indeed, Bostrom, et al. (2002) found many Americans believe hard work is rewarded, everyone can achieve the American Dream, and individuals are responsible for their own success or failure, ignoring the potential for systematic causes of poverty. Thus, the Table for Four text immediately contrasts the experiences at the St. Francis Inn with the values and beliefs of many Americans. Of course, the contrast begs the question, where do these beliefs come from and how do they function?
There are two theoretical traditions that can help answer the question, the socio-psychological tradition, and the critical tradition. The first, from the socio-psychological tradition is attribution theory stating that people act as they do “because of the inferences they make about others based on their behavior” (Abigail & Cahn, 2011, p. 217). There are two types of attribution, internal attributions are those inferences made about a person’s character and results in blame, while external attributions are inferences about the environment or circumstances and work to avoid blame (Heider, 1958). Thus, attribution theory may help illuminate the difference between the social reality presented in a Table for Four, and the beliefs of many Americans. Indeed, the direct experience of the staff at the St. Francis Inn witness a variety of circumstances where the poor have little opportunity to better themselves, like mental illness, handicaps, age, domestic abuse, and substance abuse, and thus attribute circumstances and systematic causes. Likewise, those without direct experience with poverty can often make internal attributions to the causes that affect their emotional response. For example, Weiner, Osborne, and Rudolph (2011) found that persons perceived as responsible for their poverty elicit anger and neglect, rather than sympathy. Thus, attribution theory has some power to explain how people attribute cause and consequently assign blame for poverty. However, attribution theory does little to explain from whence the American values of hard work and independence originate and how they are maintained. Therefore, this author turns to critical theory, and in particular, the cultural studies of Hall.
According to Griffin (2012), “Hall believes the mass media provide the guiding myths that shape our perception of the world and serve as important instruments of social control” (p. 349). For example, the first account of the American Dream occurred in a mass media text, defining it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and fuller and richer for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Adams, 1931, p. 404). Of course, the myth of America as a classless society and meritocracy has little relationship to the economic realities on the ground, as A Table for Four so aptly conveys. However, the power of the American Dream myth comes not from its reality, rather for its ability to provide a preferred meaning for continued inequality that allows people to legitimize inequality based on moral attributions (Winslow, 2007). Consequently, the moral attributions for poverty coincident in the American Dream are roughly the antithesis of the American Dream values of hard work and independence, namely laziness and dependence. In addition, the most common “mediated representations of the poor focus on character deficiencies and moral failings such as substance abuse, crime, sexual availability, and violence” (Winslow, 2010, p. 282). In this sense, the ideology of the American Dream simplifies the complex problem of poverty into a moral argument that the poor are poor because they deserve it, just as the rich are rich for the same reason.
Accordingly, the mass media are complicit in the systematic maintenance of poverty, by reinforcing the dominant myth of American culture. For example, consider how popular and pervasive “rags to riches” narratives are in American media. Indeed, the news frequently focus on the stories of Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, J.K. Rowling, and Sam Walton, to name but a few. In addition, popular fairy tales celebrate the same mythic tradition, like Cinderella and Aladdin. The “rags to riches” archetype is equally pervasive in other forms of popular culture like reality television, game shows, and movies. Thus, through the systematic reinforcement of the preferred and already-accepted interpretation of the American Dream, the media manufactures consent for the status quo of continued inequality. Therefore, the suffering of the poor on Kensington Street continues unabated, the result of pervasive media reinforcement of the causes of success and failure in America; put more simply, blaming the poor for being poor, rather than dealing with the complex circumstances and causes of poverty.
Consequently, the daily despair, hopelessness, and suffering of the poor depicted in the Table for Four text can be understood to result not simply from economic hardship. Likewise, the attribution of cause and the preferred meaning of the American Dream conveyed by the mass media equally play a role. In fact, the power of A Table for Four comes from its usefulness as an alternative reading of the American Dream; the dissonance between the economic realities of the poor on Kensington Street, and the popular myth that typically disguises such harsh realities.
In summary, this author was deeply moved by A Table for Four and sought to understand the mechanisms that allow a compassionate society to tolerate so many of its citizens living under the yoke of extreme poverty. Working in the pragmatic tradition, this author freely drew from the socio-psychological and critical traditions based on the usefulness and explanatory power of the theories. Specifically, attribution theory objectively explained the human process of attributing cause and assigning blame for poverty and the subsequent emotional response of anger and neglect, but had little explanatory power for cultural causes of those emotions. However, cultural studies was useful to explain how the media manufacture consent for continued inequality by reinforcing the preferred meaning of the American Dream, thus reducing the complexities of poverty into a simple narrative that blames the poor for their poverty and absolves society of the need to take action.
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