Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The world has become a darker place. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The popular US movie Brooklyn (2015) is based on a book by Colm Toibin. In the 1950s, a pretty, good-hearted, apparently simple Irish girl gets on a boat to the United States to fulfill the American dream and help her family. After Eillis Lacey lands in Brooklyn, New York, she struggles with limited living conditions and low self-esteem.

Slowly, her hard work pays off. With some help, she gets a job, finds an Italian boyfriend, and attends night school to enrich herself. She slowly achieves her American dreams.

She fits into the society more and more. She becomes ever more socialized with other Americans. People love her. She even improves the living conditions of her family in Ireland. In every sense, without realizing it, she fulfills the American dream.

In the climax of the story, she returns home to Ireland, gets married there and does not return.

The unexpected ending might not be so obvious at first, but observant readers suddenly realize that she returns to Ireland not because of disappointment, but because she has fulfilled her American dream. Her goal is complete in that sense for her. American ideals are made real and even transportable by the shaping force of the reveries of Americans.

Unity is only one American national aspiration. There are different American ambitions for each population and each evolving era.

Emerging out of its colonial beginnings, a revolution and then four score and seven years later a great moral struggle there appears the continent-wide truly United States of America. The hard-won conclusion of the Civil War made it clear the American dream could not be extinguished.

With the settlement of the frontier, the victories in the Mexican and Spanish wars, the founding of an industrial empire and the absorbing of millions of new immigrants, divergent forces molded the young country, within 120 years of the revolution, into a world power with far-reaching, ever-growing influence.

During the 20th century, America’s role became one of leadership, mentorship, and example. The goal, if not the realization, became one where American warriors rebuilt what they had, only yesterday, laid waste

During the 20th century, America’s role became one of leadership, mentorship, and example. The goal, if not the realization, became one where American warriors rebuilt what they had, only yesterday, laid waste. They went to the moon, even while they forgot how to save. They borrowed against the future, even at the cost of necessarily cheating their children. But always there were hopes, and dreams, at least, that remained noble, and always represented intention and motive, if sometimes cynical and even hypocritical.

That is, just as in the movie Brooklyn, America may have decided it has achieved so much, so fast, has been a model for so many for so long, has held itself out as mentor and pilot for so many otherwise moribund traditions, that it may cease to search the heavens for any new guiding stars.

Reminiscent of the Brooklyn story, a grand dream came true. The achievements that made real what had been only wishes and goals are all around us. But was the accomplishment almost too great? From technology, economics, weapons, politics and its relationship with the other countries in the world, American successes are so grand and undeniable we fear a sense may arise that there is little need to imagine and reach for even more.

The sense of the completion happened, metaphorically speaking, just this morning. Even before September 11, 2001, powerful social media had emerged. Previously invisible individuals would get thousands of followers just by posting a photo with a celebrity.

After 9/11, the US was under constant attack. For a while, the immediate, terrible vision of the smoking ruins of the Twin Towers did better unite the nation. But when the explicit terrorist threat was over, the greater pressure exerted by ever-constant, technologically induced super-individualism worked its way into the idea of America.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat are tools that supposedly tighten the bonds and improve relationships among people. They are said to shrink the distance separating people. Instead, the new technology allows us to anonymously troll one another. Internet bullies target their unsuspecting victims only in order to get themselves additional followers.

Young people get the sense that it is worthwhile to gain personal fame – something they value greatly – even at the cost of insulting and defaming innocent others (who in an earlier time would have been neighbors, but are now lost on the far side of a computer screen) in the process. The uniting spirit contained in the old notion that “we are all Americans,” despite our differences, is at risk. What does it mean for the future of American aspirations?

American dreams made Americans who they are. Americans will become strangers to themselves and as well to the rest of the world if they ever stop dreaming.

Countries that are already developed move further ahead slowly, since to do so, they must create new technological, political and social pathways. They must become “ice-breakers” or “gold miners.” They must cut a path, mine out of hidden places deep beneath the mountain of unknown things in order to discover hidden ideas and techniques.  Only after such a process of discovery can the developed nation undertake the process of refinement and application that must precede the act of making use of the new pathways, ideas, and markets.

In contrast, less developed nations can skip the discovery stage, and simply make use of what the gold miners have extracted in the past.  There still is work to do: The existing ideas must be reworked and made appropriate to the new condition found in the less developed places.

How does this connect with the Brooklyn-as-America story? America has, for a long time, been well ahead. Most other nations are, at least in terms of the American-connected ideas of liberty, equality, balanced individualism and progress, less developed.

Oddly enough, this state of affairs might tempt the Americans into a state of rest. They might take their eyes off the stars. It would not be good for the world.

Note: Thanks to the person who inspires in us the idea of America’s goals and its relationship with development. Also thanks to the person who introduced us to the book Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.

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