Should Our Children and Grandchildren Live Better Than Us? And Whatever Happened to Our Dreams? By Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Last Sunday on Meet the Press Tom Brokaw spoke about the breakdown of what he felt had been a common consensus about American life. He said that Americans are questioning the American dream which tells us that “our children and grandchildren will live better than us.”  He found it disturbing that people now feel their children will not be better off than they were.  The poor no longer see a way out of poverty and the middle class fear that their children will be unemployed for long periods in their lives, burdened with college debt, and unable to afford mortgages and college educations for their children.  I have heard this idea expressed many times in the recent economic crisis, including by progressive journalist Adrianna Huffington.

What Brokaw and others do not mention is that a few generations ago, this American dream was the hope that one’s children would not live in poverty.  Now, for the middle class if this dream means anything, it means having a bigger house, more cars, $2000 suits, botox and plastic surgery, expensive vacations, weddings costing tens of thousands of dollars, store-bought Halloween costumes, and so many Christmas presents that children step on their new toys to get to the tree for more packages.  What Brokaw and others did not address is whether the desire for your children to have “more” than you had, once your family is out of poverty is a valid, good, or sustainable desire to have.  Of course we should all hope that our children and children’s children will find employment and not live in poverty, but an endless upward spiral cannot be sustained and there is no evidence that it makes anyone any happier.

In For the Common Good, John Cobb and Herman Daly show that the “growth economy” which is integrally related to the dream that our children will do better than us is based in the exploitation of resources without regard for the true cost of doing so, and in the expansion of markets, both into other countries and by the creation of new “needs” and “desires” for consumers at home.  In a growth economy there is no place for a farm that provides the same products year after year for a local market nor for a small store that supplies the needs of local consumers.  In other words, the “growth economy” that is at the basis of both Democratic and Republican economic policies is the opposite of a sustainable economy.  Moreover, as the 99% movement is recognizing, the benefits of the growth economy are accumulating in the hands of the 1%.

When I was young, another version of the American dream was created.  It was the dream of Martin Luther King that black and white could live together, the vision of a great society in which no child would go hungry, and the imagining of anti-war movement of “all the people living life in peace.”  I for one would be quite willing to give up the majority of my consumer goods and privileges and to live exactly as my parents and grandparents did or even somewhat less well, in exchange for living in a society where no one was discriminated against because of color, sex, or sexual orientation, where everyone lived well but sustainably, where work felt meaningful and there was time to enjoy life, and where the world was not continually at war.  This is a dream I could believe in and it has nothing specifically to do with America.  Sadly it is a dream that is rarely even spoken about any more.



Categories: Ethics, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Social Justice

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4 replies

  1. Carol,

    I felt myself nodding my head and verbally affirming your statements as I read this article. There is such truth to what you are saying here. We’ve grown into such a greedy world. I read an article a few years ago that said if you can afford to live in a very nice neighborhood but cannot afford all the accessories to go with it – fancy car, designer furniture, etc. you should opt to live in the next neighborhood “down” so that you can afford the extras and be the one showing off to the neighbors rather than feeling depressed about what you don’t have. Wow, how we’ve gotten it all wrong.

    Now that I am a mother I’ve given much thought to wanting my daughter to experience the excitement of Christmas, but I also do not want to buy into consumerism and end up with a house full of things that have no meaning. When I was young my parents had five gifts for each child – on that was a “big” gift (meaning it cost about $20) and four “little” gifts that were probably about $5 each. Stockings were for candy only – and just a few pieces. I think was a good balance. I remember always being excited for Christmas because there was always something I really hoped for all year. These days, we don’t wait until Christmas, we just go out and charge whatever we want. There is an attitude that people seem to think they deserve everything. I wonder how we change this?

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  2. I love this post for so many reasons. My perspective of the “American Dream” is of an immigrants’ daughter who understood fully that her parents moved from the homeland precisely to live in this “land of opportunity.” We undoubtedly grew-up on the upper end of middle class (since my dad is a surgeon), but my parents were and are still so anti-consumerism.

    My 4-year old has now had two birthday parties – a small one last year where he invited 3 friends and a larger one this year (that just took place last week). In both cases, we told guests that only their presence was requested and that if they felt so inclined, they could give to their favorite charity in my son’s honor. We felt really great about it, since it is our belief that our children only need so many toys and because we don’t ever want our guests to feel obligated to bring anything other than themselves, etc.

    Here is the “problem” – our son woke-up the next morning and the first question he asked me was this: “Mom, how come no one brought me presents”? Although we had explained to him before our rationale and tried to explain to him again what folks had done in his honor, he just didn’t understand the concept of really sick kids (St. Jude’s), kids without homes (Habitat for Humanity), kids who needed help in other ways (UNICEF), etc.

    So with parenting, somehow we have got to find a way to live out our values without creating a situation where our children feel excluded or deprived (in comparison with their peers). Any advice, Carol, or other readers of this blog?

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  3. I am always confused by such a demeaning view of “dream.” It wasn’t the “dream” MLK had. He said nothing about a bigger house, or even a house in the first place (owned that is). I don’t buy into the “children / grandchildren” model of the universe. It’s heteronormative… no I don’t have kids, no I don’t want grandkids, because that would mean forced hetero childbearing… but I do say yes to a better world, because we can make it better. When the hetero ownership of children ends, when this biological obsession with “producing” children ends, we’ll have a more sustainable world.

    What I do believe the age of materialism mourns is the trajectory of the last 100 years in America. Most of this was a reaction to the great depression. That generation saw privation early, and thus focused on material progress. All of my most financially saavy clients, the ones who don’t screw up were of that era. It was the baby boom children that grew up in great wealth (by world historic standards), and thus the game changed.

    We have gone to such extremes of materialism, that this is what people feel the loss of.
    As a radical lesbian living among the heteros, my anthropological sense is het women of a certain social class are OBSESSED with clothing, shoes, jewelry… the default conversation topic, just as sports is the default topic of het men. To my radical feminist sensibility, you don’t need 10 pairs of shoes, you don’t even need to buy new clothing very often. You don’t need to buy your children thousands of toys. What is the point of this insanity?

    Feminism posits the idea that women are free and independent beings, that we are not to be owned or colonized by men. Lesbians posit that we do not have sex with men, a corrupting and colonizing act on the female body. But the het conditioning of late capitalism has even Ellen advertising make-up, and lesbians “producing” children often with the use of dangerous reproductive technology. NO we are NOT JUST LIKE THEM, we are our own culture and sensibility.

    Tom Brokaw and his ilk have a very poor idea of what progress is, or even what an American Dream is. We have brainwashed everyone into wanting a house, for example, when previous generations never had them. Or we have this idea that everyone should go to college. What about trades, what about crafts? What about the fact that college is not for everyone. Ever talked to college kids of late? Most of them simply want career training, not an education.

    I always thought the American Dream as one big boring hetero nightmare. Thank the goddess I am not a part of that. I wanted something very very different, and I would say, in that sense my dream did come true. All that work paid off, all that courage produced a freedom dividend worth more than any share of stock. What drives me is the dream of lesbian nation, and I would like a lesbian land of our own, that I would love to see some place in the world. Just as I would like to see childfree spaces, so I don’t have hetero arrogance thrown in my face night and day. No I don’t want to see your damn baby pictures! (another topic a bit off topic).

    Perhaps the great second depression is waking people up. We do know that in male supremacist HIStory, that when great wealth was achieved a “civilization” declined and fell or disappeared. We know of no example where this was turned around. We know that an empire costs big bucks, and that imperial cultures eventually collapse, if nothing else, because the costs of imperial wars eventually break the bank.

    We need to challenge the “American Dream” mentality, we need to get out the message that MLK, Mary Daly, Susan B. Anthony, Z. Budapest, Starhawk, and every butch dyke who owns just two pairs of dress shoes, one crummy pair of tennis shoes, and very worn Burkenstocks is not about whatever Tom Brokaw is crying about now. Look to the radical lesbian separatists, look to the butch dykes… report on the dream after you’ve talked to us Brokaw! And don’t keep quoting that children/grandchildren hetero blather at me. I want the world better for ME, and for my sisters. If we make the world better for all women, we will have a dream fulfilled, and it is the only reason we should want a better world in my opinion.

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  4. Thankyou for these perspectives Carol. It brings me such peace. I have been racing faster to keep up with bills and not trusting my dreams and you just brought me back to center with such wise council. I am so lucky to have met you and Mara KEller and Charlene Spretnak through my studies at CIIS WOmen’s SPirituality program and to be exposed to your persepctives which so lucidely voice my aspirations. ANd for being symbiotic with Life, Peace and Love. May the moon shine sweetly upon you!

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