The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power, D.L. Mayfield, InterVarsity Press
D.L. Mayfield takes on that most hallowed of American ideals – that a person, by dint of their own hard work, determination and decisions, can achieve success, material possessions and happiness – and thoroughly debunks it.
An activist who lives with her family in a poor urban neighbourhood and works with immigrants, Ms Mayfield knows first-hand the sort of struggles faced by those with the odds stacked against them, and is well-placed to make the sort of trenchant criticism of the myths of American exceptionalism and the values that drive it.
This is not a wide-ranging, dispassionate and academic discussion of the fallacy of the American Dream, taking into account history and recent developments; rather Ms Mayfield develops her discussion out of stories of her life and work amongst poor immigrant families. She looks at four particular values of the Dream.
First of all she looks at affluence, the pursuit of money, particularly when it is at the expense of neighbourliness. She takes us into the world of people whose ambitions are thwarted by systems and policies stacked against them, by racism, sexism and xenophobia, and shows where true wealth lies – in generosity and thanksgiving.
Then, autonomy, that sacred of all American values of liberty. Mayfield, with her stories of poorly performing schools, and women supporting each other with meals and cooking utensils, challenges the individualism that pervades her society and highlights the healthier interdependence that marks the neighbours whose lives lack the opportunity that others may have.
The next value she questions is that of safety. She highlights the xenophobia and Islamophobia that exists, despite the almost non-existent threat from non-US terrorism. She talks about the refugees she works with where she lives and the trauma they’ve experienced, and how they need to be respected, valued and loved, rather than vilified.
Finally she comes to power, stating that she has “a spiritual and moral responsibility to interrogate the narratives around me.” She’s critical of White evangelical expressions of Christianity which somehow see America as especially anointed and blessed by God. It’s a form of Christianity which has bowed the knee to the Empire, something that would have been unrecognizable as Christian faith to the writers of the New Testament, if they could see the power-seeking, fear-stoking and blessing-chasing of many American churches.
Mayfield argues persuasively that following Jesus means seeking to dismantle or creatively subvert systems of oppression, or at least protest them. And lest we be left with the sense that the intensity of her own chosen path of life is the only one, she ends the book with a number of suggestions for living more authentically, based on some simple practical things her friends have done.
This a challenging book, no doubt, but D.L. Mayfield’s voice raised on behalf of the powerless amongst whom she works, with its passionate call to eschew the delusion of the American Dream and its oppressive tendencies and instead to find true life, liberty and happiness in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus, is an urgent one.