The American Dream is alive and kicking. But I have found it pulsing fiercely in the hearts of those who have not yet accessed it. And for those born into the American lifestyle, our European cousins seem to possess an aura that cannot be found in the Land of the Free.
Considering the historical context, such preoccupation with “the other” between Europe and America is an age-old phenomenon. But, after 250 years, why does the fascination with different — yet similar — cultures continue to flourish?
Thanks to international and exchange friends from Penn — and long train rides — I have had ample time to ponder possible explanations. As sights from the Rhine Valley passed the wagon window, an unexpected conversation sparked between me and my travelling companions, an elderly German woman and a young German boy.
With the help of Google Translate, we exchanged stories about places we’ve been and would like to go, embellishing them through our mind’s eye. The boy spoke of America with astonishing detail, listing all the sights he hopes to see someday. And I recounted my European travels, marveling at the beauty.
Afterwards, the woman simply stated: “We just want to see what’s inside us.” I was stunned at the accuracy of this awkwardly-phrased comment. Although I subconsciously understood, it took immersion to realize that the European experience illuminates the American experience.
The majority of Americans claim European ancestry. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, this group constituted 232 million people, or almost 74 percent of the total population. And because of human interest in lineage, it follows that European Americans would gravitate towards Eurocentric societies. I agree with the sentiment that understanding one’s predecessors influences individual identity.
Many aspects of American culture are shaped by European civilizations, especially the historical versions. For example, the American Republic is identical to the Greek Democracy in every way except one — in a republic, sovereignty belongs to the individual, whereas in a democracy, it belongs to the group.
An overwhelming majority of American children were raised on Walt Disney productions: animated films, story books and visits to the amusement parks.
It is a well-known fact that Mr. Disney heavily drew from European societies in the design of his creations. According to Robin Allan, author of the book “Walt Disney and Europe,” "The creative roots of the Disney empire … drew upon a European inheritance of literature, graphic and illustrative art, music and design as well as upon European and indigenous cinema."
As a second-generation Irish-American, Disney is hailed as an American hero, not only because of the popularity of his cartoons, but because of the American ideals that his accomplishments represent: steadfast conviction through failure and the ultimate achievement of self-made success.
Success stories of European immigrants, such as the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Kennedys, prompt a European interest in America. Natural curiosity bears the question: “What does America have that has enabled such success?”
James Truslow Adams, an American historian of mainly British blood, coined the term “American Dream” in his 1931 book “Epic of America.” He describes the phenomenon:
“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”3
However, the most recent development is that of the “European Dream," which arguably is “quietly eclipsing the American Dream.” The steadily growing economic power of the European Union as well as key differences between European and American values may be the proper ingredients to overtake America’s global position.
And the truth in the negative portion of the European stereotype of America is alarming: an overweight population, sometimes an overbearing patriotism, and an embarrassingly narrow view of German history, just to name a few. But hey, any publicity is good publicity, right?
Still, my bias remains tilted toward the other side of the Atlantic. As I listened to my young German friend talk about his hopes of going to America to see the Statue of Liberty, I realized that even after 400 years of immigration and modifications to “the dream,” America remains a symbol of a brighter future.
Marjorie Ferrone is a College junior from Houston studying geology. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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