The American Dream: from Arnie to Bruce

20:54, Nov 21 2012

As a birthday present to myself last month, I bought a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story. If you set aside to how great an extent he glosses over his track record of misogyny, it's a pretty charming read.

I finished the book last week while in the midst of an epic Bruce Springsteen-tear. I'm a mild Springsteen-obsessive, so this latter aspect was not unusual behaviour for me.   

Overlapping Schwarzenegger and Springsteen and the contrast in the different stories they tell about America, fascinated me in an unexpected way; Schwarzenegger's story of the poor immigrant taking advantage of the full potency of the American Dream fits awkwardly with the small stories Springsteen peddles of characters often obliterated by those same sets of ideals.

Arnie came to America in his early 20s . He had been born into a rural Austrian neighbourhood and grown up in a house with no running water. The cultural reach of America and Hollywood was long even then and, spurred by his humble origins, he sought wealth and fame with aggressive earnestness. He leveraged European bodybuilding success into the American market and then leveraged that into prosperous businesses and real estate holdings. He followed that with a Hollywood career you're probably familiar with and then won the governorship of California with one belief, that business should be allowed to prosper free from government intervention. (He was also a socially progressive, pro-environment Republican, which is today the equivalent of an American white whale.)

All along the way in his book he casts himself as a brave fish out of water, discovering to his pleasure that in America the sky really is the limit and everything is just as good as hyped.

Read today - and especially when summarised in brief - Schwarzenegger's story seems cartoonish and allegoric. It's a fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood-ish in the way it all works out just so. It is entrenched in an idea of the American Dream that people outside America joyfully point out is now a façade crumpled under the weight of a leveraged economy, war, social injustices, diplomatic dishonesty and global malfeasance.


Maybe that's true and it is really a book about a dead dream (Schwarzenegger still deserves credit where it's due for his Zen-like ability to manifest success through a stubborn resistance to consider failure). But even if this American Dream is a ruse, it's still a fable being sold inside American walls.

After all, this is America, where as John Steinbeck once remarked there are no poor people, "just temporarily embarrassed millionaires".

As an immigrant myself there's a small, meek part of me that needs to believe in the relevant potential of Schwarzenegger's narrative as comfort for my own, that having traded New Zealand in for the United States it can all work out just, or even better than, fine.

Schwarzenegger's and Springsteen's stories ape each other, to an extent, but Springsteen's (American) rags-to-riches upbringing still lurks within the characters of his songs.

There's one Springsteen song, The River, that I've had on high rotate for some time now. It's a great song, but if you took it to heart it'd bum you out.

This particular song is sung through the eyes of an unnamed narrator who gets his girlfriend Mary pregnant at 18, "and man that was all she wrote..."

For his 19th birthday he gets a union card and a wedding coat. He is married in a courthouse with little fanfare and begins working in construction, though "there ain't been much work, on the account of the economy..."

The song ends with the two of them drowning in the disappointment of marriage and adulthood, yearning for a youth that passed all too briefly.

"Now I act like I don't remember, Mary acts like she don't care..."

The narrators of a lot of Springsteen songs (thematically, Darkness on the Edge of Town or Glory Days aren't that much different from The River) are suffocated by a lack of the same hope that gave Schwarzenegger wings.

Today, these stories of Springsteen's are eerily reminiscent of the emotive, folksy straw men that were constructed in droves in recently discarded political campaign speeches. Springsteen's decades-old working class rhetoric is a good fit for a 2012 climate of high unemployment and vanishing opportunities.

Now, a lot of this we've toyed with before: the power of America to uplift or destroy, nurture of neglect.

I'm not sure it was any idea of an American Dream that pulled me to these shores anyway. It was more teenage boredom and an impulse to travel. Maybe the dream is most relevant for people like Schwarzenegger who grew up in poverty out of the realm of most people's conception.

But having traded my own country for this one, and waiting for time, family and life to form American roots within me, sometimes I need something, anything, to hold on to.

It hit me this week that in a very weird way Schwarzenegger and Springsteen are arbiters of two very different ideas about America.

What do you think?

Is the American Dream alive?

Or is this country facing endless decades of Springsteen-esque working-class grind, with its own glory days in its rearview mirror? 

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