The merits of fairness in America

Actors Brian Donlevy and Ann Richards starred in “An American Romance” (1944), a Hollywood movie filmed partially in Hibbing. Originally slated for Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, the movie was a commercial flop. It did, however, represent a certain myth about the American Dream, that a simple immigrant miner could work hard enough to one day own the mine.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

You’ll hear a lot about the American Dream in coming months. You’ll hear that the dream is dying, that it’s alive and well, that the dream faces peril, or even that it’s forgotten entirely.

But do we even know what the American Dream is?

In this, we may invoke the most American of products: Coca-Cola. In a blind taste test on NPR’s “This American Life,” people easily identified the flavor of Coke. One respondent even breathlessly declared that the product tasted like *childhood.* That’s a profoundly emotional reaction to sugar water, but that, too, is America. We have always accomplished great feats with marketing.

The American Dream is effectively a parable on meritocracy. It’s the idea that, in America, hard work and ingenuity invariably lead to opportunity and economic prosperity. It’s a Santa Claus sort of idea. We talk about it, we pass it down, but we all end up knowing that it’s not entirely true.

Like Santa, we believe in the spirit of an idea, even if we find no reindeer on our roof. We want it to be true. As long as it’s true for someone, perhaps one day it will be true for us.

This scene from “An American Romance” was filmed during wartime fervor in the Hull Rust-Mahoning mine pit in North Hibbing. Brian Donlevy portrays Stefan Dangos, a Czech immigrant who works his way up from a pit laborer to become a major industrialist (who has no use for unions, thank you very much).

In 1944, filmmaker King Vidal set the movie “An American Romance” partly in Hibbing. He shot key scenes in the fast-growing Hull Rust-Mahoning Mine pit north of town. The story centered upon a miner who worked so hard that he ended up owning a steel company by the end of the movie.

He might as well have been a miner who could crush taconite with his fist and pelletize it with his laser eyes.

Even today, one-hundred and twenty-five years after the opening of the Mesabi Range, the people who make the most money for the least work are the biological descendants of the speculators who bought rich land cheap during the Grover Cleveland Administration.

In our national story the United States is democracy’s response to the aristocracy. Nevetheless, from the 1700s through the early 1900s, this occurred in name only. A handful of lucky sprites — Abraham Lincoln, for instance — chopped their way out of the underbrush. Nevertheless, true power concentrated in the hands of the already wealthy. It took great effort and some luck for workers to share in this prosperity. Labor struggles right here on the Iron Range demonstrated the sacrifice.

This year, I read Steven Brill’s “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s 50-Year Fall and Those Fighting to Reverse It.” Brill paints a picture every bit as grim as the title would suggest. But he spins an interesting take on our American meritocracy.

For a large number of Americans coming out of WWII, the American Dream took real form. The unknown children of poor immigrants truly could clamber up the high towers. The aristocracy at elite colleges and institutions fell in favor of a young, (somewhat) more diverse and certainly less wealthy meritocracy.

Think of all the stories of returning veterans striking hot irons of opportunity in the 1950s. Think of their children, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs among them, and the innovations they could sell despite having no connections at all. Housing, college and gas were cheap, so failure was just a stopping point on the way to success.

This was all true, and yet since the 1980s, that description is no longer true. Jobs are less secure and more automated. Whole industries were eliminated by “efficiency.” Corporations, originally designed to create stability within the American economy, instead became profit machines disinterested in innovation or capital investment.

The cost of rising from rags to riches grew. Not only in money, but also in knowledge. For today, many millions of children simply have no idea how they, too, could make it big in America. That knowledge concentrates among the “winners” of past generations, who guide their offspring on a journey to heirship.

As Brill points out, the brilliant children of the post-war boom “were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the government that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.”

For the American dream to live forever, for all, we must find ways to renew the meritocracy, to provide the same pathways to success that lifted generations out of poverty years ago.

But that’s tricky business. We see this in contemporary politics. Some in the working class fixate on the failings of the working poor and dispossessed rather than the far more powerful forces that boil us all slowly.

Brill quotes Peter Edelman: “The biggest disaster of the seventies and eighties was that we allowed working people to be split from the poor when they were being victimized by the same forces.”

Here in Hibbing, we stand divided. According to the last election, half believe President Trump will cast off this new aristocracy. Half believe the exact opposite. Evidence suggests that the new aristocrats continue to thrive at ever growing rates of success. This, despite the confusion and heartache felt across American communities like ours.

If this seeming discord could ever be focused on an abiding solution, watch out. Much of America’s decline documented in Brill’s book and the wagging tongues of our local coffee klatches could be reversed. Indeed, America might again live up to its marketing, and perhaps chart an even greater, more united future.

Brill says we should “storm the moats.” It would help if we could simply agree that moats are bad, instead of imagining ourselves on the other side.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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