Follow Your Dreams?

I was just sitting and mindlessly watching television, and a commercial for a health insurance company came on. It showed adults walking around the streets of a city dressed in costumes – astronaut, doctor, ballerina. The tagline of the commercial was a variation of “Be YOU. Be what you want to be.” It occurred to me as I watched the commercial, and the costumes representing the childhood dreams of people who end up actually becoming waitresses, construction workers, receptionists, and day laborers, that this is an enormous line of bullshit that we are being fed. This commercial reflects the middle-class ambitions of modern Americans, and promotes the idea that the only thing holding us back from realizing our childhood dreams is ourselves. What a load of crap! I had the same reaction when I heard a snippet of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to Stanford in 2005, in amongst all the news stories about Jobs’ death. This is what he said: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” I mean no disrespect to Steve Jobs, but he is spouting the same line of hegemonic hypnosis as the health insurance commercial (though I am willing to give him a partial pass, since this kind of cliched spew is exactly what is expected from a commencement speech). Steve Jobs did amazing things that changed the way we interact with our world today, and in many ways I am grateful for that. But Steve Jobs’ amazing success is the exception. It is the plane crash, not the safe landing. It is the thing that makes the news because it is unusual. It is the kind of success that allows the hegemony to be perpetuated, because it gives us an example to point to and say, “That could be me!” Really? Could it really be you? I’m not sure I agree. Hegemony means believing that you can achieve the same pinnacle of success as the richest people in the United States, but it just isn’t true. Yet, here we all are, listening to the “follow your heart, follow your dream” message, and somehow feeling a little empty or inadequate because we are the waitress, or the mid-level manager, or the hair stylist, and chances are we will never be more than that, no matter how hard we work, no matter how much we study or train or dream, because there just are not that many seats at the head table. The people participating now in the Occupy Wall Street and related protests are, I think, finally understanding this reality. It’s not just about working hard. Believe me, immigrants to this country, illegal or not, work really fucking hard. Working class parents with the food service and delivery driver and labor jobs work really fucking hard. Will they ever occupy a position like Steve Jobs did? Probably not. Should they believe the easily digestible pablum about following your dream, or should we finally just be realistic and tell people, “This is as good as it will ever get for most of us.” Our dreams should be about more than what we do to make money… shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t we work on making sure that, even if you aren’t an astronaut or a doctor or a ballerina, you are compensated well enough for what you do that you don’t have to worry about feeding your kids or paying your mortgage or going to school? Shouldn’t we have a system that supports the reality of life for most people in America? Isn’t that what the protestors want? So let’s stop listening to the platitudes, and start sharing a dream about making sure the needs of all the people are met instead of lying and making people think that it is their fault that they aren’t in the one percent at the top of the economic pyramid.

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