So What’s This Thing Called The American Dream?
By Roger Koopman
They called him Reinhart, but he would one day change his name to Ralph to sound more American than German. Huddled with his parents and three siblings in steerage class, he arrived at Ellis Island at the age of one. He grew up on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, while his father scratched out a living as best he could. Henry had brought his family to America “to escape the Kaiser and his wars,” while seeking the freedom of a free land. Although he had very little, he thought himself rich. He had come to America, kissed the ground and never looked back.
The street kids picked on Reinhart for being a “kraut,” but he didn’t care. He was bright and talented, but college was out of the question, so he drove a gasoline truck for many years, while helping his father and brother build two houses from scratch – one for his parents, one for his sister. He eventually worked his way up to foreman, married the love of his life and was able to purchase a modest home of his own. His three kids still remember him getting up at 4:00 a.m. each day, then coming home smelling like fuel oil. They don’t ever remember him complaining though, because he never did.
When the kids approached college age, his wife began working full time too, and somehow, they were able to put all three boys through school. He loved the outdoors, he loved his family, but in a way, he loved America most of all, and displayed the flag with great pride on his front lawn. A frugal man, he saved enough to retire and to one day support his wife after his passing. She moved to Montana and died after a good and full life of 95 years.
He was my father, and he lived the American Dream. His American Dream.
Recently, the Bozeman Library hosted their annual “Symbozium,” featuring two college professors, a social scientist and an “equity architect.” Panelists were asked to discuss the “mythology” of the American Dream, and answer the question of whether the American Dream is alive, dead or barely breathing. Characterized as a community “conversation” and “participatory… civil discourse,” the program only allowed public participation by filling out small cards with questions for the panel. The moderator then screened out most of the questions, summarizing the few he liked in his own words.
To be fair, the library folks had probably hoped for something much better. They were kind enough to listen to my concerns, a few days before the event. I suggested that programs like this are only interesting and educational when there is disagreement among the featured speakers, with a diversity of philosophies and political opinions expressed. As I predicted, these panelists didn’t disagree on anything for the entire 90 minutes! I also pointed out that for the public to truly participate, microphones should be available in addition to the little cards (which the moderator mostly ignored anyway.) Unfortunately, at that late hour, they didn’t feel it was possible to add a person with a divergent or competing viewpoint to the panel, and roving microphones weren’t seen as an option, either.
Thus, a potentially fascinating program turned into pretty much of a boring bust. The unanimously left-leaning panelists, while making some interesting observations, largely missed the core meaning of the American Dream, which is not about victimhood, group discrimination, ethnic identity, government programs or equity-based public policies. It is about individual opportunity and individual freedom – made possible only by the wealth creation and colorblindness of a free market economy, combined with a Constitution-honoring government that spends no more than it receives, protects property right and leaves people the heck alone.
Ralph Reinhart Koopman, were he with us today, could have told the audience that, even without a college degree. So could millions of others like him, who realized their own dreams in their own individual ways.
Community and campus programs too often become echo chambers of like-minded people, reinforcing their leftist philosophies. We can — we must – do better than that.
Roger Koopman ran a career placement service in Bozeman for 37 years, helping tens of thousands reach for their particular versions of the American Dream.