What is the “American Dream”? The dream that you, irrespective of your colour, gender, heritage or status, can achieve success through hard work. It is a dream that has lit the long dark nights of many an intrepid refugee and immigrant that has stepped on our shores with nothing to return to. The American artistic tradition, in portraying this capitalist equity, is one that has enthralled the world for centuries.
From the flickering screens of the first movie theatres to the haunting shadows of Edgar Allan Poe, we have led the world on disruptive tales of the melancholy, the romantic and the brave. We have created superheroes and villains, monstrous dystopias and powerful truths. Capitalism has blazed in the imagination of a thousand American poets and built Main Street, Wall Street, Hollywood, Broadway. And yet surprisingly to me, like the shattered glass unicorn of ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ we have left the zeitgeist of the “American Dream” broken in the ashes of our imaginings.
This has always been a matter of curiosity to me; as an American, an optimist and as a businessman. For me, the “Great American Dream” is not some ugly tortured vision of broken promises, facades and unfulfilled dreaming, but something that glitters at the heart of what it is to be American: hopeful, ambitious and a dreamer. This is a landscape and culture made for novels; the land of individuals. Individuals who can thrive as their own protagonists in their own stories, fight their own battles and find their own happy ending.
Yes, I’m an optimist, but I’m certainly one with an awareness of the shadows that threaten those values. I was born to parents who fled very different worlds, where individualism and disruption were punishable acts. My father left France when fascism shattered Europe, its hatred killing 600,000 of his fellow citizens. 80 million people died in World War II. My mother was forever haunted by the poverty, corruption and terror of her childhood in Cuba under the communist and fascist regimes. Freedom is a word that means many things, but it is one that encompasses a need that is essential to the anthropic condition: the freedom to succeed, the freedom to dream and the freedom to create.
Whether you are an artist, a doctor, a businessman like myself, or a scholar, you need that freedom. When nations tape the mouths of their creators and innovators, they tape up their economies. If you go to Russia or Berlin today, you will still walk through streets where architecture and thought stood still for thirty years.
Does America have problems surrounding that all important equity in the path to achieving success through hard work? Of course. Like any nation, it always will. Those who seek to install some aristocratic monopoly on wealth and power are never far from the picture and must always be pushed back through supporting the dreams and prospects of those who do not come from wealth or fame.
As a philanthropist who supports immigrant and disadvantaged students, I believe that it is our duty to remove the social and financial roadblocks that stand between hardworking and success. Through scholarships, and rewarding a culture of ambition and praise based on merit, we should view the “American Dream” as something we should continuously work to defend and support. To me, we must, as Americans, believe above all in the right of an individual to achieve in the work they love through hard work, ambition and devotion.
Many may scorn the “American Dream” as an impossible hope. But that freedom to dream is something that makes the hardship, stress and fear of failure bearable. It is that drive which demands that we, as Americans, and as humans, fight to build, share, develop, create, thrive and, yes, dream. We have faith in a better world and a better America for those who follow us.
I’m a father of four beautiful children. I want them all to leave this Earth in a better place: one with treatments for diseases that destroy so many lives, with homes for the cold and hungry, and with love and affection for the lonely and vulnerable. To me, that’s what the “American Dream” stands for: the hope for something better. And for me, that will always be beautiful.
- Jean-Pierre Conte is Chairman and managing director of private equity firm, Genstar Capital.
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