There is no comfortable role in American iconography for the poor. The myth of inevitable mobility leaves little room for acknowledging the existence of the dispossessed. Poverty is shrugged off like foreignness when you step off the boat and sashay down the golden bricks of Main Street. We Americans believe in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, but in case you've never tried it, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps pitches you forward, flat onto your face. As our industrial base moves offshore and our fruited plains are taken over by agribusiness, the trope of the blissful drone inspired by promises of phantasmagorical wealth is revealed as unsustainable. The creed by which we profess ourselves a classless society no longer leads to redemption.
Americans are the hardest workers among industrialized nations. We grind ourselves down with the longest workweek and the fewest social protections. No pint in the pub, no rest for the weary. The very idea of being "weary" has been displaced by images of the relentlessly able-bodied bionic economic man who never stops until the body is genuinely and visibly broken. Disability checks come only when you have the marks to prove it--a bit like the way the Bush administration defines torture.
And so I think it's time we consciously craft new prayer totems. If I were to bring an offering to the altar of the American Dream, I'd haul in an electric tram, two intercity railroad cars and a bouquet of bicycles. I'd garnish them with copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'd hand out praise songs for the concept of human dignity and for economic rights. We ought to recognize the basic need for sustenance as a right, not bury the larger question in the vexed vocabulary of "bailouts" and "handouts." We the people have a right to a home, to healthcare, to untainted food, clean water, a living wage and time to rest, time to develop the personal ties and social engagements that sustain the best and most pleasurable parts of a civilization.