The Guardian

The Guardian August 2, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Bad dreams

How many times have you heard or read a reference to "the American 
dream"? In the US, of course, but also in Australia, it is taken for 
granted in the mass media that people trying to enter the US are not 
looking for work, they are "trying to share in the American dream".

Of course, the dream is rather blood-spattered and drug-sodden these days, 
but imperialism goes on pushing it at us, determined to maintain the 
impression that the rest of the world wants nothing better than to live in 
America. Not Canada, either, but the good old USA itself.

For decades Hollywood has bombarded us with images of large houses and vast 
apartments. It comes as a shock when people learn that most US citizens 
live in tiny apartments, tenement slums or trailer homes. Many are homeless 
or live in their cars.

Public transport's a joke, the schools are a scandal and a stay in hospital 
can leave you in debt for the rest of your life. The police function like 
an army of occupation and treat the population as a hostile enemy.

It's the richest country on earth  largely from wars and looting the 
economies of the Third World  and yet millions of US citizens have no 
running water. It is unable to provide free health care for its population 
or give them all jobs.

Religious crackpots grow like mushrooms, ignorance and superstition abound 
and the mayor of New York is busy spraying the city's population from the 
air with toxic insecticide (I kid you not, he really is).

So tarnished is the "American dream" that there is actually an organisation 
called the Centre for a New American Dream. This body apparently tries to 
redress some of the more pernicious aspects of the old dream, like rampant 
consumerism (as exemplified in the motto "shop 'till you drop").

In fact, Do Americans Shop Too Much? is the title of a book by one 
of the board members of the Centre, Juliet Schor, an academic from Harvard 
University.

Presumably the Americans in Ms Schor's book do not include the jobless and 
the homeless but if you're curious as to how she deals with the 
manipulation of US consumers the book is published by Beacon Press.

In a recent article she dealt with the seemingly minor matter of holidays, 
and revealed that here too the American dream is sadly deficient, as this 
short extract shows:

"As this first summer of the new millennium approaches, I can't help but 
wax nostalgic about my two years as a professor in the Netherlands. There, 
as a civil servant on a 12-month schedule, I was entitled to about nine 
weeks of paid vacation.

"It seemed that few professors took all that time, but three to four weeks 
was virtually obligatory....

"Back in the USA, vacation practices seem downright archaic. Unlike most of 
Western Europe, where paid vacations are typically four to six weeks for 
all regular workers, the US has no official vacation policy.

"Employers are not required to provide them, and the starting norm in good 
jobs remains a paltry two weeks. Millions of the hard-working poor, without 
steady employment, have no paid vacation at all.

"And millions of the hard-working well-to-do have nice allotments which 
exist only on paper  the excessive demands of their positions make 
planning and taking significant time off almost impossible."

So the next time you see a reference to the "American dream" remember that 
that is all it is: a dream. It certainly isn't real.

* * *
Charges dropped
You may recall that I have written before in these columns about Roisin McAliskey, the heavily pregnant young Irish woman (daughter of civil rights activist and former Northern Ireland MP Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey) whom German authorities accused of being a terrorist. The Germans claimed that she took part in a 1996 IRA rocket attack on a British army base in Germany, but no credible evidence was produced that she had any part in the attack. Nevertheless, the British Government arrested her and, pending extradition to Germany, placed her initially in a maximum-security men's prison. After public protest she was transferred to a women's prison but placed under a brutal and demeaning regimen of frequent strip searches and other indignities that many said constituted torture. As the birth of her baby drew near the British authorities even used threats about taking the baby from her to try to break her down to confess to the "terrorism" she consistently denied and for which they could in fact find no evidence. Eventually, after months in prison and with her health seriously affected, and in the face of a huge and sustained international campaign for her release, Britain was obliged to release her, but the charges have hung over her head ever since. Now, Britain's Crown Prosecution Service has admitted what every one else already knew: that there was no evidence to justify a case against her. The decision to drop the charges was announced to the British Parliament on July 17, but to the McAliskeys' amazement, no one in the British Government or its public service thought it necessary to notify Roisin or her mother. An understandably miffed Bernadette said: "After you have wrongfully imprisoned someone and endangered their life and that of their unborn child you might have the decency to tell them." A Sinn Fein spokesperson commented that if the British Government had taken the time to check the evidence at the time the charges were made against her, Ms McAliskey would never have spent time in an English prison. "She was a victim of the sort of miscarriage of justice that all too frequently affects Irish people in Britain", he said.

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