The Dark Side of the American Dream

The Dark Side of the American Dream by for Mises

[Editor’s Note: This year, University of Virginia Professor of English Paul Cantor released his third book in a series of books on television and film. With Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies, Cantor continues the work begun with 2001’s Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization and 2012’s The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV. I recently interviewed Prof. Cantor about his new book.]

Ryan McMaken: As you note, one of the benefits of a United States that is so vast and disconnected is the fact it’s pretty easy to re-invent one’s self over and over again. The dark side of this, however, is this freedom to re-invent one’s self can also be used for purposes of cheating people and carrying out criminal acts. How does this affect our view of America?

Paul Cantor: As I like to put it, America is the fresh start nation, but for that very reason it is also the false start nation. That very much complicates our view of America. It is easy to celebrate a fresh start nation; that is the essence of the American dream. But what many people have a hard time accepting is that, if you give people the freedom to pursue their dreams and re-invent themselves, sometimes they are going to misuse that freedom. America is the great land of entrepreneurship; it is the home of venture capital and the start-up. But it is also the home of business fraud and con men. My point is that you can’t have the one without the other. That is why in my book I study the ways in which the American dream is shadowed by the American nightmare, and the entrepreneur easily shades over into the con man.

Freedom is not an unequivocal good because everything depends on what the freedom is used for. Yet in a deeper sense, freedom is a good unto itself because human beings cannot live fulfilling lives without experiencing freedom. In that sense, freedom is the pre-condition of all human good. People continually want to control the results of freedom to make sure that they are beneficial, but that is to misunderstand the nature of freedom. In my book, I analyze how American pop culture has come to terms with this issue in surprisingly sophisticated ways. To be sure, the majority of pop culture seeks “Hollywood endings”—stories in which good simply triumphs. But I deal with works like the Godfather films and Breaking Bad, which I discuss as genuinely tragic in Hegel’s sense of presenting irreconcilable conflicts between antithetical goods. These works reveal ethical trade-offs and above all the disturbing fact that we cannot have freedom without paying some kind of price for it.

RM: As an entertainer, W.C. Fields often portrayed con men and frauds. But in real life, Fields was a true success story. He worked very hard and he made a lot of money. But why do you think Fields was drawn to portraying shady characters, and why did the public respond so well?

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