This hasn’t been a good year for dreams. Maybe the fear of a pandemic has a way of shrinking one’s aspirations.
But I came across dreams the other night when I stumbled on a documentary about a handful of Jews who built Hollywood. These were Jews who escaped the misery of their Eastern European villages to live out the American Dream.
What stood out was how much they struggled in their new land. Nothing came easy. Jews at the time were blocked out of many professions and institutions. Anti-Semitism was rampant. But the Jews who came out West to build the movie industry struggled on their own, persevered and eventually made it.
What happened to that classic model of struggling and persevering in pursuit of the American Dream?
It has been eroding for years, but in 2020, it seems to have reached a nadir. This was the year we stopped dreaming. The American Dream was replaced by the American Scream.
We didn’t scream only about lockdowns and injustice, and we didn’t scream only as individuals. We screamed and protested, more than ever, as members of groups. Identity politics became our guiding light.
Pursuing the American Dream was always very much an individual affair. It recognized that regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity, each person is unique. Each person has the opportunity and liberty to pursue their own dreams, no matter the obstacles, no matter how hard the struggle.
When we get lumped into groups to serve the purposes of identity politics, that individuality gets eroded. We become part of media-hungry groups making public demands rather than independent individuals striving to build our own future.
Inside a group we scream; alone we dream. Inside a group we depend on others; alone we rely on ourselves. Inside a group we demonstrate and wait; alone we must move forward.
No one is denying the value of groups. Throughout history, groups of all kinds have galvanized governments and institutions into taking corrective actions. There are many groups that are supportive of individual dreams and that nurture personal growth. And as Jews, we know how anchored you can feel, how strengthened you can be, when your group becomes a community—and a historic people.
But when a group is defined strictly by grievance and protest, the collective “screaming” submerges and dulls the individual. Grievance-based groups are great at nourishing a sense of shared victimhood, but not as great at nourishing the fearless drive to think independently and do your own bidding.
When a group is defined strictly by grievance and protest, the collective “screaming” submerges and dulls the individual.
The Jews who built Hollywood were part of a group that suffered serious discrimination, but they didn’t let that grievance define them or get in their way. It was their individuality, more than anything, that drove them and the millions of other immigrants who succeeded in America. That fearless drive, that struggle to overcome obstacles in pursuit of one’s dreams, has always been synonymous with the American experience.
My scream for 2021 is that I hope it makes a comeback.