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Dreaming in America

The United States is a country with a prosperous past, but also one straddled with an uncommonly uncertain future. Standing in the long customs line at Newark Liberty International Airport when I arrived in September, with Manhattan’s skyline dominating the glass window behind me, I had no idea what to expect from this country. Now, almost three months in, I am still struggling to piece together the parts of this jumbled American jigsaw.

When, as a child, I first imagined the spire of the Empire State Building impale James’ giant peach, I was convinced that America was the thrill-capital of the world, and the land where dreams would be realized. A wide-eyed, wondering child reading that book before the turn of the millennium, it was easy to envision an America that was always ready to prosper. But, after encountering consistently gloomy economic reports and what seemed to be weakening international support, my expectations of life in the United States had been altered. Sure, I maintained enough faith in the America of my Dahl-filled childhood to choose to study here; still, I stumbled off that airplane in Newark expecting cracked roads, late trains, tepid coffee, sad faces and not much excitement in between.


But, I exaggerate. A little. The America I have seen in my short time at Princeton is largely optimistic and ambitious. Of course I recognize that, stuck between Nassau Street and Lake Carnegie, it’s hard to encounter any terrible hardship or suffering here: we have been shielded from most of the current protests that display an uneasy population, we live in an immensely wealthy community in an immensely wealthy state and we have little time to uncover a world outside grades, sports and our other varied pursuits. All this may blind us to pure reality, but there does seem to be a wider sense of hope and optimism in this country than might be guessed from any quick external examination. Shiny cars on well-swept highways are certainly tempered by some empty department stores and quiet malls; however, the gloom does not clearly outweigh the mood of determination and hope that still exists. From watching New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to seeing shops heaving with customers, it’s easy to see that America remains reasonably prosperous and optimistic. Even the "Occupy" protests do not contradict the idea that hope remains; instead, through their popularity and vigour, they strengthen it.

This optimistic assessment is not the full story. As an article in the Economist noted in the September edition, the West must soon face a relative decline in living standards. It’s "anomalous" that a group of thirty countries with a small fraction of the world’s entire population should be "calling the shots." And, as the article notes, this is historically abnormal. In 1700, the world’s largest economy was India, followed closely by China, and even in 1820 these two countries constituted more than half of the world’s GDP. But, as the same article points out, this relative decline is not the problem. It’s not America’s relative fall that makes it imperfect, but a "status anxiety" that undermines its current potential. Like Britain in the early 20th century, this country no doubt fears a future in which it can no longer call all the shots. This should not be a concern. A world that is more open and involved, and more varied in its strengths, will reinforce not just its parts, but also the whole.

The uncertainty generated by this "status anxiety" does, however, risk undermining America’s natural confidence. Whatever your politics, this country is projecting an image of disorder and indecision. From irritating partisan stagnation in Washington, D.C. to greed exposed by recent financial crises, the United States has much room to improve. These chaotic images must not become America’s new stereotype. Traditional American dreams of socio-economic mobility and hopes of a society that embraces all cultures and ideas should continue to form the United States’ international reputation. More recent notions must not be allowed to take hold. Our generation of students should embrace this changing world. We should be excited that our values and standards of living might be extended across the borders of the world, and encouraged among more of the planet’s population. While others strive to emulate the comfortable lives we are able to lead, our task is to continue to push the boundary outward.

America can have a successful future. The United States of our generation must be able to shrug off the weight of status anxiety, and embrace a more prosperous world. Then, America will continue to share in the global success. It’s difficult, and maybe impossible, to measure the pulse of an entire population, but I maintain great hope that the United States is still able to dream. I might never see a huge juicy peach dominating the New York skyline, but with a little effort, we can continually come close.

Philip Mooney is a freshman from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He can be reached at