The American Dream

The American Dream

As a little follow up from yesterday's post, I appreciate the comments Johnny left and want to use them as a starting off point to give a parallel example from the Tuckman book. Here's what Johnny said:

Change won't come with the city council sitting down calmly on a sunny day in August and deciding to restructure everything. Instead, there will be a crisis. The old system will crash hard. There simply won't be any choice but to try something different. In between the crash and the "something different" will be a protracted period of unpleasantness as the town attempts to maintain the unmaintainable. It's the pain of that failure that will bring a new approach.

This sounds a little dire, right, yet it is absolutely consistent with how humans, acting collectively, typically make decisions about things that define who they are. Are we really going to collectively question the American Dream as it has been packaged and delivered to us? A home in the suburbs, a pleasant commute and shopping at WalMart?

Do we really expect more than the anomaly of a place to actually question their own economic system, the myriad of federal and state incentives and the trajectory of the past two generations and then consciously decide on a radical course correction?

We shouldn't, because that's just not how people work. Case in point, in the years leading up to World War I, it became apparent to a few in the French military that the costume -- the military dress -- of the vaunted French army was not keeping up with changes in technological warfare. The Russo-Japanese War and the Boer War had demonstrated effective tactics much different than had been used by Napoleon. With the advent of machine guns and heavy artillery, concealment was now a tactical strategy. Many countries had chosen to outfit their troops in an early form of camouflage.

Not the French. This was a matter of national pride. The French considered themselves -- for legitimate reasons -- the greatest Army in Europe. Their spirit of the offensive -- quite literally, always attack -- helped create the cultural myth that the French would just roll right over their opponents. The fighting spirit of the French soldier, as they believed, would be the deciding factor, and that spirit was directly tied to the pomp of their costume.

From The Guns of August:

The British had adopted khaki after the Boer War, and the Germans were about to make the change from Prussian blue to field-gray. But in 1912 French soldiers still wore the same blue coats, red kepi, and red trousers they had worn in 1830, when rifle fire carried only two hundred paces and when armies, fighting at these close quarters, had no need for concealment.

Visiting the Balkan front in 1912, Messimy saw the advantages gained by the dull-colored Bulgarians and came home determined to make the French soldier less visible. His project to clothe him in gray-blue or gray-green raised a howl of protest. Army pride was as intransigent about giving up its red trousers as it was about adopting heavy guns. Army prestige was once again felt to be at stake.

To clothe the French soldier in some muddy, inglorious color, declared the army’s champions, would be to realize the fondest hopes of Dreyfusards and Freemasons. To banish “all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect,” wrote the Echo de Paris, “is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.”

Messimy pointed out that the two might no longer be synonymous, but his opponents proved immovable. At a parliamentary hearing, a former War Minister, M. Etienne, spoke for France. “Eliminate the red trousers?” he cried. “Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!”

It took hundreds of thousands of dead French soldiers -- their bright red pants making them easy targets for German machine guns -- to alter the national consciousness.

As a final thought, one of the recurring human failings I find scary in that quote from the book is the reference to "Dreyfusards and Freemasons," the boogiemen of the day. Combine that with the bombast of the French War Minister, appealing to the national pride, and you see political tactics that have recurred over and over throughout history. Associating your opponents with the marginalized of the day while appealing to the national pride is nothing new. Neither are tragic outcomes.

As Johnny said, it's the pain of failure that will bring about a new approach. Let's have that new approach ready to go when our country realizes our version of the French red pants -- the American Dream and all its related beliefs -- is destined for the dustbin of history.