Recession Scorches American Dream, Reveals Inevitable Dark Side

Andrew Belonsky :: Monday, March 1st, 2010 11:00 am

It’s undeniable that the recession has unleashed anger across the nation. And that anger’s rapidly devolving into madness. From Joe Stack’s flight into an IRS building to Terry Hoskins, the man who bulldozed his house ahead of foreclosure, seemingly average Americans are lashing out in crazy ways. While Stack’s attack qualifies as the most dramatic outburst, the Hoskins incident, hardly isolated, provides a far more telling glimpse into the ways the economic crisis has soured, and scorched, the American dream.

Owning a home once ranked as the primary goal in the American experience. It was the pinnacle of national striving and homes were icons. Now, as millions face foreclosure, that dream has turned into a nightmare. At his wit’s end about a potential foreclosure, and undoubtedly angry with the bank, Ohio man Terry Hoskins decided to take matters into his own hands and destroy his home. “When I see I owe $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000, and someone decides they want to take it — no, I wasn’t going to stand for that, so I took it down,” explained Hoskins. It’s a compelling tale, one that gives a face to universal public frustration. It’s also turned Hoskins into something of a hero.

Scores of people are praising Hoskins’ middle finger to big business. That’s not surprising. It was, after all, a somewhat charming way to get back at the bank. Rush Limbaugh called his and Stack’s actions “defiance.” Neighbors and sympathizers have started a website to collect donations for Hoskins, who still owes the bank and IRS hundreds of thousands, and may lose his business. Local businesses are showing their support by selling t-shirts and hats that depict a bulldozer and read “Take ‘Er Down.” It’s unclear if “‘er” means the banks, the government, or just foreclosed homes. A sympathetic singer, meanwhile, has written a ballad about Hoskins.

It doesn’t matter to many that Hoskins insists he didn’t do it to “stick it to the man.” He unwittingly embodies public anger, and the public likes to see a mirror image. Though Hoskins gained widespread exposure for his antics, he’s hardly the only American taking drastic steps to avoid foreclosure. He’s just the most flamboyant and, therefore, spellbinding.

Arson appears to be the weapon of choice for those who want to burn the banks, and authorities across the nation have been coping with a rise in deliberate fires. Investigators in Merced, California, suspect mortgage-related arson in four recent flare-ups. New York state couple Roger and Susan Trujillo were arrested for setting their foreclosed house alight for the insurance money. A former firefighter in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has been arrested for allegedly torching his house to avoid inevitable eviction. There are dozens of similar stories, and officials have been predicting this moment for years. These economic iconoclasts are harbingers of things to come. They’re also a sad testament to how the American dream, fueled in large part by competition, has spawned a nascent “scorched earth” mentality.

Hoskins and the arsonists’ actions are not worthy of praise. They’re a manifestation of how desperate striving and competition turned the American dream into a zero-sum game. This destruction screams, “If I can’t have it, no one will!” It’s an unsettling and disheartening development. It burns the American dream and hoards hopes for one rather than the many who could still benefit.

The mortgage crisis has destroyed many American’s dreams, yes. But it’s also provided an opening for another set of hopefuls to get a piece of the States on the cheap. Young people especially are benefiting from the real estate slump, and the government’s pouring billions into renovations, rebuilding’s and general maintenance on foreclosed homes. Construction’s on the rise and, despite all the doom and gloom, there’s a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon.

It’s doubtful we’ll see a drastic economic improvement anytime soon. The United States will experience more insanity and despair, more lost jobs and homelessness; it won’t be pretty. But it also won’t be forever. There will be a day when the American dream will again be attainable, and perhaps even respectable. Instead of the biggest home, perhaps the recession will pare down our dreams a bit. That’s only if, however, if our fellow citizens don’t turn the lot of it into rubble, ash and ruins of a once great nation.

Image via my home town of Cincinnati’s WLWT.