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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of… Versailles?

July is a month of important anniversaries. July 4th is of obvious significance to most Americans, and July 14th marks the occasion in 1789 when the Bastille was stormed in the early days of the French Revolution. To that list we can now add July 27th, the release date of the new documentary The Queen of Versailles—an occasion that oddly links both Independence Day and Bastille Day.

Most of us have only a shaky recollection of our founding documents, yet nearly all of us resonate to the powerful words of defiance directed toward the King of England in the Declaration of Independence. In that proclamation, the founders asserted that it was within the rights of a people to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” when doing so was essential to realizing the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And so the American experiment was launched—an experiment fraught with contradictions.

As Kurt Andersen noted in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, American society at its inception “embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal.” In other words, while for some the American ideal was epitomized by the freedom to assemble and worship, for others it was about accumulating wealth and possessions as quickly as possible. Over the centuries, society has see-sawed back and forth between those two imperatives.

Which brings us to The Queen of Versailles. This new feature-length documentary chronicles the trials and tribulations of David and Jackie Siegel as they struggle to build a home for themselves and their eight kids. Not just any home, however. At 90,000 square feet, it will be the largest private dwelling ever constructed in the United States—hence the reference to Versailles (which actually specs out at 520,000 square feet, so the dignity of the French nation is still safe, at least for the moment).

What could they do with all of that space? Well, it turns out that you can squeeze a lot of amenities into 90,000 square feet, including 30 bedrooms, 19 bathrooms, nine kitchens, two movie theaters, and a bowling alley. The source of the wealth that supported this extraordinary project was timeshares. It turns out that David Siegel made billions of dollars peddling vacation properties during the real estate boom. Cheap money made timeshares attractive to consumers looking for the vacation properties of their dreams. And timeshares made the Siegels fabulously wealthy.

Construction on the Siegel’s super mansion began in 2007 but was halted in 2008 when they lost a considerable share of their wealth after the mortgage bubble burst. The movie chronicles the Siegel’s efforts to unload the property as they fall on comparatively lean times and decide to right-size their lifestyles by foregoing private jets and making due with their 26,000-foot “starter mansion.”

One reviewer for New York Magazine recently referred to the film as “a brilliant metaphor for everything screwed up about the U.S. economy and the culture that shaped it.” Another reviewer with USA Today described it as a meditation on the “runaway American Dream.” The previews have been tantalizing, and I look forward to seeing the movie when it opens in my home market of San Francisco.

It’s easy to dismiss the Siegels as outliers with their outrageous consumption patterns and ostentatious taste. But for many people, the Siegels are still iconic expressions of the American Dream. And that dream is still being imparted to millions of young children in this country. According to Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in a recent edition of The New Yorker, many parents are, despite the best of intentions, spoiling their kids rotten. (“With the exception of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.”) Ouch! Some of that indulgence comes in the form of mountains of stuff—toys, games, clothes, technology, etc.

Kolbert’s comments are excerpted from an essay looking at a recent spate of books focused on the challenges of child rearing. One of the books referenced in the essay, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, provides a pictorial guide to the tidal wave of debris that engulfs many homes: old furniture; retired sports equipment; old appliances; and toys, dolls, and games out of favor. What is the source of much of this clutter? Children, according to the authors of Life at Home. In fact, they estimate that the material “needs” of each new child generates an increase of 30 percent in household possessions during their pre-school years alone.

However, it doesn’t seem fair to blame the kids for their parents’ (or aunts’ and uncles’, as is the case for me) purchasing habits. Far too many of us still find it too easy to use gifts as a proxy for expressions of affection. Or we get caught up in trends, fads, and marketing campaigns designed to make us feel like we’re being mean-spirited if our children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews don’t have the newest, most fashionable clothes, toys, and technologies. Raise your hands now if you know a 10-year-old who has his or her own iPad.

This is where New Dream can be an important resource. Our new Guide to Sharing provides users with dozens of ideas and resources about how to reduce the clutter in their homes, reconnect with our neighbors, and shrink our collective environmental impact. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to download it and experiment with the ideas contained within it. Then report back to us on your experience. We want to learn from you as to what works best for reducing our environmental footprint and rebuilding our social fabric.

Finally, there is one other anniversary in July worth noting. Woody Guthrie, the great American folk singer and social activist, was born on July 14, 1912—an interesting bit of synchronicity that was no doubt not lost on him. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Guthrie based many of his songs on his experiences as one of the thousands of “Okies” who migrated to California fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. One of his most famous songs, “This Land Is Your Land,” is widely perceived as a celebration of the promise of the American Dream. In fact, it is usually performed without a couple of key stanzas that capture the challenges to realizing the American Dream when you’re hungry and when society is structured to deprive you of opportunity based on your race or class.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

I wonder what kind of songs Woody be writing if he were alive today? How would he capture the irony of a society in which we’re simultaneously drowning in a tidal wave of stuff and widening the divide between the haves and have-nots? There certainly aren’t any easy answers to these challenges, but by sharing more, caring more for one another, and owning less stuff we can honor his memory and the more idealistic premise upon which this nation was founded.

Mark Valentine is the founder of ReFrame It Consulting in San Francisco, which provides strategic program design and organizational development services to groups working in sustainability and resource management. He is a board member of the Center for a New American Dream.

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