I watched a really funny movie on Netflix over the weekend called The Polka King. (**SPOILERS AHEAD!!**) Beside the fact that the movie takes place in the town where I went to high school, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and the fact that it has lots of polka music (which I fondly remember my grandmother listening to quite a bit), I appreciated the movie because it got me thinking about the good ol’ American Dream.
In the movie (which is based on a true story) Jan Lewan (played by Jack Black), a Polish immigrant and self-styled “Polka King,” who was famous in Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) for his Vegas style polka shows, consistently (in a brilliant Polish accent) talks about how America is the “land of opportunity.” Lewan is depicted in the film as working very hard; he works multiple menial jobs, runs a profitless gift shop, and plays polka music any chance he gets just so he can climb the ladder, “get ahead,” and build his little empire (the exact language he uses). A great work ethic indeed. No doubt about it. Unfortunately, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I found Lewan’s weirdly naive but optimistic attitude about America being an equal opportunity honey pot where anyone can become rich to be quite irksome, because in my opinion it’s just the furthest thing from the truth. This attitude seems to be relatively common among many people coming to America who want to seek their fortune, I’m afraid; for example I’ve encountered this mentality quite a bit in people I’ve met over the years who had fled more Socialist leaning countries (in interviews Lewan makes a big deal about defecting from communist Poland to come to the “land of opportunity”)… they defend “American Freedom” and praise the fact that they can do as they please without being bothered.
I mentioned above that Lewan was famous in NEPA for his music, well he was also infamous. He is a convicted criminal who defrauded people in 22 states by conceiving of a Ponzi scheme and stealing millions of dollars from mostly older people. Lewan wanted to find his fortune, he wanted to have nice things, to pay his band what they deserved, and to help his spouse climb the ladder herself and follow her dreams (she was a beauty pageant contestant and Lewan apparently was involved in rigging a pageant in her favor in the 90s). Like a man possessed, he did what he had to do to get this stuff done and build his empire. And with that in mind, I think The Polka King actually serves as a great allegory for how capitalism demonically functions (capitalism is a big f**king Ponzi scheme!!), and it does a fantastic job exposing the destructive ideology behind the “American Dream.” Everyone knows the old meritocratic saying, “Anyone can make it in America if they just work hard enough.” In my experience, I have found that if I encounter someone vehemently embracing this slogan I can typically substitute “make it” for “get rich” and substitute “work hard” for “be willing to do what it takes to get rich.” So yeah it’s true, anyone can get rich in America…if they’re willing to do what it takes to get rich that is! Ask Jan Lewan, the Polka King.