The elegant eulogy of our National Dream penned by Hunter in The Nation Sleeps a Dreamless Sleep is as poignant as it is well-written but laments the passing of only a single iteration of this cyclical dream.
The post-war Golden Years, for those of us white enough to have
enjoyed been entitled to them, were the product of a generation of strife. A decades long struggle against a brutal Depression book-ended by first “The War to End All Wars” and then the bigger, badder follow-up which suggested maybe these war-things weren’t so easy to end after all.
What we told ourselves we had won was “Peace and Prosperity”; an alliterative balm to apply to the wounds of the last 40 years. America, returned (twice) from the battlefields of Europe, emerged from the worst drought in 350 years that blighted 100 million acres of our Heartland and with no threat on the horizon that will once again leave our sons buried overseas and force the population at home into rationing, war debt and arms-race manufacturing.
We felt we had paid in blood for the right to those pretty white pickets.
The white-picket fence has become the nominal trope of middle-class idealism but the icon is symbolic not only for its oblique reference to suburban sprawl and contrived perfection but for its uniformity and an imposed preset criterion of success.
And therein, hidden in plain sight, is the fatal flaw of “The American Dream”. That it is a “Dream” does not make it foolish. That it is “American” does not make it narcissistic. It is the leading definitive article of that titular phase that sheds light on our root problem: “The”. “The” is used to designate common non-proper nouns to indicate that they are something which should be foreknown, common knowledge or notably important. (“Did you watch a game last night?” is an odd inquiry about whether or not you observed some kind of competitive event; “Did you watch the game last night?” is a direct conversation starter that assumes we both specifically know what I’m talking about.)
Couple the “The” with the lacks of an “s” at the end of “Dream” and you have a singular one-size-fits-all prescription of what every American is supposed to have, want and work for. An instant litmus-esque benchmark used to weigh and measure any given citizen. It is a quick glanceable pass/fail test in which most of us routinely came up FAIL, even in the good ol’ days. ...but that was okay. You could FAIL on the “having” as long as you PASSED on the “dreaming”.
As long as we agreed that this is what we all wanted, that this is what we were all supposed to want then we’d be okay. We were all in it together. Some of us would succeed, some would struggle and some would fail and so it would go. There would be little issue for those that made it to lend help to those trying to make it. Everyone could respect that as long as we all had the same “it” in mind. This conveyed a tacit acceptance, an implied agreement and an assumed consent.
The biggest blow to this “Dream” was not a paucity of resources or a reorganization of labor. It was that many of us woke up.
African Americans became less acceptant of their institutionalized second-class citizenship. Women no longer agreed to be the lifelong docile makers of babies and homes. A booming young generation no longer consented to be “seen and not heard” while constrained to simply follow in their parents footsteps.
But this came as a rejection of what was heretofore defined as "American". And rejection opens the door to all kinds of things. Things like resentment, anger, fear, judgment and hate.
This backlash continues to this day. It fuels the white-heterosexual-male persecution complex, it spurs the anti-immigrant vitriol and it stokes the deep embers of racism. It spirals into silly things like Wars on Christmas and Creationist Museums. And it metastasizes into truly ugly things like Westboro Baptist Church, Hate Radio, and Gay Curing Therapy.
To be fair, if we could peel away these layers of discontent and lance these boils of social contention just to be honest and recognize that our political opponents are merely human beings just like us, what these people want at their core is not to go back to “Separate but Equal” or a complete roll-back of Women’s Rights and Social Reform. What they want is just to all be the same again. They want one singular measurement of success. They want their god-damned picket fences and they want YOU to want them too. They just don’t know of any other way to get there.
That American Dream is dead. Or at least is dying.
The Buddhists have an interesting belief about Death. It is based on their idea that there really is no “self”. Theravada Buddhism holds that personal existence is an illusion and that an individual is really just a collection of aggregates. They call these skandhas. There are five of them to be specific (Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formations & Consciousness).
There are two points of this philosophy that lend relevance to this discussion. One is that death is not a final cessation of existence but merely a “dissolution of the aggregates” from which a new combination can and will arise. This is the foundation of their belief in rebirth. The Second is that it is the instinctive, yet ultimately misguided, urge to cling to one or more of these aggregates that causes suffering. They are false and our understanding of them is clouded. When we overemphasize the importance of one or become obsessed with the permanence of another we lose our ability to progress.
I think Hunter is right. The American Dream died in many of us and his timeline looks to be on-point. But the death of “The Dream” should and will give rise to “A Dream”; or more accurately “Many Dreams”. We have returned to our aggregates. We are in the process of forming new combinations.
I first read Hunter’s jeremiad as an all-too-true depiction of our sad state of affairs but afterwards could not shake the feeling that it was as over-obsessed with the past as those so stridently wishing to force us back into it. …or at least their own romanticized version of it.
No more measuring against the past. No more clinging to our aggregates. It is time to form some New Dreams. All of us. And stop accepting what other people tell us is or is not acceptable as it relates to theirs. What we need now is less laments about things we think our parents had and more plans for things our children will.
My hope through this whole recession, prolonged war, economic collapse and general malaise of partisanship has always been that it would push people to really think about the kind of person they are and want to be and, by extension, the kind of Country we are and want to be.
So do that. I challenge all of you just as I challenge myself. Every day. I’ve spent the last 12-18 months really thinking about my life and what I actually want it to look like rather then what I need to do to make it look like I’m told it should.
Turns out I don’t want a picket fence. I don’t want 1.0 children much less 2.5. I don’t want to stay in the rat race to try and make more money than other people. I don’t want to be a “consumer” upon whose over-indulgent spending habit hinges the economic health of our nation. I don’t want to be a uniformed killer imposing American Values at gunpoint overseas anymore then I want other people doing it for me. I don’t want to have to fight some decades long grudge match in the political square to secure basic human rights for people. I don’t want to rehash old social arguments that we settled generations ago. I don’t want to be told that the level of commitment I have to my values is commensurate with the hate I have for people who disagree. I don’t want politicians that see more as an email-based $3-ATM machine and less as a constituent. I don’t want to be constantly sold to, not with goods that aren’t needed, services that aren’t wanted, and ideas that aren’t true.
These are all just white picket fences in one way or the other and that Dream, thankfully, is dead and I am a better person for having buried it. But what it leaves is not an imposing void or a yawning dreamless space. It leaves space. Breathing room. An unasked for yet still imposed weight off my American shoulders. It provides the opportunity to dream new Dreams.
I want a country that represents its current humanity. I want a 300 million and growing melting pot of chaotic clashing diversity. I want a nation capable of separating large issues from small ones and acting accordingly. I want a society not so paralyzed in fear that its Days of Greatness are over that it is afraid to try to do great things today. I want a country that doesn’t measure the contribution of generations by how many wars they won or that of citizens by how many flags they wave. I want to live among people that don’t need the media to tell them what to think and who to hate. I want to see quality valued over quantity. I want to see people recognize that the biggest thing corporations sell is a lifestyle, of disposable convenience, individual anonymity, displaced costs, and transferred responsibility and that there are plenty of alternatives out there if people would just make an effort to look for them. I want to see honesty restored as a virtue but would settle for at least dishonesty being seen as a vice. I want a marketplace of ideas. I want an informed citizenry or at least one that wants to be informed. I want to see caring for the least amongst us as a societal obligation. I want the worth of a person to be more than their ability to earn a wage and “pay their share”. I want politics to be about policy and not bloodsport between two teams.
...and I REALLY want to find a way to personally contribute to actually making any of these things happen. That’s all I can do. And it’s enough. Its all WE can do and, if we do it, it WILL BE more than enough.
The last line of Hunter’s great diary is
What can they ask for?Use of the word “ask” conveys the premise that someone else must consent to the giving.
This is OUR country, made up collectively by OUR Dreams. Figure out who you want to be and who you want US to be and get out there and DO IT.
And feel free to tell anyone that stands in your way what they can do with their white pickets.