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The Anguish in the American Dream - American Dream

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The Anguish in the American Dream
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Anguish in the American DreamStrategic considerations I: A radical core
A few years ago, sometime around the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, I got a call from a New York Times reporter who was writing a piece about the anti-war movement’s attempt to rally folks around the idea that “peace is patriotic.” I told him I never used that phrase and routinely argued against patriotism -- instead of trying to redefine patriotism, I wanted to abandon the concept as intellectually, politically, and morally indefensible. [13] He was intrigued and asked me to explain. Realize, this was the first, and so far the only, time I have been interviewed by a Times reporter, and so even though I know that newspaper to be a tool of the ruling class, I wanted to make a good impression. First, I pointed out that critiques of patriotism have been made by radicals in the past and that there was nothing all that new in what I had to say. After I explained my argument, he said he couldn’t see a hole in the reasoning but that it didn’t really matter. “No one is ever going to accept that,” he said, and so my position -- no matter how compelling -- didn’t end up in his story.
Perhaps I can take some solace in knowing that he thought my argument was right. But it’s not enough just to be right, of course -- we want to be effective. Is an argument irrelevant if it can’t be communicated widely in the mainstream? Is that the fate of an assault on the idea of an American Dream?
It’s certainly true that the American Dream is a deeply rooted part of the ideology of superiority of the dominant culture, and there is evidence all around us that this ideology is more deeply entrenched than ever, perhaps because the decline of American power and wealth is so obvious, and people are scrambling. But that doesn’t automatically mean that we should avoid radical critiques and play to the mainstream. I believe those critiques are more important than ever.
This conclusion stems from an assessment of the political terrain on which we operate today. This is not a mass-movement moment, not a time in which large numbers of Americans are likely to engage in political activity that challenges basic systems of power and wealth. I believe we are in a period in which the most important work is creating the organizations and networks that will be important in the future, when the political conditions change, for better or worse. Whatever is coming, we need sharper analysis, stronger vehicles for action, and more resilient connections among people. In short, this is a cadre-building moment.
Although for some people the phrase “cadre-building” may invoke the worst of the left’s revolutionary dogmatism, I have something different in mind. For me, “cadre” doesn’t mean “vanguard” or “self-appointed bearers of truth.” It signals commitment, but with an openness to rethinking theory and practice. I see this kind of organizing in some groups in Austin, TX, where I live. Not surprisingly, they are groups led by younger people who are drawing on longstanding radical ideas, updating as needed to fit a changing world. These organizers reject the ideology that comforts the culture. The old folks -- which I define as anyone my age, 52, and older -- who are useful in these endeavors also are willing to leave behind these chauvinistic stories about national greatness.
To openly challenge the American Dream is to signal that we are not afraid to (1) tell the truth and (2) keep working in the face of significant impediments. This kind of challenge speaks to those who are hungry for honest talk about the depth of our problems and are yearning to be part of a community that perseveres without illusions. That isn’t a majority, maybe not yet a significant minority, but those people have the resolve that we will need.
Back to the patriotism critique: Despite the popularity of the “peace is patriotic” bumper stickers, I have continued to offer my argument against the concept of patriotism, and whenever I speak about it in a lecture, people tell me that it was helpful to hear the position articulated in public. Over and over, on this and other issues, I hear people saying that they have had such thoughts but felt isolated and that hearing the critique in public shores up their sense that they are not crazy. Perhaps these kinds of more radical analyses don’t change the course of existing movements, but they help bolster those who are at the core of the more radical movements we need, and they help us identify each other.
Strategic considerations II: Engagement
Although a radical critique of the American Dream isn’t likely to land in the New York Times, we shouldn’t ignore the ways we can use such arguments for outreach to liberal, and even conservative, communities. Once again, an example about patriotism: I have had conversations with conservative Christians, who typically are among the most hyper-patriotic Americans, in which I challenged them to square that patriotism with their Christian faith. [14] Isn’t patriotism a form of idolatry? I can’t claim to have converted large numbers to an anti-empire/anti-capitalist politics. But as the evangelicals say, we sometimes make progress one by one, from within. Framing questions in a way that forces people to see that conventional politics is at odds with their most deeply held moral principles is a potentially effective strategy. It doesn’t always work -- we humans are known for our ability to hold contradictory ideas -- but it is one resource in the organizers’ toolkit.
So, we might consider critiquing the American Dream by contrasting it with another widely embraced idea, the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity, which says we should treat others as we would like to be treated. That principle shows up in virtually all religious teachings and secular philosophy.[15] In Christianity, Jesus phrased it this way in the Sermon on the Mount:

[12] So whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. [Matt. 7:12]

One of the best-known stories about the great Jewish scholar Hillel from the first century BCE concerns a man who challenged him to “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel’s response: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” [16]
This is echoed in the repeated biblical command, in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” [Lev. 19:18] In Islam, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s central teachings was, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [17] In secular Western philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative is a touchstone: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” [18]
On the surface, the American Dream of success for all appears to be an articulation of the Golden Rule, of equal opportunity for all. When I suggest that the two ideas are, in fact, in opposition, it gives me a chance to make the case that the Dream is based on domination and, therefore, a violation of that core principle. How can we reconcile our commitment to an ethic of reciprocity while endorsing a vision of society that leads to an unjust and unsustainable world? How can we face the least among us today, and our descendants tomorrow, knowing we turned away from the moral commitments we claim to be most dear to us? A critique of the American Dream can open up that conversation.
Telling the tale: Epic or tragic hero?
The American Dream typically is illustrated with stories of heroes who live the dream. But the larger story of American Dream casts the United States itself as the hero on a global stage. The question we might ask, uncomfortably: Is the United States an epic hero or a tragic one?
Literature scholars argue over the definition of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win. 
A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of the protagonist becomes his downfall. Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others.
This distinction is crucial in dealing with the American Dream, which people often understand in the context of their own hard work and sacrifice. People justifiably take pride, for example, in having worked to start a small business, making it possible for their children to get a college education, which is one common articulation of the American Dream. I can tell you a story about a grandfather who emigrated from Denmark and worked hard his whole life as a blacksmith and metal worker, about parents who came from modest circumstances and worked hard their whole lives, about my own story of working hard. That story is true, but also true is the story of domination that created the landscape on which my grandfather, my parents, and I have worked. Pride in work turns to hubris when one believes one is special for having worked, as if our work is somehow more ennobling than that of others, as if we worked on a level playing field.
When we fall into hubris individually, the consequences can be disastrous for us and those around us. When we fall into that hubris as a nation -- when we ignore the domination on which our dreams are based -- the consequences are more dramatic. And when that nation is the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, at a time in history when the high-energy/high-technology society is unraveling the fabric of the living world, the consequences are life-threatening globally.
Not to worry, some say: After all, other empires have come and gone, other species have come and gone, but the world endures. That flippant response glosses over two important considerations. First, empires cause immense suffering as they are built and as they decline. Second, the level of human intervention into the larger world has never been on this scale, so that the collapse of an empire poses new risks. To toss off these questions is to abandon one’s humanity.
To face this honestly, we need to recognize just how inadequate are our existing ideas, projects, and institutions. Quoting the late geographer Dan Luten, Jackson reminds us:

“[Most Europeans] came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. We built our institutions with that perception of reality. Our political institutions, our educational institutions, our economic institutions -- all built on that perception of reality. In our time we have become rich people in an increasingly poor land that is filling up, and the institutions don’t hold.” [19]

Developing new institutions is never easy. But it will be easier if we can abandon our epic dreams and start dealing the tragic nature of circumstances. 
The end of the epic, for us all
To conclude I want to return to the words of our first American Dreamer, James Truslow Adams: “The epic loses all its glory without the dream.”
Glory is about distinction, about claiming a special place. The American Dream asserts such a place in history for the United States, and from that vantage point U.S. domination seems justified. The future -- if there is to be a future -- depends on us being able to give up the illusion of being special and abandon the epic story of the United States.
It is tempting to end there, with those of us who critique the domination/subordination dynamic lecturing the American Dreamers about how they must change. But I think we critics have dreams to give up as well. We have our epics of resistance, our heroes who persevere against injustice in our counter-narratives. Our rejection of the idea of the American Dream is absorbed into the Dream itself, no matter how much we object. How do we live in America and not Dream?
In other words, how do we persevere in a nightmare? Can we stay committed to radical politics without much hope for a happy ending? What if we were to succeed in our epic struggle to transcend the American Dream but then find that the American Dream is just one small part of the larger tragedy of the modern human? What if the task is not simply to give up the dream of the United States as special but the dream of the human species as special? And what if the global forces set in motion during the high-energy/high-technology era are beyond the point of no return?
Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee we can control the destruction we have unleashed. It may be that no matter what the fate of the American Dream, there is no way to rewrite this larger epic, that too much of the tragedy has already been played out.
But here’s the good news: While tragic heroes meet an unhappy fate, a community can learn from the protagonist’s fall. Even tragic heroes can, at the end, celebrate the dignity of the human spirit in their failure. That may be the task of Americans, to recognize that we can’t reverse course in time to prevent our ultimate failure, but that in the time remaining we can recognize our hamartia, name our hubris, and do what we can to undo the damage.
That may be the one chance for the United States to be truly heroic, for us to learn to leave the stage gracefully.


[1] James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (New York: Triangle Books, 1931).
[2] Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[3] See David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997). Churchill argues persuasively that the fact that a large number of those indigenous people died of disease doesn’t absolve white America. Sometimes those diseases were spread intentionally, and even when that wasn’t the case the white invaders did nothing to curtail contact with Indians to limit the destruction. Whether the Indians died in war or from disease, starvation and exposure, white society remained culpable.
[4] Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), p. 19.
[5] This phrase is attributed to Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which draws on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” [Matt. 5:14] The late president Ronald Reagan was fond of describing the United States as a “shining city upon a hill,” as he did in his farewell address on January 11, 1989. http://www.reaganlibrary.com/reagan/speeches/farewell.asp
[6] Kay Bailey Hutchison, Senate debate on “Authorization of the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq,” (S.J. Res. 45) October 09, 2002. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/Z?r107:S09OC2-0011:
[7] Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place, p. 15.
[8] Wes Jackson, “Becoming Native to This Place,” Thirteenth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures,
October 1993, Yale University, New Haven, CT. http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/publications/lectures/Jackson/Wes/becoming-native-to-this-place
[9] Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, George Breitman, ed. (New York: Grove, 1965), Chapter 3, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” p. 26.
[10] World Bank, “World Development Report 2008,” October 2007. www.worldbank.org/wdr2008
[11] James D. Wolfensohn, address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank Group, September 23, 2003. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/NEWS/Resources/jdwsp-092303.pdf
[12] Henry Kendall, a Nobel Prize physicist and former chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ board of directors, was the primary author of the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” http://www.ucsusa.org/ucs/about/1992-world-scientists-warning-to-humanity.html
[13] For this argument, see Chapter 3 of my book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2004). That chapter is also available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/CoEPatriotism.pdf
[14] For an example of this in the context of the American Dream, see David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010). Unfortunately, his critique of the American Dream appears to be rooted in a conservative theology that asserts Christianity as the one true faith tradition, replacing a reactionary nationalism with a reactionary religion.
[15] For a summary, see “Shared belief in the Golden Rule.” http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm
[16] Talmud, tracate Shabbat 31a. http://www.come-and-hear.com/shabbath/shabbath_31.html
[17] Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi, Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), Hadith 13.
[18] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 30.
[19] Wes Jackson, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), p. 117.

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