It has become something of a cliché, but like all clichés it holds a truth: the American Dream has become the American Nightmare.
For many groups of people living in this country, this is nothing new. Founded on the genocide of indigenous people and built with the labor of people forcibly taken from their homes, enslaved and abused, the United States of America originates in a story that was a dream for some and a nightmare for others.
Meanwhile, as the growing nation amassed wealth and power, the American Dream became a nightmare for others around the world, as does any imperial regime that uses violence (or the threat of it) to take resources by force or manipulation. Did this nightmare start with the end of World War II and the myriad of US military global military interventions and anti-Soviet proxy wars throughout the twentieth century? Did it start with the US War against Spain of 1898, or the one against Mexico fifty years before that? Did it start with the Monroe Doctrine? Again, some would say that this imperialism was implicit in the nation’s founding.
Even those who have been the primary beneficiaries of the Dream of US power and prosperity – white men (and to a lesser extent, women) who usually start with some basis of opportunity that helps them to move from rags to riches – know that it is simultaneously a dream and a nightmare. Think of some of our classic works of literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where no matter how much wealth is amassed, the promised fulfillment always remains out of reach; the naturalistic novels of writers like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and even Henry James, where despite our best efforts, heredity and environment determine our fate; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, where the protagonist’s pursuit of Dale Carnegie-esque popularity and prestige cannot salvage his bonds with the people closest to him. In the 21st-century golden age of television, series like Breaking Bad have told similar stories of downfall. Even for the ones at the top of the social pyramid, the nightmare within the dream is an open secret.
Now, as fires rage on our West Coast, as protests against racial injustice continue across the nation, and as our president who once expressed a belief that COVID-19 would simply vanish and eschewed the use of masks is now receiving hospital treatment for his illness, many are saying it is time for the US to wake up from its dreams. To the last point, Richard E. Besser recently wrote in The Scientific American that President Trump’s falling prey to this virus should serve as a sobering wake-up call for us all:
During this pandemic, our societal and structural failures have been laid out for the world to see. At least 28 million Americans don’t have health insurance, and millions of others are underinsured. Too many parents, often those in low-wage jobs, don’t have paid sick leave. About 60 percent of the workforce is paid hourly, and the strains on these workers during the waves of closures and economic shutdowns have proved devastating […] We must redouble our commitment in both the short- and long-term to provide the support the most vulnerable people in the U.S. need for the duration of this pandemic. Nutrition support, expanded unemployment benefits, eviction moratoriums, rental assistance and support for education programs must be extended well into 2021. The short-term needs are acute, and the long-term system challenges must be addressed in the new year.
But will the USA wake up? Nineteen years ago, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shook us to our core. We responded by initiating two major wars whose negative impact continues to be felt in the US as well as Iraq and Afghanistan to this day. Sixteen years ago, New Orleans was devastated by a hurricane that disproportionately killed and destroyed the homes of that city’s poorest, shocking world media with images that we are used to seeing in the Global South but not here at home, laying bare the stark realities of socioeconomic inequality. And for a solid two decades at least, scientists have been sounding the alarm on global warming and ecological collapse, their calls for policy change going unheard even as we experience more extreme weather events and see birds, bees and monarch butterflies disappearing from our own backyards.
In his famous 1953 book The Captive Mind, Polish poet and scholar Czesław Miłosz dissected the psychological impact that totalitarianism was having on his country as, one by one, the best critical minds gave in to the seductive sway of communism. However, as much as he critiqued the system he was under, he did not automatically assume a positive alternative in the democracies of the West, especially not in the United States of America.
The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. . . Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be ‘unnatural,’ and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword.
These words stuck out to me when I first read the book, and they seem especially relevant today. The American Dream is built upon a bedrock of exceptionalism: the idea that we are somehow shielded from the winds of chance that befall others. This exceptionalism can be seen at the individual level in the widespread doctrine of the prosperity gospel – the belief that good things happen to good people, and that if you pray hard enough, God will protect you from suffering – which has permeated our culture (for a powerful analysis of this mentality, see Kate Bowler’s work) and ignores the basic Christian tenet that we live in a fallen world. Though close at hand, the Kingdom of God in its fullness is not yet here.
At the collective level, meanwhile, this ethos is found in the widespread belief that the United States is somehow essentially different from other nations and exempt from the sufferings that befall the rest of humanity. A writer like Miłosz, coming from a country that in the Middle Ages was a vast empire and by the nineteenth century was absent from any European map, a nation that over many centuries became a homeland for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere and then became a principal site of Nazis’ genocide against them, offers a different perspective. Indeed, as someone who was born and raised in a democracy and came to maturity under a dictatorship, he knew how fast the world can change.We US Americans are a people who like our slumber. We have been ignored the warnings for a very long time, and it is costing us dearly; as of October 4, 2020, our country has seen 212,000 people lost to COVID-19, with unfortunately more to come. No matter who gets elected on November 3 (or, if the race is close and a winner is slow to be confirmed, then weeks after November 3), the reality of our social and political decline is not going to disappear.
As much as anyone else, I am an American dreamer. Having recently read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I am reminded of the gifts our women’s movement, abolitionist and civil rights movements, and our labor movement gave not only this country, but the world. We are the nation of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. We are the country of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost. We are a country of many scientific discoveries and technological innovations, without which I would not be sharing these thoughts with you right now. We are a country of people who refuse to accept apparent conditions as given, who say, “We can do better.”
I am a patriot,” sings Jackson Browne in a song that has proven a consolation in these nightmarish times. “And I love my country / because my country is all I know.” Though I sing these words, they are not true: I have lived in five countries other than the US and have visited many more. And honestly, I do not see the US as the best of them; even a middle-class, educated white woman like me has seen enough to know that other countries, including our immediate northern neighbor, offer a much better quality of life to more people than we do.
I love this country not because it’s all I know, but because it is mine. I recently told a respected friend and mentor (who is not from the US) that the United States is my father, and the Roman Catholic Church is my mother. They are both extremely flawed; I’ve at times felt the temptation to abandon them. But though I start to run away, I never get far. I love my country. Ultimately, I want to see it survive and thrive, to live up in the truest possible way to its ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Waking up from the American dream/nightmare, if it ever happens, will not feel good. It probably will feel like waking up on a chilly, dark October morning and remembering you’re out of coffee (or tea, or whatever your preferred morning beverage is) and that you’ve slept through your alarm and will inevitably be late for work. And my, is there a lot of work to do.
But as Catholic Christians, we are graced with some resources that might make this awakening a little more bearable. We believe in the new life embodied in the Resurrection. We believe in free will, which means that change is possible. We believe in grace, mercy and redemption.When the pandemic started, I perhaps indulged a little too much in my own dreamy musings, imagining a new world with drastically reduced pollution and an end to homelessness. Alas, that world has not come to be. But every day, these terrible situations offer us abundant chances to respond with compassion. Over the past seven months I have seen people deliver food to those who’ve need it. I’ve seen a little girl sew masks for health care workers. I’ve seen my high school alma mater, a 150-year-old Catholic all-girls’ school, finally take an active stand against inequity and racial injustice after decades of silence. I’ve seen anarchist Catholic Workers put aside their anti-government ideology and pledge to vote for the lesser of two evils. These movements are small, but they serve as gestures of hope. Together, they might help make our collective US awakening a little less rude.