Scream, Dream, Nightmare
There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile. –Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator
America is screaming. Can you hear it? High and wild, ragged and angry and more than a little insane. Everyone screaming out their own needs in their own time—the sum a three-hundred-million man opera, the soundtrack to a movie none of us wanted to see.
We’re screaming for shiny guns and safer streets, kick-ass foreign policy and lasting peace. Screaming for babies and women, men and fetuses, law and freedom, money and compassion, a God of love and a theology of hate.
We’re screaming for Star Wars and the War on Terror, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar. Screaming for Empire and Homeland, Game of Thrones and House of Cards. Screaming for emojis, Bitcoins, and Craigslist.
We’re screaming about executive orders and would-be dictators; Marxism, fascism, and plenty of other –isms. Screaming for political systems we don’t believe in, philosophies we don’t understand, and feelings we can’t even name.
We’re screaming for taxes (lower, higher, different, better) and government regulation (more, less, old, new). Screaming for Jesus and Allah, Yahweh and a hundred other deities. Screaming for TV’s and stereos, cars and toasters, houses and vacuum cleaners. Lives and dreams, sanity and charity; salvation, desolation, immigration, integration.
America is screaming for all those things and more. But sometimes, most of the time these days, I think we’re screaming just to hear our own voices. Or, maybe not even that. Maybe many of us are screaming just to scream, screaming as a way to prove we’re still alive.
No matter the reasons, the end result is that these screams threaten to become all we have, to leave us unable to hear each other anymore, to leave us, perhaps, unable to hear each other ever again. Maybe the American Dream was always destined to die screaming—the victim of a blood feud between fascist right and Utopian left; a petty, pitched battle that promises to leave us with the ability to hate, nothing more.
The term is real at least. The American Dream, I mean. The phrase is a product of the Great Depression, one of the darkest times of our history, James Truslow Adams credited with popularizing it in his book Epic of America (1931). Which makes sense: The darker things seem the more we crave light. And if you can’t find a real source—if you can’t find the sun or at least a lamp—you have to invent it. You have to dream. Still, the idea of something like an American Dream, a sort of national hope, long predates James Truslow Adams. Elements of it have been with us since before there was even an America.
In the beginning, the American Dream was a colonial dream, a dream of the world’s great powers like England and France, Spain and Holland, a dream of freedom and riches beyond a great ocean. The American dream wasn’t a dream for everyone back then, back when it was the English-French-Spanish-Dutch American Dream. It was a nightmare for the people who were already here, in what would come to be known as the Americas. In many ways it still is.
To the extent there were native cultures in America, civilizations that stem from a time before European colonization, they have been subjugated or destroyed. Go on and ask Native Americans about the American Dream. They might tell you theirs: That America had never happened, that Europeans had found a passage to India, the place they were really looking for. But America did happen and the world changed. This is what we tell ourselves. What we don’t tell ourselves is that the American Dream itself changes over time. It changes to meet our needs and sometimes to suit our purposes.
We’ve dreamed of land and money and gold. We’ve dreamed of innocence and peace, good and evil, God and country. We dreamed an end to British tyranny and (eventually) an end to Southern slavery. We dreamed of the farewell to kings World War I became, the defeat of fascism that was World War II, the Cold War’s defeat of totalitarian Marxism.
We’ve dreamed medical and scientific breakthroughs and accumulations of knowledge greater than humanity had ever seen before. We’ve dreamed of being the Great Melting Pot and the Arsenal of Democracy, dreamed of being a nation where everyone has the same rights. We’ve dreamed of religious liberty and a free press, opportunity, fairness, and freedom.
We’ve dreamed Jefferson’s dreams and Martin Luther King’s dreams, Obama’s dreams and JFK’s dreams. But we’ve had our nightmares, too. In fact, in many ways it seems the American Nightmare is inextricably linked to the American Dream. Maybe in the end, they’re really the same thing, two sides of the same coin. Slavery, Women’s Rights, Segregation, Wealth Inequality. We’ve watched all these things be dreams to some, nightmares to others.
And maybe the American Scream, the one we hear today, is born of the reconciliation of the American Dream with its sometimes-nightmarish consequences, of the certainty that the American Dream is never everyone’s dream, that there are always winners and losers. Maybe that’s why we scream. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing will ever be enough. Neither ourselves nor our neighbors, neither America nor the world.
Different people would trace today’s screams—today’s anger—from different events. Conservatives might look back at Watergate and Roe v. Wade or what they see as the unfair treatment Bush 43 received. They might look back on President Clinton’s in-office sexual escapades, see those as a lapse of integrity, an abuse of power. Progressives might look back at the way Clinton and his wife were dogged by Congressional investigations, decades of fishing expeditions that have ultimately come to nothing concrete. They might look at the 2000 Presidential election—the voting and governmental irregularities in Florida, the Supreme Court’s surprising, partisan decision. They might look at the War in Iraq or the Bush tax cuts, the Tea Party movement and the disrespect President Obama has received from his opponents.
Whatever the reasons, there’s plenty of anger to go around in today’s America, plenty of screaming, right and left. But over time, as a steady state, screaming is not the activity of great nations. It’s the province of the world’s problem children, countries wracked by religious and political extremism; militarism, racism, and classism. In a greater sense, humanity measures progress not in terms of anger but in terms of civility, in terms of the average life lived.
If, as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then, we must hope, the arc of history, long as it is, may bend towards democracy. Real democracy, that is; which means, one person, one vote, regardless of race, gender, religion, or wealth. And with democracy must come some measure of civility, the confidence to be able to listen to those with opposing views, to be able to see areas for compromise and expand on them. This is the charge of government throughout history: to negotiate, to moderate.
History is discussed in measured tones, sometimes even whispers; as though its wisdom is certain, its truth unassailable. The way back always seems clear in history, the tipping points obvious, the events that drive the course of humanity sure. But the path to history is never clear. That path, reality, is confusing and messy, filled with false starts and head fakes. Reality is filled not with dreams, or even nightmares, but with screams. We rely on our leaders to make decisions in spite of the screams, not to be the loudest voices wailing in the darkness.
Is 2016 a tipping point, one that will be spoken of in grave tones at some point in the future? The year fascism began to take over America? The year socialism did? Or, will we just look back on it as another point in time, a crisis narrowly averted; yet another point when sense prevailed in the country’s broad middle, when the screams of right and left were loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to drown out democracy, the understanding that we must compromise, that both right and left fail when they claim too much ground, when they come to believe their voices are the only ones or, worse still, the only ones that matter.
The screamers are loud this year, their champions with names like Cruz, Sanders, and Trump. They’re attracting followers, claiming territory. But one set of extremists craving (and delivering) a knockout punch to another set of extremists isn’t how you govern a free society. It’s the path to dysfunction or worse.
As the models of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia prove, totalitarianism can come under guise of right or left. It can come first for the Jews or the aristocracy, the Muslims or the bankers. It can even come under the guise of good. But it never comes clothed as moderation. Totalitarianism is always sure of itself, always willing to tell you who it is and why it’s right. It’s always willing to scream in your face, to scream that it’s the only way. It’s that sure of itself. Which is when you have to recognize just how wrong it is.