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The Painful Collapse of Empire: How the "American Dream" and American Exceptionalism Wreck Havoc on the World

We must tell the truth about the domination that is at the heart of the American Dream so that we may face the brokenness of our world.

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Justice and sustainability

A world based on domination/subordination is a profoundly unjust world and a fundamentally unsustainable world.

The state of our unjust world: A third of the people on the planet live on less than $2 per day, while half live on less than $2.50 a day. That means at least half the people in this world cannot meet basic expenditures for the food, clothing, shelter, health, and education necessary for a minimally decent life. Concern about this is not confined to radical idealists. Consider the judgment of James Wolfensohn near the end of his term as president of the World Bank:

It is time to take a cold, hard look at the future. Our planet is not balanced. Too few control too much, and many have too little to hope for. Too much turmoil, too many wars, too much suffering. The demographics of the future speak to a growing imbalance of people, resources, and the environment. If we act together now, we can change the world for the better. If we do not, we shall leave greater and more intractable problems for our children.[11]

The state of our unsustainable world: Every measure of the health of the continent -- groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the surrounding oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity -- suggests we may be past the point of restoration. This warning comes from 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

That statement was issued in 1992, and in the past two decades we have yet to change course.

These days when someone seeks my support for an idea, project, or institution, I ask whether it makes some contribution to the struggle for justice and sustainability. No one idea, project, or institution can solve our problems, of course, and perhaps even no combination can save us. But I am convinced we must ask this question in all aspects of our lives.

I have concluded that the American Dream is inconsistent with social justice and ecological sustainability. So, I’m against the American Dream. I don’t want to rescue, redefine, or renew the American Dream. I want us all to recognize the need to transcend the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the American Dream. If we could manage that, the dream would fade -- as dreams do -- when we awake and come into consciousness.

That’s my principled argument. Now let’s consider two questions about political and rhetorical strategy.

Strategic 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. 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.

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