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