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American Dreams | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

American Dreams

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On December 8 the front page of the New York Times featured an arresting image of three snow-white SUVs on the altar of a Pentecostal church in Detroit. Like bullocks led to sacrifice, they were parked amid a swirl of parishioners in choir robes, arms raised in song and seeming supplication. The caption revealed that they were praying for the auto industry to be saved.

It might be tempting for some to dismiss such pageantry as idolatry, this beseeched-for sustenance embodied in a once-golden calf, now a dried-up cash cow. But as passion play, it is powerfully evocative of an American spirit. If I were the proverbial Martian anthropologist, I'd see similarities between those SUV anthems and a rain dance, or the miracle of the loaves and fishes. We pray for the cod to be plentiful, we pray for the corn crop, we pray for a harvest of cars. We look for divine signs that our traditional sources of abundance have not been driven to the point of drought or extinction.

The American Dream is a form of worship--if more than just metaphorically so--in certain branches of evangelical and charismatic Protestantism. From Daddy Grace to Pat Robertson, from tents to televangelism, a strong line of American sectarianism converts monetary remuneration into a form of God's grace. Even for those of us to whom this configuration is not a matter of divine will but rather the outcome of applied economic ideologies and sociopolitical narratives, its immense symbolism is worthy of serious consideration. If this recession/depression is not the work of a deity hungry for sacrifice, it might be good to take a look at the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that bind, and blind, us to the stupidity, arrogance and corruption of those who rule from the heavenly pinnacle of top-down corporate, as well as Congressional, governance.

All our civic saints are ciphers for hard work and its just rewards: Horatio Alger, the self-made tycoon. Old MacDonald, the farmer in gumboots and plaid shirt. Joe Sixpack, the factory worker with his hard hat and lunch pail. My Ántonia, the busy housewife turned plain-spoken soccer mom. We recite parables in which their evil nemeses, the sloth and the sluggardly grasshopper, starve in the winter, and deservedly so; for there is fruit on the trees for all who reach for it and lay in a store of provisions. We invent the Evil Welfare Queen and try to do away with public assistance so that she will learn to help herself. We invent the Greedy Trial Lawyer as a reason to "reform" bankruptcy so that loan forgiveness is nearly impossible for consumers to get. We invent the Fat Cat Union Member, who schemes to break the back of his honest employer by burdening business with silly perks like pensions, minimum wage and healthcare.

An economic ice age is upon us, however. As with any belief system, the loss of an idyll results in fear, anger, anxiety. When Samuel Wurzelbacher, dba Joe the Plumber, availed himself of the opportunity to ask candidate Barack Obama about taxes, he premised his question on a scenario that had nothing to do with his actual life circumstances. He was supposedly a plumber--although he was not licensed in any state as such. He was supposedly going to buy a business worth $250,000--although he had liens against him for back taxes and medical bills and earned $40,000. Joe the Plumber, an aspirational but entirely fictive reverie, was so powerful an American persona that vast swaths of the public, as well as Wurzelbacher himself, were able to dis-identify with the actual living, breathing, struggling man. "Joe" is a hard-working man of means; Sam is a hard-working person who is barely making it. The inability to reconcile the vision and the reality creates a split, a chasm in which dissatisfaction festers, leaks, then seeks a target, longs for a scapegoat.

There is no comfortable role in American iconography for the poor. The myth of inevitable mobility leaves little room for acknowledging the existence of the dispossessed. Poverty is shrugged off like foreignness when you step off the boat and sashay down the golden bricks of Main Street. We Americans believe in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, but in case you've never tried it, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps pitches you forward, flat onto your face. As our industrial base moves offshore and our fruited plains are taken over by agribusiness, the trope of the blissful drone inspired by promises of phantasmagorical wealth is revealed as unsustainable. The creed by which we profess ourselves a classless society no longer leads to redemption.

Americans are the hardest workers among industrialized nations. We grind ourselves down with the longest workweek and the fewest social protections. No pint in the pub, no rest for the weary. The very idea of being "weary" has been displaced by images of the relentlessly able-bodied bionic economic man who never stops until the body is genuinely and visibly broken. Disability checks come only when you have the marks to prove it--a bit like the way the Bush administration defines torture.

And so I think it's time we consciously craft new prayer totems. If I were to bring an offering to the altar of the American Dream, I'd haul in an electric tram, two intercity railroad cars and a bouquet of bicycles. I'd garnish them with copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'd hand out praise songs for the concept of human dignity and for economic rights. We ought to recognize the basic need for sustenance as a right, not bury the larger question in the vexed vocabulary of "bailouts" and "handouts." We the people have a right to a home, to healthcare, to untainted food, clean water, a living wage and time to rest, time to develop the personal ties and social engagements that sustain the best and most pleasurable parts of a civilization.

If we could retrofit auto factories to make tanks during World War II, how hard can it be to recognize that oil dependency is killing us--literally, in wars but also with climate erosion? How hard can it be to fire the petroleum-drunk heads of the Big Three and to get those desperately hopeful parishioners back to an honest, and honorable, day's work?

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