A pedestrian browses protest posters at the Occupy Wall Street sit-in at Zucotti park in New York, Tuesday, September 20, 2011. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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All right, I confess: I have a dream. I bet you do, too. I bet yours, like mine, is of a far, far better world not only for yourself and your loved ones, but for everyone on this beleaguered planet of ours.
And I bet you, like me, rarely talk to anyone about your dreams, even if you spend nearly all your time among politically active people working to improve the planet. Perhaps these days it feels somehow just too naïve, too unrealistic, too embarrassing. So instead, you focus your energy on the nuts and bolts of what’s wrong with the world, what has to be fixed immediately.
I’m thinking that it’s time to try a different approach—to keep feeling and voicing what Martin Luther King Jr., called “the fierce urgency of now,” but balance it with a dose of another political lesson he taught us: the irresistible power of dreaming.
I started reflecting on this when I returned from a long trip and found my email inbox crammed with hundreds of urgent messages from progressive groups and news sources, all sounding the alarm about the latest outrages, horrors and disgraces, punctuated by an occasional call for a new policy to right at least one of the horrendous wrongs described and denounced.
Suddenly, I found myself thinking: Same old same old. The particular words keep changing, but the basic message and the music of our song of frustrated lament remain the same. We give the people the shocking facts and call them to action. And we wonder: Why don’t they listen?
Then I looked at the calendar and noticed that the end of the summer would bring the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s greatest speech—and I realized what was missing from virtually all those email messages: Where was the dream? Where was the debate about what the world we seek would look like?
In most of them I could dimly sense that the writer might indeed have a vision of a better world. But it was always hidden somewhere between the lines, as if in the century when capitalism had “triumphed” and nowhere on Earth did there seem to be an alternative, the writer was ashamed to speak such things aloud.
It wasn’t always so. I remember how incensed I used to get in the 1960s when hearing the charge from the right: “Those hippie radicals. They don’t know what they’re for, only what they’re against.” “Those hippie radicals” knew what they were for: concrete changes in political policies that would turn their dreams into reality. And they talked constantly about the dreams as well as the policies.
It was Dr. King, above all, who inspired them. If, on that hot summer day in 1963, he had only denounced the evils of racism and proposed policy remedies, we would scarcely recall his speech half a century later. It holds a special place in our public memory only because he concluded by confessing his dream. Daring to be a public dreamer propelled him to greatness.
Now, I fear, we mostly talk only about what we’re against. The just-give-‘em-the-facts approach, so tilted toward denunciation (however well deserved), scarcely leaves room for any other impression.
There are still a few dreamers. You can find them among environmental activists, who give us science fiction-like descriptions of technology that can create a clean, sustainable environment for the whole biosphere. Except that isn’t simply a fantasy: much of the technology already exists.