Wake Up from the American Dream

When did the “dream” become a metaphor for ambition? When did dreaming become an entitlement to success for aspiring American Idols? The one thing besides “hard work” necessary for achieving fame and fortune, as we are frequently assured by celebrities?

Once upon a time, a dream was in the realm of the imagination, a fancy, something unobtainable. “Lips that once were mine/Tender eyes that shine/They will light my way tonight/I’ll see you in my dreams.” 1

A dream was something desperately desired: “Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly.” 2

It was a consolation prize: “I need you so, that I could die/I love you so and that is why/Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream.” 3

Or a noble attitude in a struggle against overwhelming odds: “To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go.” 4

Martin Luther King, Jr. used his dream to imbue African American aspirations with a Biblical loftiness and inevitability:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

Somewhere along the way it morphed into willful delusion: “If you dream, then you can do anything/If you dream, you’re halfway to destiny/If you dream, dream the impossible/If you dream, ’cause a dream’s unstoppable.” 5

And our preference for dreams over reality doesn’t end with pop songs. When a quarter of our electorate believes Obama is a Kenyan socialist dictator, or that 9/11 was an inside job, our society is long way toward putting itself to sleep. Our financial system nearly collapsed because it placed bets on mortgages of fictional value. Even our philosophy and cosmology entertain delusion delusions: reality is a construct; we live in one alternate universe among an infinite multiverse. There is a systemic problem.

We can trace the genesis of our national somnambulance to James Truslow Adams and his 1931 coining of the term “the American dream.” But Adams’s dream is a societal ideal not an individual birthright.  Somehow, his notion that one is not a prisoner of birth or circumstance has transmogrified into the valuing of the imaginary and the illusory over the real and the practical.

What’s become of our lauded American pragmatism? Wake up!

1“I’ll See You in My Dreams” by Gus Kahn & Isham Jones

2 “Out of My Dreams” by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, III

3 “All I Have to Do is Dream” by Felice & Boudleaux Bryant

4“To Dream the Impossible Dream” Joe Darion & Mitch Leigh

5 “If You Dream” by J. Valentine, Harvey Mason, Jerry Franklin, Joseph Bereal Jr., Robert Newt, Kristina Stevens, Dureel Babbs & Thai Jones


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4 thoughts on “Wake Up from the American Dream”

  1. While I agree that the dream meme is a horrid cliché, and faulty in most ways, I will argue with you about the false distinction between illusion and reality. The realist vs. illusionist and materialist vs. spiritualist debates are both engaged in a false dichotomy, where one side is the only true thing. (See my forthcoming book, “Everything is Real.”)

  2. I would add another stream to the dream theme. The outright LIES of the Disney corporation and many others about “dreaming.” A dream is demonstrably NOT a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep. Unless they are proposing that what I really want to have come true is that I’m sitting naked on a toilet in the middle of a football stadium and all my relatives are filing in and taking their seats and I’m freaked because I don’t have my toupee on. It is also not true that when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, everything your hear desires will come to you, and when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. We have this bizarre lie machine happening around the whole concept of “dreaming” that I think needs to be shut down!

  3. I agree with you, Elma. But I suppose the “false” dichotomy, is also, in some sense, real.

    And, I’m with you, Bill. What a frightening idea to be pushing on children, who often have such terrifying dreams.

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