A dream could express our innermost wishes and desires, some of which we might not even be fully aware of. It could also be an image of our most haunting fears and horrors.
When I heard Mr. Trump on TV, screaming and proclaiming at one of his election rallies that the “American Dream” is dead, I indeed thought that, for once, the man is completely right. For a change, he speaks the truth, though involuntarily. That grandiose dream probably is as dead as dead can be, and Mr. Trump now is seen standing there like the Grave-digger in “Hamlet”, prepared to throw the last shovels of earth down into its grave.
When the first generations of settlers from the so-called Old World arrived in America, they were refugees from extreme poverty or extreme persecution, or even both combined. Their dream was plain and simple: freedom from persecution and freedom from poverty. But as settlement went on, with more and more land being taken over from the native inhabitants, an ideological justification was needed. And this was easy to find among the settlers, many of whom had been religious non-conformists in the Old World and had fled persecution from established churches. The pattern to be followed and believed was already there, in their adaptation of the Biblical narrative: They were the new elected people of God, leaving the lands of ordeal and oppression and arriving in the new Land of Promise, building their New Jerusalem, and having the right of throwing out, dead or alive, whoever were standing in their way.
But that was not enough. What has been known as the American Dream also spells “WASP”:
“White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”.
A large number of the settlers carried with them not only their longing for freedom of faith and freedom from poverty. They also brought with them an allegedly Christian doctrine of a particular kind which, together with the legend of the elected people and the promised land, would become the cornerstone of their American Dream.
In 16th century Geneva John Calvin, one of the second generation reformers, distilled the teachings of his predecessor Martin Luther into a purified and all-comprising Vademecum, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, containing fixed answers to all questions imaginable as to Man’s relation to God. First and foremost, there was the doctrine of predestination and individual election: God’s eternal love and eternal hatred; God’s decision, from all eternity, about each and every human individual’s destiny: to heaven or to hell, to eternal bliss or to eternal damnation. But everybody, irrespective of his or her individual eternal destiny, was equally destined for a life of hard work, sternness in lifestyle and a law-abiding, moral conduct.
But in view of this, then, could there be any way of getting reassured of one’s position, of one’s being among those elected for eternal bliss? Any hopeful external signs to cling to?
Oh yes, there was. Being materially successful, increasing and accumulating by work (of one kind or another) one’s individual material wealth – the more, the better, and in an exclusive self-interest – would be a reliable sign of eternal election.
This together makes out not only the so-called Calvinist work ethics. It also is the quintessence of the American Dream.
It goes without saying that within a dream like this, there is no room for values such as empathy; such as social conscience; such as human solidarity; such as non-materialist thinking; such as self-examining reflection; such as humble, human open-mindedness.
It also seems unavoidable that this kind of dream is travelling deeper into a blind alley. It simply is a dream which will not come true, a dream less and less related to reality, a dream that will finally come to an end.
The question is only how much suffering and devastation there will be until that end comes.
Does the American Dream first have to be turned into the American Nightmare?