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Ira Chernus, Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century: Where Has It Gone?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Before plunging into TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus's piece on political dreaming, there's one historical reality worth considering in the largely dreamless night that is our present planet.  As everyone knows -- but few give the slightest thought to these days -- the Soviet Union, that "evil empire," that other "superpower," gave up the ghost in 1991. In that moment, history as humanity had long known it ended.  A series of great power rivalries that dated back at least to the sixteenth century, often involving several imperial states, each eager to gain further control over parts of the planet, was instantly relegated to the dustbin of human experience.  More than half a millennium of history came to an end with only one imperial power left standing, representing a single economic system, a single way of life, a single way of thinking called capitalism.  On Planet Earth, it no longer mattered whether you called yourself a "communist" power, you were traveling "the capitalist road," as was everyone, whether they liked it or not. 

I suspect we still haven't fully absorbed the meaning of that moment.  If 1992 was Year One of the new system, the following years would be hailed as the era of "globalization."  That was the word chosen to celebrate the triumph of Washington and its global system, the much-hailed victory of Hollywood, the Swoosh, the Golden Arches, and the so-called Washington consensus.  There can be no question that one kind of dreaming, or perhaps a dreamy public-relations frenzy, was sparked at that moment and didn't end until the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Then, the dirty underside of capitalism's great boom was revealed for all to see (and feel), while a spotlight suddenly fell on the rise of "the 1%" and ever more staggering economic inequality.

In those years, something else occurred: a kind of flattening of the planet that wouldn't have made a bestselling book for New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.  Think of it as a let-the-good-times-roll(-over-you) phenomenon.  With all other systems discredited and abandoned, with only one way to imagine, political dreaming was flattened, too.  Wherever you looked, it seemed that you just saw another version of the same old same old.  Without a sense that alternatives were possible, it proved remarkably hard to dream, to have a vision of something else, something better. 

It's strange, though, how few have mentioned the global dreamlessness of the post-1991 era, which is why Chernus's piece couldn't be more timely -- especially in this post-meltdown moment when, as revolts and turmoil grow across an increasingly crippled planet, we are being shown the way into a world of darkness and fears, but also new dreams and hopes.  That some of us dream in waking life is crucial, as Chernus points out today, because if you can't dream, politically speaking, if you can't imagine a different world, how will you begin to fix the one we have, the ever hotter, more tumultuous planet we continue to create, to the detriment of those who follow us? Tom 

Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century 
Where Has It Gone? 
By Ira Chernus

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 50th 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.

Occupied Dreams

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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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