Nothing is quite as unsettling as a dream. Unreal in the present, yet plausibly achievable through some uncertain combination of struggle and luck, an unshakable dream can call forth muse or madness, often both.
These are the words penned at our founding, which best describe who we are:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Our founding credo is a work of divine madness. While the ink was wet behind Jefferson’s furious quill, not a word of these self-evident truths was evident anywhere in the world. There was no human society, not even his own, based on these ideas.
Jefferson himself owned other men, regarded as so unequal as to be sub-human. In his lifetime, he would own his own children as slaves. Yet, few Americans can mouth these founding words without a welling of passion. Like a spell, this mad vision of a society yet to exist in Jefferson’s time or in our own, calls to our spirits. Nothing is quite like America. To be an American means living on a knife edge between vision and madness, a tension that drives us forward, making us truly great and occasionally terrifying. Americans are a people who live in dreams.
To make real what is not real, requires at least a modicum of madness. It means rejecting what is, in favor of something that doesn’t exist. Nothing in our founding vision was real when the first Americans bet their lives, and their families’ lives, on that dream. The United States was founded by people who wagered their existence on something that didn’t exist, and never would in their lifetimes.
In retrospect, we say that they succeeded because by some miracle of luck (and French intervention), they didn’t die as traitors in the gallows. Instead, they defeated the most powerful force on the planet to establish a new nation. If, however, we define their ambitions by Jefferson’s words, they did not win, they merely failed to lose.
What our founders carved out for us was an inheritance of dreams, an unfinished and inherently unfinishable vision. Imagining a society in which life and liberty are protected equally for all under the law was ambitious enough by itself, but then you get to that last phrase, the “pursuit of happiness.” Even if Americans achieve the unimaginable and build a place where life and liberty are equally available, we are still left with an eternal “pursuit.” And we’re pursuing something as intangible, even undefinable, as “happiness.” Americans are born to be restless and unsatisfiable.
We are united by “The American Dream,” fluid and ever-elusive. Ambitious salesmen tell us it’s a house or a new car, but our faith in those baubles just moves money around. We are, in fact, the people of the dream, people whose ancestors possessed the mad defiance to build a country on the impossible. At our best and our worst, Americans are driven by the unreal. Americans’ gnawing restlessness invented much of the modern world and is steadily creating humanity’s next future.
Why do we never ask ourselves why we built, and revere, a place like Disney World? A plastic fantasy blasted from swamp, heat, malaria and vermin, Disney is our Vatican, the place where the American God communes with his people for a godlike fee. Even our downtime is consumed in a teeming, noisy dreamworld, where our fantasies are fed by cheap ornaments and clattering distractions.
A nation that vacations in Disneyworld works in Silicon Valley, a place where every day billions of dollars chase the unreal. In that half-mad forge of vision, yesterday’s science fiction becomes the mundane reality of tomorrow’s everyday grind. Americans build the future out of our restless dreams.
Arguably the only American of latter times who has joined the sainted pantheon of our founders is best remembered by this phrase: “I Have a Dream.” His dream joined our original dream as an incomplete vision of who we want to be, but are not yet. His vision was so powerful that we revere him and we murdered him. Our destiny is an unstable, dangerous pursuit.
I have a dream.
Our greatest dreams are our most dangerous, our most volatile. No one said the dream would be cheap.
No civilized society has ever existed without kings and aristocrats. No civilized society can exist without slaves. Democracy doesn’t work. Women cannot compete with men. Women cannot rule. Nation-states can only survive on the unifying force of a singular ethnic identity. Nations cannot be built on an idea alone. You can’t reach the moon. No one will buy an electric car. Animated by vision, Americans live on the churning margin where the impossible is converted to the mundane.
Americans did not build a stable nation on established, successful principles. We built a mad contraption on the refuse of the rest of the world, melded together only by our restless pursuit of an insatiable hunger. On that insane proposition rose the wealthiest, most powerful, most exciting nation human beings have ever witnessed. As long as we have the stomach for this ride, we will only grow greater, our reach and influence more pervasive.
Life as an American comes with a burden. In every generation there are those who want to stop this ride and escape our inheritance. Americans are restless, creative, unsatisfiable; the engine of the human future. There is no peace for an American this side of the grave.
America dies when we shrink from the pressure of the dream, when we replace Jefferson’s striving vision with an exhausted sigh. America dies when we grow fearful, small, afraid of the new. America dies when we trade in our relentless legacy of striving and growing for a lazy, ordinary identity based on blood and soil, language and culture, a village within a fence; a sad, lazy definition of ourselves based on what we’ve already achieved. America won’t die in a blast. It will die in a shrug.
Long live America. Long live this clanging, mad, incomplete vision. Long live the people of the dream, whose audacity imagines into being what does not exist. Long live the people of Disneyworld and Silicon Valley and Hollywood and the places and ideas we’ve yet to see. As another birthday comes and goes, America still has a dream. Long live that dream.