Constant change, pure freedom, the sense that anything is possible: combined, they can give us the daytime energy we need to work for change despite the obstacles and failures we inevitably face. When political life is infused with a dream, traveling without a map can feel exhilarating. In politics as in physiology, we must dream on a regular basis to restore our energy.
But a political dream is quite different from the dreaming of sleep because it happens while we are wide-awake. It may even make us feel more awake, allowing us to pierce the pre-packaged version of reality handed to us by the rich and powerful, who demand that we take their distorted version of how this place, this country, this planet works as "realism" itself.
When we see by the light of imagined futures, the present and its real possibilities come into clearer view, offering us a broader framework into which we can fit the chaotic pieces of current reality and the specific changes we are working for.
We don't have to wait for some distant future to see our dreams realized. The essence of the nonviolent action that Dr. King preached is to pierce the lies and distortions in the here and now by acting out, with our bodies, the authentic reality we have seen—to persist in what is really real (which is the best translation I know of Gandhi's term satyagraha).
So we should never let anyone dismiss our political dreams as "unrealistic." The world as we wish it to be is no mere fantasy. It is often our most reliable guide to knowing the truth.
Never Stop Dreaming
Whether they know it or not, everyone has their own dream of the world as it should be, and every dream is open to endless interpretation. Dr. King had his. I've got my interpretation of his. I've got my own, too. And you've got yours. The point is not to argue about who has the one "correct" dream, but to bring all of our dreams out of the closet and voice them openly, share our interpretations of each other's dreams, and start a conversation about the politics of dreaming.
When that kind of dream-sharing becomes part of political life, it begins to create myths. By "myth" I don't mean a lie. I mean a story that a community tells itself to interpret its life, to express the fundamentals of its worldview and values, to give meaning and hope to events great and small.
A myth, it is often said, is a collective dream. In myths, as in dreams, anything can happen. And once new myths start circulating, anything can indeed happen. There is a real chance that one myth (or several with much in common) will—by some mysterious, unpredictable process—grab hold of a big enough part of the body politic to stir it to action. The U.S saw that process at work in the 1770s (the dream of a republic), the 1860s (the dream of abolishing slavery), and the mid-1930s (the dream of basic economic security for all).
In the late 1960s, the dream of radical democracy and equality for all took hold in millions of American minds. It happened surprisingly fast. In 1963, when Dr. King gave the nation permission to share our dreams, few could have imagined how radically the political and cultural landscape would be reshaped by new myths within just a few years.
Of course, we should never confuse our dreams and myths with specific policy proposals. That would endanger the chances of achieving policies that could bring us a few steps closer to realizing those dreams. Policies, after all, are always political artifacts, produced by compromises between our dreams and the hard facts of the present.
The coming commemoration of the "dream" speech should remind us of Dr. King's recipe for meaningful political change: take one part facts to reveal the world's evils, one part policy proposals to remove those evils, one part shrewd political strategy, and one part dreams—shared aloud—and stir artfully into a political movement.
So don't stop shouting from the rooftops about everything that's outrageously wrong. Don't stop the grinding political work of changing specific policies. But take the time to show how your outrage, policies, and politics are propelled by your dreams. Share those dreams: talk or write or draw or sing or dance them. Describe the kind of world you are working for and show how it could be linked to policies and politics. And don't let anyone dismiss you as an "unrealistic dreamer."
Yes, it's true, the world will never look exactly like our mythic dreams. But we can't get to any better future unless we first imagine that future, together. A political dream is a magnet that pulls us toward our goals. It may also be an asymptote—a promised land that we can never reach. Yet even if we never get there, every dream takes us closer to a transformed reality.
Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a TomDispatch regular, blogs at MythicAmerica.us. He shares his own dream of a radically revisioned America in the "Alternatives" section of his online "MythicAmerica: Essays."
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