If “Take Back the American Dream” is the latest mantra from the self-styled progressive Democrats, struggling mightily to hitch their star to the Occupy Wall Street movements, the proper adjunct to this must be (with a hat-tip to Henny Youngman) “Please!” Like the execrable phrase “Win the Future,” what we are seeing at this late hour is not merely the ongoing struggle for mainstream liberals in America to find purchase, but their corollary struggle to lay claim to anything resembling a meaningful performative rhetoric. At the moment, the mainstream liberal punditry seems as mystified about the nature of the occupations as those far more ideologically distant from or openly hostile to them. It therefore comes as no surprise that mainstream liberal rhetoric is currently grasping at the always impossible but always reliable desire-objects of futurity itself and the (somehow) collective singular Dream of the nation, with its fractional offspring and its adorable property barriers. Like the future, a dream can be a wonderful thing, but in a state of exceptional crisis, the readymade, almost religious rhetoric of deferred expectations they share can wear thin pretty quickly.
It can become tiresome to shore up the shattered fragments of the rhetorical figure of this thing we keep calling the American Dream when so many millions are living an absolute nightmare. The problem with the future is not that we don’t want to ‘win’ it (whatever that means), but that, by definition, it never actually gets here. The same goes for dreams, especially the prevailing cultural Dream that helps prop up the existing political and economic systems that too often make its translation into reality as impossible as translating any individual’s sleep-dream into reality. The ‘American Dream’ in this sense begins to reveal itself to many people not as the mundane type of dream synonymous with mere goals or ambitions, but in its truer state, as the inescapable panic in slumber, its spectral, ineffable presence always hovering just out of reach of the dreamer’s constant grasp, shifting in the process from the absolute object of desire to the gargantuan horror that the dreamer cannot turn her eyes from. It may be that all that’s required right now is to ‘take back’ the Dream from those oppressive forces that have kept it from the diligent dreamers. Having had it so long, they are unlikely to part with it without paying whatever costs are necessary. But it may be the case that this shopworn phrase and the seemingly simple and wholesome idea behind it have, over time, become a subtle but pervasive instrument of abasement that is overdue to be formally retired. As with the old-growth forest whose dense canopy blocks the sunlight and rain from its own starved seedlings, a path through the dying forms and brittle rhetoric sometimes need to be cleared so that new cultural myths and new social forms might be allowed to grow. So take back the American Dream — please!