I had a dream. No, it was not like the famous dream that Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) spoke of in his great 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial—of “that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.”
No, my dream was one of those weird ones that we sometimes have at night. Yet, I think it had some significance.
In it, I go over to the Eastern Michigan University building where I had taught for four decades. It’s a functional seven-story structure, constructed not long before I arrived on campus in 1970. Not much in it but classrooms and faculty offices. Our department, History and Philosophy, is on the top floor. Since I retired a decade ago, I’ve seldom returned to the building, especially during our past coronavirus year.
But in my dream, the inside of the building has been completely transformed. It looks more like a seven-story shopping mall—little stores and walk-in small banks everywhere and shoppers carrying packages all around. The stairs leading up to the seventh floor, which I usually walked for the exercise, I cannot find. When I locate an elevator and get in, it is unable to take me all the way up to the seventh floor. Finally, through much trial and error and asking various people, I am able to get to my desired floor. But once there, I am unable to locate our department, which when I was teaching was one of four that shared the entire seventh floor.
Now, in my dream, I see only shops, a small bank or two, and at least one restaurant. Finally, someone points out our department’s location. It’s tucked away in a corner, and seems to share space with a restaurant. Our department secretary is behind a lunch counter serving drinks and meals. At a big table in the back are some members of the department. They greet me, and soon pull out a birthday cake, complete with candles. I had almost forgotten, it’s my birthday. I start to make a little speech, mainly about how much the building has changed since my last visit. But then I lose my voice and can no longer talk. I seem unwell, and there’s some discussion on helping me go back home, where I live with my wife, Nancy.
My fear is that in our future we will emphasize the consumption of goods and services more than education and learning
That’s about it. I wake and think, “What was that all about.” Here’s my best guess. It reflects my fear that in our future we will emphasize the consumption of goods and services more than education and learning—thus a building of learning being almost transformed into a seven-story shopping mall. Over the past decade my essays, including those at the La Progressive and Hollywood Progressive, have often expressed my appreciation for my liberal arts education and criticism of our dominant consumer culture (see, e.g., here, here, and here). As E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977) once wrote “more education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.” Forgetting the arts and humanities and emphasizing nothing more than “career training” is, I think, a big mistake.
Among the many major problems our country faces is racism, but my view of dealing with it is a little different and gets back to education. It also is indebted to the views of Wendell Berry, as I stated almost eight years ago in a LAP essay. Here is what Berry had to say:
The problem of race, nevertheless, is generally treated as if it could be solved merely by recruiting more blacks and other racial minorities into colleges and then into high-paying jobs. This is to assume, simply, that we can solve the problems of racial minorities by elevating them to full partnership in the problems of the racial majority. We assume that when a young black person acquires a degree, puts on a suit, and achieves a sit-down job with a corporation, the problem is to that extent solved.
The larger, graver, more dangerous problem, however, is that we have thought of no better way of solving the race problem.
Berry does not believe the answer to the American race problem is fully integrating minorities into mainstream American society because he believes that society is deeply flawed. It is flawed because too many people rush around seeking (as William James said decades earlier) “the bitch-goddess Success.” And happiness is equated with it. Things not profitable, like leisure and “pleasure in small profitless things, joy, wonder, ecstasy,” were shunned. “There was no art of living.” Even “knowledge was conceived as a way to get money.” Berry believed that the mainstream white society of his youth was “a society artificial in the extreme, both in its values and in its appearance.”
In contrast he wrote of two wise Black people he knew in his youth and of a future emphasizing community and respect for nature.
The great dream of MLK, the hopes of Berry for our nation’s future, and to a much lesser extent my own crazy nighttime dream are also related to what is sometimes called the “American Dream.” About that dream, I have written two essays during the past year. In the first, I contrasted that of two politicians, Donald Trump and John Lewis. Trump’s was (and still is) of “wealth, power, and self-promotion.” Lewis’s, like that of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and MLK before him, was a “citizenry made better, and stronger, not in spite of its many [ethnic and religious] elements, but because of them.” MLK and Lewis envisioned a society of love, not hate; of inclusiveness, not divisiveness; of (in King’s words) “culture and education,” not just “material well-being,” and a“person-oriented society,” not one where “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people”; and, finally, one that respects nature and does not take (in Lewis’s words) “our air, waters and land for granted.”
In my second “American Dream” essay, I asked whether Joe Biden could broaden our dream “by widening the opportunities for more people” to seek it, and do so “in more ways than just becoming better off financially.” And I suggested at least one way, he could do so—increasing the possibilities for national service.
Of late, I have been thinking frequently of Frederick Douglass’s belief that “our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.” Of his belief that our ethnic and religious diversity can be a great strength, not a weakness.
The actions of white supremacists storming the Capitol building; the “violence directed at Asian Americans,” which “has skyrocketed since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic”; the contributions of Asian Americans, like cellist Yo Yo Man who played for other recipients after receiving his second COVID-19 vaccine and of Korea-American film director Lee Isaac Chung, whose parents spoke to him of the “American Dream,” and of Muslim actor Riz Ahmed, both men just nominated for Oscars; and of NCAA-tournament-bound coach Patrick Ewing, born in Jamaica, and his star center Qudus Wahab, born in Nigeria, of Georgetown University (where I did my graduate studies)—all of these actions and individuals, and so many more, have just confirmed my belief that our diversity is a great national strength. White supremacists who ignore this are simply misguided and wrong.
Finally, back to my crazy dream. How about it being my birthday, and my losing my voice? My guess: My age and upcoming 83rd birthday have me concerned that I may soon lose my voice, i.e. my ability to write essays and contribute to our national dialogue.
Who knows what the future holds? Many people think that one of the best at predicting the future was Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World. As an author on Big Think puts it, “This 1931 novel predicted modern life almost to a (model) T. While other dystopias get more press, Brave New World offers us a nightmare world that we've moved steadily towards over the last century”—“genetic engineering,” “keeping everybody entertained continuously with endless distractions,” “mass consumerism.”
Already in 1985, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death perceived a similar relevance, writing of people’s “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” and claiming that Huxley’s Brave New World reflected a fear that “we would become a trivial culture.” The novel, according to Postman, foresaw the possibility of people becoming “narcoticized by technological diversions.” And he agreed with the novelist that only education can save us from “disaster.”
As my own dream indicates, I fear for our collective future in ways similar to that of Huxley and Postman. But I gain courage from some of the thoughts of psychologist and futurist Tom Lombardo’s Future Consciousness (see here for links to reviews of its three major parts). In this large book, Lombardo indicated that he thought we created a good future by maximizing well-being and the good, “by developing a core set of character virtues, most notably and centrally wisdom,” and by “flourishing in the flow of evolution.” He also encourages “an optimistic and hopeful mindset regarding technology,” believing that “with proper foresight and wisdom . . . [we] can address present human problems and empower” ourselves.
Unlike some futurology, his vision of the future does not ignore education and history, but rather stresses their importance: “Memory of the past . . . is the knowledge foundation for both present and future consciousness, as well as wisdom.” He gives this historian (me) hope that my own historical books and essays, including those on the environment, racism, and such past wisdom thinkers as Anton Chekhov, Carl Sandburg, E. F. Schumacher, and Dorothy Day, will not, after my death, disappear into (as Trotsky put it) “the dustbin of history.”
In his great First Inaugural Address (1933), Franklin Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Fears for our collective future are natural, even necessary, but FDR (and Lombardo) are correct, we must not let them paralyze our hopes or stifle our efforts to create a better world.
Walter G. Moss