The American Dream and Hurricane Harvey

sueño americano hurricane harvey

160 kilometers around Houston, the towns are underwater. The number of dead is still unknown. The dead have died in terrible ways: drowned, electrocuted; they’ve died of hunger, of thirst, of stress, of lack of care for their medical problems. All are unnecessary deaths, because this could have been avoided in a truly first-world country, one which acted in accordance with the rest of the modern democracies, which didn’t sell out its citizens to unregulated capitalism, a country that never would have let a Trump become President.

It would be impossible for this kind of disaster to happen in a rational country, one that believed in science and not in superstitions, that had the moral foundation to confront climate change instead of denying it, that had already, decades ago, dedicated the time, money and energy to building an infrastructure capable of protecting those regions most susceptible to hurricanes, floods, or any other natural disaster.

This would never happen in a country that valued its citizens. And it never would happen to a citizenry that valued its neighbors, the Other who lives next door.

But it did happen. It has already happened too many times, and it will keep happening, because the United States is a delusional nation. It is a nation hypnotized by its own fantasies, unable to see what’s right in front of its eyes, incapable of seeing what everyone else sees.

The U.S. is a prisoner of its own mythological story that it tells itself over and over like a catechism. That story is the American Dream.

Almost everyone has heard of this “American Dream”, no matter what country they’re from. It’s generally understood as the hope of some vague success, of the certainty that, one day — no matter what the circumstances of your beginnings, the color of your skin, the traumas you suffered or the atmosphere that surrounds you — as the just and logical result of your actions, you will be successful (in that culture, “successful” usually meaning rich).

I’ll break it down a little more. If you’re born in the U.S., you constantly hear, starting in childhood, that

  • “America” (the egotistical name by which U.S. citizens refer to themselves, as if the countries of South or Central America didn’t exist) is the Best Country in the World, the example for the rest of the world to follow;
  • Everyone can be successful, if they only believe in themselves and “work hard” (translation: allow themselves to be exploited without complaint),
  • You as an individual are special, more important than the collective, which barely deserves anyone’s attention,
  • You can grow up to be President.

Although these days, this last point seems to be proven (could anyone more base and limited end up in the White House?), the truth is that all these declarations are false. But they are uniquely “American”, and they serve an important purpose. Like stories from the Bible, they are myths that the population gladly consumes, because these myths give them a sense of who they are, of their place in the world, of what “reality” is.

More important, these myths keep them complacent with the way things are. Like the idea of the Hereafter, the American Dream serves as a comfort to the citizens of a nation in clear decline, giving them permission to remain ignorant and passive. The American Dream assures them that everything will work out fine, that the future will be better than the present, and that their destiny is in their own hands and not vulnerable to circumstances outside their control. 

Of course it’s brainwashing. As to be expected, its victims aren’t even aware of it. This is how things can continue as they are, without correction.

And this is how, on the front pages of major U.S. newspapers, we can see photos of the horrific destruction, entire towns underwater, and citizens — a disproportionate number of them sick-looking and obese — walking through water up to their waist, everything they owned swept away. Accompanying the main stories about the destruction itself — with scant analysis of the causes, with few words dedicated to climate change, the crumbling U.S. infrastructure or its dysfunctional leadership — there are moving stories about the heroic individuals who risk their lives to rescue others, or about the victims who stoically endure the loss of their life as they know it, never denouncing the causes. Instead, they thank the rescue services with a smile, the same way you’d thank a waitress at the diner for her wonderful service.

Many will give thanks to God, although this same god has allowed their house to be destroyed and their neighbors to die. They will consider themselves “blessed” for having escaped with their lives. Since they are unaware of how people in other modern democratic countries live, they will not view themselves as unlucky for having been born in a country that doesn’t consider as fundamental human rights health care, a satisfying job with a decent salary, good quality, free and universal education through adulthood, or a clean environment. They will not rue the fact that they live in a country where at least once day — at least!  there is a mass shooting.

They will not despair that they live in a country that designates 50% of its budget to the military, causing continual death and destruction of innocent people and destabilizing countries around the world. They will not be outraged to continue living in a country which, in nearly every area in which quality of life is measured, lags behind the rest of the developed world, not even making the top 20.

Instead, they will take pride in their “can-do” spirit and their ability to “go it alone”, to work two or more jobs (often without benefits), to live off a fast-food diet while lacking decent and affordable health care, and to never be able to take a vacation as their country fails them time and again.

How are they are able to twist reality to this extent? By way of the American Dream. If you believe that you live in the Best Country on Earth, with God on its side, then you will view events like a hurricane, or the daily mass shooting, or the morbid obesity and diabetes of your own children, not as shameful things that have causes, solutions, and parties responsible for them, but as acts of God beyond your control. They are just Stuff that Happens. You’ll chalk it up to bad luck… perhaps, if you’re of the more puritanical mindset, of your own making, by not praying hard enough, or for just not believing as you should have.

And then, you can go back to imagining the success your life will be one day… with just a little bit of luck, with just a little more hard work, with the right connections, with just a little more clever cost-cutting on your part. In the meantime, you can engage in the uniquely American pastime of feeling special and virtuous just for having survived shit that would leave anyone else in the developed world with their mouth hanging open in outraged disbelief. Delusion accomplished.

Can you imagine such a thing happening in Spain: 100 miles of villages underwater; thousands of people rendered homeless; dozens, maybe hundreds, of deaths; collapsed emergency services… and the citizens doing nothing about it? Just continuing as they were before, business as usual? Can you imagine this happening in Spain (and much less in Cataluña): that an event like this happens, and that the people don’t fill the streets of every city day after day with demonstrations, storming the houses of government, demanding resignations, clamoring for immediate change?

It’s impossible to imagine because this is a country that actually functions. This is a modern, rational country with its humanitarian values intact, as well as the structures that protect those values, in spite of all the attacks they have suffered in moments throughout history. An imperfect country, yes; with its own problems, certainly… but overall, a healthy, sane country.

Why? To start with: it’s a country that doesn’t live in a dream.