The American Nightmare

When the American Dream becomes defined in terms of money and force rather than values, then it will fade into “The American Nightmare.”

The American Dream, as every American knows, is a gem whose facets are values. We Americans actually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the American Dream, which is a great misfortune in times like these when it is under direct attack. If we do think about it, the thoughts are typically superficial, with jokes about “American as apple pie,” crass visions of a big suburban house with a greedy SUV out front, or just the brain-dead assumption that we can take the American Dream for granted. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the concerted neo-con attack on the Constitution’s guarantees and the judicial system’s protections for those yet to be convicted reveals. Deep down, though, when you slap an American awake, he can see that it is not about money: it is about values. So for Americans, the elephant in the room this election season as we hurl the thunderbolts of sound bites at each other, is the degree to which American behavior is destroying our values…cracking the translucent, shimmering but oh so delicate facets of that gem called “the American Dream.”

The latest canary in the moral mine of American society is the recent trend among the most irresponsible and unpatriotic of our astoundingly pathetic crop of current power-seekers to spout the pop soundbite about trying to justify torture as “just part of war.” This blatant return to the morality of a Grade B movie about the Dark Ages is ominous enough for those who want to live the American Dream, and these chickens will surely come home to roost, if indeed they are not already doing so in the form of increasingly brutal political and police suppression of democratic activism (not just against the Occupy protesters but also against the teachers and firemen…and, in street clothing, police[!] who protested the right wing attack on union rights and the sanctity of contracts in Madison last winter). It is a lot easier to cheat and brutalize citizens after you have accepted that torturing enemies is suddenly to be considered an “American value.”

Far more ominous is the nasty little twist of the term “all options” into a codeword for A) ignoring all the myriad positive, win-win, cautious, moderate, sympathetic options while B) focusing on the most insane of the zero-sum (and indeed in this case negative-sum, i.e., “lose-lose”) barbarisms at our disposal, namely unprovoked nuclear aggression. I will not further belabor this, or the ultimate affront to American values of a supposed American ally trying to push us into launching such a war. This case is so extreme that it should be obvious to anyone who thinks. Unfortunately, today it seems difficult for a person who thinks to get access to the mass media, but there are a few Congressmen, believe it or not, who are concerned about this ultimate attack on American values. You will not hear their speeches on the evening news, but reading their websites is well worth the few minutes it takes.

Making excuses for torture and nuclear war are egregious examples of the attack by Americans and others on the American values that form the core of the American Dream, but other examples, albeit less obvious, may be almost as serious…and more dangerous to the degree that they go unnoticed. Goldman Sachs provides an example from the central issue of financial policy writ large, i.e., the rules by which the super-rich and the government itself are allowed to employ wealth to manipulate the rest of us.

In the history of Goldman Sachs Money and Power, William  D. Cohan describes how the company evolved over 150 years from a firm dedicated to providing funds to companies needing liquidity to produce into a company that appears to exist only to maximize its own wealth, with no regard either for its clients (against whom it bets) or society. This picture, in other words, shows Goldman evolving from part of the productive economy into a predator destroying the very system from which it profits: from an institution with a long-term view to an institution with a suicidally short-term view.

Whether or not one agrees with the above image of Goldman, it is all too reminiscent of the winner-take-all attitude that exemplifies the whole course of the corruption bubble that created the 2008 Financial Crisis, the winner-take-all wave of empire-building since 9/11, and the broader winner-take-all addiction that has in recent decades infected all of American society to be easily dismissed. Cohan’s book carries the subtitle “How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World.” He might have subtitled his expose “How Goldman Sachs Symbolized the Attack on American Values.” But don’t blame Goldman Sachs too much. What Goldman did was just on a larger scale from but morally no different than the Congressman passing a law to make financial fraud legal, the regulator looking the other way, the politician waving the bloody shirt of nuclear war to get elected, or the individual lying about his salary to buy a house on which he knows he cannot make the mortgage payments.

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