What I Liked This Week: The American Nightmare

Would you rather wake up from a nightmare or from a wonderful dream?

No one likes a nightmare. Or, perhaps, given what I’m about to suggest, some people actually do. Given the choice, however, I feel as if most of us would rather enter the day on the heels of a wonderful dream.

Or is that presumption too quick?

Our most wonderful dreams tend to overlap, however concretely, with our deepest wishes. Just as our nightmares often earn their name by how fully they represent our deepest fears.

So what is better? To deal with the worst while in the comfort of our beds, while we are unconscious, and then the wake to face the aftershocks? Or would we rather experience something akin to pure joy — at least in the narrative sense, however loose that narrative may be while unconscious — and then wake up to find that it is gone?

Perhaps there’s no difference. In both cases, what happened in the mind during sleep was not real. Though that is a tricky statement in itself.

What’s more real to each of us than these polar opposite considerations — that which we most fear and that which we most desire? How much more difficult does the question get in dark times, or how much harder is it to decide for those of us with darkness in our hearts?

Personally, I think I would choose the nightmare. A day of reprieve seems preferable to a day of letdown. I would rather proceed recollecting my worst fears at times, then finding the commonest anxieties pale in comparison. It seems just as frightening to me, to dream of wonderful things, and then to wake and be forced, for the rest of the day at least, to pretend that a smile is as genuine as it could be, a laugh as potent and pure, when in truth you experienced something while sleeping that can never be so simply or completely gotten while awake.

Then again, the best answer may be both. Life is never so simple that we can split it into such easy questions. Adult life, at least, doesn’t proceed this way.

This fact does not, however, excuse us from action. Too many nightmares ruin the lives of too many people every day that many of the rest of us walk around as if in a dream, here in America. Too many days go by wherein the world could be much better and safer for others if a few only realized the extent to which they are perpetually chasing the demon of their supposed happiness. With a vision of their most wonderful dreams in mind, they keep everything in the way of the realization of this vision apart from their lives — at all costs.

The result is a world that lacks a necessary deference to reality.

This is a good segue into the first item I liked this week, this article by George Packer, titled “Celebrating Inequality.” In words that are far more concrete than those I just used in the preceding paragraph, it explores our sick relationship with the celebrated individuals who we all-but-worship in our society. We make this fatal error, hundreds of times a day, through so many tiny, unconscious decisions, despite the fact that doing so helps hasten the widening of the gap between “them” and “us”; despite the fact that the last remaining doors, through which “we”, via hard work and enterprise, should be able to go through as well, are closing behind them as this “super-class” of Americans continue to help only each other.

That is the irony of our plight. We, the many, are split and isolated — even as we bump up against each other day in and day out, holding tightly to the shared nightmares we think belong to us as individuals only. Meanwhile, the wealthy and the powerful do little else but help each other, for a price — that is more often taken from us than from within their ranks. We, the many, sit idly on the mountain of power that is our collective voice, because we fear. This is understandable. But consider what just a handful of us can accomplish, when we are brave…

I liked this Georgetown convocation speech by Brit Marling, an actor and indie filmmaker who has done well lately after collaborating for years with a few special friends — who she makes the central focus of her speech.

Speaking of collaboration, I liked this poignant article from Slate, about the genesis of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, which eventually spawned two sequels that further explore the relationship of its lover-protagonists, Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Before Midnight, the latest installment, was written by all three artists, as was the middle film in the trilogy, Before Sunset. What began as a unique experience between two people — one of whom has passed from this world — turned into a collaboration between three (and more, since we’re talking about three films with an entire cast and crew behind each) that touched the lives of so many. It’s easy to forget, in an age wherein we are constantly bombarding ourselves with images and “stories” from The Screen, that we tell stories in the first place in order to make some sense of life, and to do this together. That used to be the idea, at least.

Then again, we also tell stories to expose the nonsense of life. Something else I liked this week was John Cassavetes’ Shadows, which was on my watch list for Sophia. If I start writing about the experience of watching this film, we’ll be here forever. There’s plenty of literature about it out there, anyway. The point here, despite a case that could be made to the contrary if you aren’t paying close enough attention, isn’t to write about or talk about making movies. The point is to make movies, and for the right reasons. Shadows was made in 1959, and over five decades later the nonsense it portrays (racism) is still alive and well in America, despite clear and measurable progress. More can be done, especially on the part of our filmed entertainment, to advocate for the sort of real-life narratives that are woven by a film like Shadows. Our current plight begs for a consistent daily doses of reality. And I’m not talking about the “reality” we see these days on television.

In reality-reality, America is not doing as well as The Screen would lead you to believe. For millions of people, reality is a heavy burden, an ever-present anxiety built upon the uncertainty of survival. The majority of us are not wealthy, most of us are stretched thin — many of us are barely getting by. I say this not to guilt anyone. I say it because it’s true.

The last thing I liked this week is one of those “I don’t actually like this” items. Unsurprisingly, it’s about something that politicians have done — nominally in the name of saving money but secretly out of an inability and/or a refusal to sympathize with the less fortunate on human terms — that will have the actual impact of not only costing money but probably lives as well.

This week, the Senate unanimously accepted an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill proposed by Republican Senator David Vitter or Louisiana. The amendment cuts certain convicts off from food benefits for life. This is in addition to billions of dollars that are already being cut from the program. To be completely honest with you, can hardly write about this.

I’m not going to go into all the reasons why this is wrong. I’m not even going to waste time explaining why I believe that a person convicted of a crime — especially through our travesty of a criminal justice system — still deserves some help getting food when times are tough. I’m not going to expound upon these things because I believe life is often very, very hard for the people who end up in our jails — and I’m talking about before they’ve become criminals.

I’m not naive. Those who commit heinous crimes should be punished. But not only should they not be starved — they should not be punished beyond their sentence for past transgressions. Further, their children should not be punished any more than they already are or will be.

Just because it is difficult and morally challenging to legislate areas of life that frighten us — which include the lives of people who for several different reasons end up significantly implicated in frightening circumstances — does not mean that we are excused from our civil responsibility to take care of others. This legislation is about food. Specifically, it is about helping to provide food for Americans who cannot fully afford to feed themselves and their families.

What this legislation basically does is take food away from the “lowest” members of society — leaving they and their families behind in the completest way possible short of actually killing them — at the same time that corporations and governments continue to get away with crimes that are arguably just as abominable and deadly on a big picture level as the equally horrible on-the-ground crimes committed by a single, sick individual.

And what of the unfortunate souls whose only crime is having suffered from a failure of justice? Do we further fail these citizens by refusing to help them feed themselves and their families, in a country where we are just now getting around to ending the practice of paying farmers to not grow food?

I liked Paul Krugman’s short, angry column in The New York Times that more succinctly summarizes all the facts in the overall war against food stamps  — and the ugly political truths hidden beneath those facts. But I didn’t hear about this situation from the news.

I heard about it from a college friend, who in conducting dissertation research on women involved with the criminal justice system with addiction…learned of a few real-world cases in which this short amendment, agreed to by a room full of comfortable, well-fed bureaucrats, would have serious consequences for real people struggling “on the ground.”

Below is her testimony about a case that should make us think twice about leaving this group of “rapists and murders” behind for life. I’ve edited each anecdote slightly for clarity/length.

One of them has three kids. She gets $200 in food stamps twice a month. She barely has enough to get by at the end of month; most of the time she has to go get food from friend’s houses or from church food pantries. She is pretty enterprising in fact. She has been incarcerated in the past for something dubbed “violent”: she was on drugs (methadone/benzos) and lashed out when cops tried to take her out of a club when she was 17 years old.

Another woman gets food stamps and was incarcerated for four years in state prison for knifing her abuser as he was shooting and stabbing her. She would lose food stamps that have been helpful in fulfilling her “basic needs”. She’s now four years clean and is going back to school to be an addiction counselor and trying to get her life back together and get educated, help others. She would be affected by this lifetime ban on “violent” crimes when in fact she beat back against her abuser in a domestic violence situation.

So, in the first case, a stupid mistake at 17 translates to the woman and her children being punished today with less food — under the proposed amendment to the farm bill. In the second, a woman in the process of getting what appears to be a very hard life onto a better track, loses some of the support we as a society have given her in order to make a success story possible in such terms.

As I said earlier: complex moral issues. Such situations are hard to conceive, for many of us. Certain politicians and certain reporters — particularly on the extreme political right — like to pontificate about details. They like to poke and prod at testimony, reports, statistics…until these already second-hand sources of information are confused by so many ideological ideas of what is right and wrong, and where, after that has been decided, the money should go.

How about, though, we make sure everyone has had something to eat first? As hard as things have been in recent years, are they so hard that we can’t help feed our hungry? We can’t tax the wealthy equal to the rest of us, but we can take food away from our neediest citizens?

What is the scope of the morality play that is contemporary American crime? Does the man in the tower, whose financial manipulations led to hundreds of thousands of job losses, which led to thousands of depressed white American males feeling useless and rejected by society, such that they took their own lives — is this man more entitled to his preferential tax treatment than the children of a murderer-of-one, who has paid his debt to society, are to food?

I’ve asked the question before and I’ll keep asking it: Is this nightmare our legacy?

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