A mega mall in New Jersey, a pile of shoes and toothbrushes in the Arizona desert, and an array of immigrant witnesses at the impeachment hearings. In 2020, these are the artefacts of The American Dream. In Episode 3 of Madness, Steven Reisner sounds a psychoanalytic alarm to wake us from the dream that keeps America sleeping.
Hello everyone. I’m Steven Reisner and this is Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. I’m coming to you today from New York City, at the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century. Thus far the 20th century still stands as the most violent and cruel in human history. But America was spared much of that cruelty because of our distance from the sites of war and genocide. We could fancy ourselves a refuge, because of our geography and our values. America was the place where you crossed an ocean to get to, and if you crossed that ocean, you were welcomed. That, at least, was the dream. The American dream, the dream America dreams of itself.
If you Google the American dream today, what comes up first is a website for the newly opened “American Dream” mega mall in New Jersey. The website describes the mall as “a revolutionary first of its kind community of fashion and luxury retail, fine to casual dining and an array of unexpected entertainment at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford.” Further down the list, you might come upon another American dream, 3000 miles away; it’s the title of a photo exhibit currently on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. And in that exhibit is a photograph that shows a part of a poem. Not just any poem, but the poem that expresses what most of us think of when we think of the American dream. And that is the poem at the base of the statue of Liberty. But in this photograph, the words of the poem are composed of letters you might find in a package of dried alphabet soup mix. It sounds a bit hokey.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless Tempest tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
All made up of dried alphabet soup letters. But looking more closely at this American dream photography exhibit, we learn that the photographer, Tom Kiefer, actually was a janitor at the customs and border protection processing center near Ajo, Arizona and his job was to dispose of the trash at the center. The trash consisted mostly of the confiscated belongings of the undocumented migrants who were arrested in the desert. Anything that the customs agents determined was non-essential was simply tossed out. And this janitor, Tom Keifer, sorted those belongings. He couldn’t bring himself to throw them away. He took them, kept all of them, put them in his garage, sorted them into piles, and photographed them. Piles of toothbrushes, piles of water bottles, medicine, shoes, dried soup packages…
The American dream. If ever there was a dream that needs a psychoanalysis, this is the dream. So today I will be using Freud’s interpretation of dreams to analyze the American dream. A psychoanalysis of the American dream? Sounds like madness.
Tape of Impeachment hearing: “Well Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, your father achieved the American dream and so did you and your family. From one immigrant American to another immigrant American, I want to say to you that you and your family represent the very best of America.” That was Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, speaking to Colonel Alex Vindman at the impeachment hearings of the House Intelligence Committee, where the American Dream itself seemed to be the star witness. The Republicans on the committee, as we all know, refused to call witnesses, because their American dream is already in the white house. The republican version of the American dream is simple: in this country any immigrant can become rich and once you’ve become rich your job is to stay rich, and to deport those who try to follow in your footsteps. Send these, the homeless tempest tossed, back where they came from. The democrats on the other hand, worked to rekindle the lamp beside the golden door. They did call witnesses. Mostly immigrants and children of immigrants. Sondland. Vindman. Yovonovich. Hill.
I have to admit, I was moved to tears, hearing their stories, because like Krishnamoorthi, I could identify with each of their stories. Ambassador Sondland spoke of his mother, a Holocaust survivor. My mother, too, was a Holocaust survivor – she survived the Auschwitz death camp. Colonel Vindman’s family fled the Soviet Union and settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. My father fled the Soviet Union and settled in Brooklyn. I grew up, in fact, a few blocks from where Colonel Vindman grew up, in a working class housing development, called, I’m not kidding, Trump Village. And I could relate when Fiona Hill spoke of being accepted into an Ivy League school in America, despite her working class accent. I, too, attended an Ivy League university, in spite of working class my accent. Except that in Hill’s case, her accent was that of the coal miners in Northern England, whereas mine was that of a schoolyard kid from Brooklyn: ‘coffee’ ‘water.’ Ambassador Yuvonich’s immigrant parents escaped the Nazis and like me, she attended Princeton University. Congressman Krishnamoorti also went to Princeton. Vindman and Hill went to Harvard. Listening to the hearings, you’d think, my God, that’s the American dream! In America, all immigrants attend Ivy League schools. I remember as I was leaving home for the first time, moving from Trump Village to Princeton, I became emotional and told my father how proud I was to have him as a father. After all, I said, “You arrived in America without a nickel in your pocket and now your son is going to Princeton!” He was insulted. “What are you talking about? When I came to America, I had $400!” He did not waste a second poking a hole in my romanticized image of him. My father was a harsh critical thinker, who first escaped the Nazis into Soviet Russia and then escaped the Soviets and made his way to America – during the McCarthy era. He had little patience for communist fantasies or capitalist dreams. His influence, painful as it was, was one of the reasons that I become a psychoanalyst: he taught me to be suspicious of the stories we like to tell ourselves. So let’s see if we can apply psychoanalytic dream interpretation to the American dream itself.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud argued that dreams exist to allow the dreamer to continue sleeping. That whatever arises in the night that might disturb the dreamer is incorporated into a dream. He calls this function wish-fulfillment. In a famous example, Freud described the dream of a father who has just lost his son to illness and has a dream while sleeping in the room next to the room where his dead son lies. A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours, the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: "Father, don’t you see that I am burning?" The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle. Freud explains: The meaning of this affecting dream is simple enough. The bright light shining through the open door on to the sleeper’s eyes gave him the impression which he would have received had he been awake: namely, that a fire had been started near the corpse by a falling candle. It is quite possible that he had taken into his sleep his anxiety lest the aged watcher should not be equal to his task. We shall then note that even this tragic dream is not lacking in a wish-fulfilment. The dream was given precedence over waking because it was able to show the child still living. If the father had wakened immediately, he would have shortened the child’s life by this one moment. So, borrowing from the dream of the father who wishes to stay asleep and deny the death of his child, we could say that at this moment in history it is the Democrats who are attempting to deny the death of the America dream; so they parade witnesses to convince themselves that their America is still alive.
And if we look to history, it should come as no surprise that the American dream was actually first popularized at the very moment when America’s dream of itself was rapidly unraveling. James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931, at the height of the depression, in his book, The Epic of America in 1931: “The American Dream, the dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position… the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores… a dream of being able to grow to their fullest development as man and woman…unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.” After all, by 1931, when James Truslow Adams wrote of “The American Dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores, unrepressed by social classes,” both of these elements had been shattered. Wealth inequality was at its highest point in history, and America immigration was being drastically restricted, particularly for Asians and Europeans considered insufficiently white. In fact, Congress had gone beyond restricting immigration, but had begun deporting immigrants. By the early 1930’s, well over a million Americans of Mexican descent were deported under the Mexican Repatriation Act of 1929, in spite of the fact that most of them were American citizens. In fact, Ellis Island itself had become a center for deportation, rather than immigration. And so forgive me, if when I hear the Democrat’s speaking of immigrants and patriotism and opportunity today, I hear a new version of the Depression era American Dream. Today, like in the thirties, immigrants are being deported in record numbers, income inequality has reached depression era levels. Thousands of American citizens, today, are being detained in deportation operations. Our American Dream of Vindman, Yuvonovich. Krishnamoorthi, Sondland, Hill, and me, is a kind of hypnotic, allowing us to sleep a bit longer and forget what America has become: a place where baby food and shoes and water bottles and alphabet soup letters of the tired and poor huddled masses are being tossed out as trash.
Watching the impeachment hearings was a bit like like watching the American screwball comedies of the 1930’s where everything ends happily, because the homeless man is really a Harvard graduate who needs to teach the heiress a lesson. Where all we have to do is get rid of Trump and immigrants will be going to Princeton again. And all Americans can enjoy the revolutionary center of fashion and luxury retail, indoor skiing and fine and casual dining that is the American Dream.
But let’s take the interpretation of this dream a step further. The French analyst, Jacques Lacan, revisited the dream of the burning child, asked the logical question: why does the father wake up at all? If the dream is so comforting, why doesn’t the father stay asleep so the child lives on and on? Is it because the fire is actually getting stronger in the next room? For Lacan, it is more than that. For Lacan, the father wakes up because the dream itself becomes too painful to bear. More painful even than the reality that his child has died. Because the child in the dream is not simply alive and happy. The child speaks to the father reproachfully: “Father, can’t you see? I’m burning?!” For a psychoanalyst, the kernel of every dream is not a simple wish fulfillment, but an unconscious wish fulfillment. It is unconscious, because the wish is unbearable to the conscious mind. The father wakes up because the dream reminds him that he feels that he himself bears some responsibility for the death of his son. Let’s remember that, according to Freud, the father went to sleep with the anxiety that “the old man may not have been up to the task of watching over the boy’s corpse.” It is a small step to understand this anxiety as a displacement of his own guilt feeling that he himself was not up to the task of saving his son. The father is reproaching himself, in his child’s words, “Why couldn’t I see, he ‘s burning?”
Of course, I bring in this dream as a warning that we all are living in a twilight reverie, between sleeping and waking, hoping that the American dream will save us, that the impeachment hearings will save us, that the election will save us. The twilight world where somehow we continue to believe that our institutions, such as they are, will save us. When the only thing that will save us is to take seriously the reproach of America and its children. The reproach of every child held in a concentration camp. The reproach of every child sold by republicans and democrats alike into the slavery of debt. It is the reproach of the world’s refugees who flee not only oppression but hunger and drought, and rising seas; who flee the effects of greed and capitalism on their homes and farms and oceans. It is the reproach of the rain forest, the fish, the birds, the glaciers. It is the reproach of the earth itself: “Father, don’t you see, I’m burning?!”
When I was little, my mother told me the story of the moment they arrived in America. My parents had waited in Germany for five years after the war until they got their visas to America. They traveled, with my brother, who was four years old, across the Atlantic in a converted navy ship. As my mother told the story, aside from clothes and bedding, she brought very few things with her from Germany. But two stand out: a casserole dish, which I still have, and a large enamel milk can. When they pulled into New York Harbor, on January 13, 1950, and my mother saw the statue of liberty looming above her, she said that she impulsively threw the can overboard. When I was a child it completely perplexed me, and I always fantasized about getting her a replacement milk can. But as a psychoanalyst I came to understand that my mother saw the Statue of Liberty as her new mother, and that she no longer needed to hold onto the lost mother of the old country.
So I’d like to end today with the entire poem that is the written at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
“The New Collosus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”