Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Dangers of Dreaming

Review by John Carroll

Dreaming Up America. Russell Banks. Seven Stories Press.

Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks began as spoken commentary recorded for a documentary by French film-maker Jean-Michel Meurice. The film traced the history of America as presented by American cinema, from A Birth of a Nation to Blackhawk Down. Banks and Jim Harrison, American novelists who often write about seminal moments in US history, were asked to provide a “counter-narrative” to the film imagery as a kind of “corrective to the version of American history that French people were most familiar with.” Banks and Harrison’s original commentary took the form of filmed impromptu responses to questions asked by Meurice. These were then edited and played against a montage of scenes from American movies. What we have in Dreaming Up America is an edited and expanded typescript of Banks’ filmed commentary that also retains its spoken and spontaneous feeling.

The theme of this slight book, as the title suggests, is the perpetuation of America’s grand narrative, which at its core promotes the familiar mythology of the American Dream. That dream has been pursued time and again by the immigrants who, through their labour and trust in its reward, built a nation. It’s their story of coming to America and starting over, working hard to create a secure future for their children.

However, as Banks sees it, there are actually two narratives at work in the history of America. The first is the aforementioned American Dream; the second is the dream of empire. The first is the dream of the common working man and woman (Banks calls them his heroes); the second is the dream of the few at the top, “the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and the Fords.” Banks believes the present moment in American history is a defining one, a moment when the dream of the many is in danger of being superseded by the dream of the few.

Banks first outlines how the history of the earliest Europeans in North America illustrates the pursuit of three distinct quests: for El Dorado, for the Fountain of Youth, and for “God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill.” These quests, in various forms, dominated America socially, politically, and ideologically since its earliest days. Although these three tended to merge over time, there is still to this day, Banks argues, a demonstrable conflict in the American psyche between the spiritual and the commercial. So, for example, when President Bush proclaims that the invasion of Iraq will bring that country the gift of democracy, in reality he is promoting a tripartite world view with roots in the earliest history of American conquest. Banks categorizes this view as “the three C’s: Christianity, Capitalism, and Civilization.”

Central to Banks’ discussion is his critique of the way American cinema often provides a distorted view of history by advocating the myth at the expense of the reality. The result can often be the justification of unconscionable acts performed in defense of the all-important dream. For example, A Birth of a Nation, he points out, “equates the birth of our nation with the achievement of racial purity in the era of Reconstruction.” As well, the American Western ironically treats First Nations people and Hispanics as the interlopers who most be stopped at all costs from deflecting “the mighty engine of Manifest Destiny.”

The narrative of race is central as Banks deconstructs the grand narrative. Racial conflicts have both threatened and heightened the American self-view, and Banks believes that the American conflict about race has yet to be resolved: “When you lift the rock of American society and you look under it, you almost always see race.” This deep discomfort with race, he argues, accounts in part for the American propensity to go to war: “As horrific as foreign wars are, they are much easier for us at home than it would be to face the internal battles of being at war within ourselves.” These “internal battles” result from the conflict between the way Americans wish to see themselves and reality. According to Banks, this tendency can be traced back “to the early colonists . . . who were basically committing a kind of genocide against the native people, but who claimed they were saving them for civilization, Christianity, and capitalism. In fact, they were killing them and stealing their land, but they never looked at it that way.”

Dreaming Up America ranges far and wide with its social commentary. The section on television’s inimical influence on the young is particularly strong. This analysis is relevant to the book’s larger theme since it comments on the ability of TV programming to distort reality. Today, young people get a vision of their culture through the distorted lens of television. Banks worries that “their minds are being organized around a need for… products” and that we are “turning our children over to the purveyors of consumerism.” Since the beginning, the role of parents has been to keep the sabre-tooth tiger away, especially from our vulnerable children. But in a reversal, we have now (Canadians included) invited the sabre-tooth tiger, in the form of the salesperson on television, into our children’s bedrooms—yet another success in establishing “a fascist plutocracy presiding over a world population of disenfranchised and distracted consumers and would-be consumers.”

It can be argued that the first step in deconstructing a narrative is to understand it. Banks’ comments are intended to help us do so. However, it’s worth cautioning that Banks’ text is in itself a narrative, albeit a counter-version; it does not do away with national assumptions altogether. As a Canadian I still detect in his tale remnants of the original myths. For example, Banks several times refers to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as “sacred documents,” and he writes that the American Civil War “turned our flickering national identity into a sacred flame.” It’s hard to detect any irony in these statements.

Nevertheless, Banks provides a colloquial yet elegant interpretation of a distorted American narrative. Its relevance to the post-911 America is obvious. I was reminded of Karl Popper’s concept of historicism and how easy it is for a society in times of great change and stress to fall back on safe ideas of magic and tribalism. This tribal impulse is what Banks calls “nationalism,” referring to W.H. Auden’s comment that nationalism is a disease. Perhaps analyses like Dreaming Up America can provide a healthy antidote.

John Carroll writes from Abbotsford, B.C. His previous contributions to PRRB include reviews of Pacific Northwest poets and “The Word, the Way, The Look: Another Side of Charles Bukowski.”