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The Dream of Progress

Martin Luther King Jr. - 'I have a dream'

If you search the web for “I have a dream” you will find one of the most powerful and influential speeches about social progress. On the 28th of August, 1963, Martin Luther King delivered a speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The speech gripped people’s imaginations and was a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.  One phrase became symbolic, and the whole speech now known as the “I have a dream” speech. 

To dream is a fundamental part of being human. We need to sleep and dream. It is while we sleep that our brains add and consolidate memories. Recent research in the journal Science conducted by Dr. Sylvian Williams, from McGill University in Canada and colleagues at the University of Bern, Switzerland showed that disrupting “theta oscillations” during a mouse’s REM sleep, the period when humans dream, “basically obliterates consolidation and memory formation.” We use our memories to understand the past and to make decisions about the future. So anything that degrades the quality of our memories also negatively affects our day to day performance. Scientific research in this area is still in its early stages, and it is raising more questions than it is answering. However, what is clear is that sleep and dreaming are vital to memory formation.

You only have to take a small step to link sleep and dream research back to Martin Luther King’s speech. I suggest that while our brains are consolidating memories, they are also working our which are most important to us. As we explore our recollections in our dreams, we are working out what we believe. Martin Luther King’s speech set out a goal: all men should be treated equally and his belief in the goal. Using the language of a dream was a natural choice. He was inviting the audience to remember the ideas of the speech, to explore them in their dreams and believe them.

King’s speech was also calling on people to think about the values America was founded on and the need to pursue them. The Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are born equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founding fathers were creating a blueprint for social progress and setting the pursuit of happiness as a goal. Everyone was being invited to share the dream and in doing so, they affirmed their belief in the ideas of the Declaration. The beliefs and goals became part of people's minds. It was powerful because it motivated people to take action.

The concept and values of progress were born out of turmoil and strife in 18th century Europe and America. The ideas, discoveries and technology of the Enlightenment created the modern concept of progress and the values that support it. One hundred years later the Victorians optimistically believed in progress. They had good reason to. The evidence of progress was to be seen all around them. Improvements such as new crop rotation systems, adoption of new commercial crops such as turnips, plant breeding, animal husbandry, new farm machines, ship technology and the replacement of muscle, water and wind power with steam were having a noticeable effect. But social progress was slow. There were many more people in America and Europe. Cities were growing rapidly, but for the average man or woman, it was still a hard life.

By the beginning of the 20th century, America was a growing world power. In 1931, the historian and writer, James Truslow Adams wrote a book titled The Epic of America in which he coined the term “American Dream”.  He defined it as “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”. In the post second world war period, it looked like the dream was being achieved for large numbers of people in America and Europe. Median wages increased significantly, average life spans increased, increasingly people had the time and money for luxuries such as holidays, labor saving devices, a car, etc.

Now, something has changed for Americans; the dream appears to be fading. William Galston of the Brookings Institution think tank said "The failure of the economy to deliver real progress to middle-class and working-class Americans over the past 15 years is the most fundamental source of public anger and disaffection in the US," The US Census Bureau figures show that the 2014 median household income was $53,657 compare to $57,843 in 1999 and $57, 357 in 2007 (adjusted for inflation).

John Zogby, an American pollster, said that his polling showed that the American Dream and character were fundamentally redefined during the last decade. “While fewer Americans believe that the American Dream still exists for themselves or for the middle class than before (57% compared with 74% just prior to the Great Recession), more Americans say that the American Dream means something different to them than it did before.”

For many outside the USA, the American dream is still a strong motivator. Immigration to the USA has increased for decades. In the decade 1960-69 the average number of people obtaining legal permanent resident status was 321,400 per year and between 2000-09, it was 1,029,900. These figures understate the total number because there is also illegal immigration. It is estimated that the US currently has 11.3 million illegal immigrants. Over time this level of immigration adds up to significant demographic, racial, cultural and religious change. This change is large and quick enough for people to notice and to become concerned about. In an article titled “Why are Americans so angry” the BBC reported: “Forty years ago, 84% of the American population was made up of non-Hispanic white people - by last year the figure was 62%, according to Pew Research. It projects this trend will continue, and by 2055 non-Hispanic white people will make up less than half the population.”

Changes driven by immigration have added further new doubt to the American Dream for existing Americans. In the past immigration was welcomed because the growing economy was also increasing median wages but this is not true now. Without the wage growth for the majority of Americans, immigrants are seen as driving down wages and competitors for jobs.

Just as the “American Dream” was fading for Americans, many other parts of the world were creating and delivering their own versions. Most notably China. The dream in China is not only vibrant, but it is also delivering social progress at incredible speed and scale. Martin Jaques describes this in his book When China Rules The World. He quotes Goldman Sachs', 2007 forecast showing China’s GDP overtaking the USA by 2025 and being something like twice as large by 2050 (When China Rule the World, location 305). Like America and Europe’s development people in China are moving from the countryside to the cities and their wages are increasing. What is different about China are the numbers of people and the rate.

Sometimes the dream of a better life can be seen in desperate acts. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children are fleeing their countries in the Middle East and Africa because of war, sectarian conflicts, and terrorism. They dream of a better life in Europe and are prepared to risk their lives just to get there. On September 3rd, 2015 the Economist reported “ANOTHER day, another grim statistic. On September 2nd a three-year-old boy was found drowned on a beach in Turkey after a boat carrying migrants capsized in a failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos. The boy, from Kobane in northern Syria, died along with his 5-year-old brother and their mother. Their father survived; a further nine people did not. So far more than 2,600 migrants are known to have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration.” In spite of the known dangers, people are still prepared to risk their lives.
What is clear is that the dream of progress has outgrown Europe and America. People around the world are creating their own versions and as they start to achieve the dream, the world will look a very different place. America and Europe's relative influence will diminish. As the per capita wealth of people in China and India starts to match the West, so the balance of power will shift. China and India have much larger populations that America and Europe and consequent they will have much bigger economies than the West. They will have the largest consumer markets, companies, stock markets, banks. This re-balancing is a natural and the direct result of other countries striving for and achieving the dream. Ultimately why shouldn’t the median Chinese or Indian person, etc., be as wealthy as the median American or European?

The dream of progress has spread to many countries around the world and it is still on the move. Depending on the local conditions and culture different versions are being created and implemented. Perhaps as people increasingly share the dream of progress and work towards it, they will also come to share similar values because people working to solve the same problem tend to create similar solutions. Is it too much to hope that the dream of progress could help unite the world and give people a common purpose, experience, and values?