America is a fiction we have all agreed to believe in for a while. It doesn’t actually exist outside of our minds and our behavior. By imagining the idea of America, we give the fiction power; if we ignored it, if we turned our collective attention away, it would cease to exist. By acting as if America is real—taking our hats off when we hear the National Anthem at baseball games, waving the stars and stripes and setting off fireworks on the fourth of July every year—we maintain the illusion that our country is a tangible thing. There is no “our country.” There are amber waves of grain, yes, and majestic purple mountains—they exist elsewhere on the planet, too, incidentally—but America is pretend.
Money works the same way. It harnesses some desire inside of us for a shared abstract representation of value, but our thoughts about money are not, in fact, shared. It strikes me as nothing short of bewildering, in fact, given our different beliefs about value and fairness worldwide, that money even works at all. Why hasn’t the system collapsed? Why hasn’t its improbable complexity come unraveled? My guess is that there are even darker impulses inside of us that keep it alive.
Look away! That’s what I often feel like screaming. Look away from profit! Look away from buying and selling! This is my deepest wish for the world: that we all look away from the people who benefit from the vulnerabilities and frail human needs of others, like healthcare and education. They do not deserve our attention, and if we starve them of it, the people who make money might crumble to unreal dust.
Listen to the way we talk: make money, we say. Money itself is around 7,000 years old, but the phrase “to make money” is a more modest 500, and it really only started gaining traction in the world’s vocabulary with the rise of the industrial revolution. Before then, money was a thing to be earned, borrowed, or stolen, not manufactured. (Time wasn’t always “spent,” either; it was passed.) Now there are human beings whose lives are devoted to conjuring money out of other people’s money: the hedge fund managers and investment bankers and secret profiteers who comprise the ruling class of America. No, let me say that another way: who write and rewrite the fiction we call the United States.
America cannot be made great again because America isn’t real. America never was real. America is 325 million different ideas that disagree with each other just enough for human lives to be lost in the process of translating between them. America is nothing but miscommunication and unspoken secrets and fragmentary dreams that fail to cohere. It’s a multiplicity of states, none of them united.
America, like money, isn’t the final product of human creativity. In another 500 or 7,000 years, they will both be gone. We will invent, as we have always done, new technologies for civilization, and we will do a much better job of maximizing the flourishing of life on this planet.
Or… we will not, because nothing about human history is guaranteed. In fact, our existence is simply the result of an immeasurably improbable series of accidents, and a sixth great extinction or the inevitable collapse of our sun will surely do us in eventually, if we don’t find a way out of here in time. (If I were to found a political party—which are also figments of our imagination—that would be my slogan: “Finding a Way Out of Here in Time.”) Our luck is bound to run out before we know it.
Until then, the politics of the present moment feel awful in our fiction of a nation, and real people are going to be hurt by them, and I will resist the system that causes those injuries, to whatever extent my courage allows. This is not my country—it never was—and I will not believe in it any more.