This past week, I was reminded of a powerful concept. It is rooted in this quote from the film “V for Vendetta”:

“We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of ideas. I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them.”

In other words, the powerful concept is the gravity of an idea. Ideas have the capacity to create and destroy, to bridge reality with the imaginary, and will outlive any one individual.

In political terms, our state can simply be viewed as just that: an idea. And, since it is an idea, the state can morph into whatever form we construct.

In the United States, the idea of our state largely rests on a Dream. You’ve heard it before. It goes something like this: Get educated, work hard, buy a home and a car and live in harmony.

I recently met two people who had fully adopted this mentality. The first was a Mexican-born American. He drove a city bus in San Diego at night and worked a second job during the day. When we spoke, he derided many people who took his bus. In his mind, they did not seem to work hard or work at all. They were given much and took it all for granted. They “stunk of weed” and mostly remained vessels of untapped potential.

The second man had worked as an IT manager. He complained about paying for Obamacare, which he saw as something that made him sacrifice his health care for others’ (even after explaining that he didn’t actually pay more because his wife benefited from the new health care plan). Still, he did not want to pay for something that he thought in no way benefited him. He did not want to pay for other people’s health.

Neither of these individuals believed that they owed anything to the state because the state had given them nothing. The state stayed out of their way and, in return, they were able to succeed as they saw fit. Within this ideological framework, it would be an injustice for them to pay for others — paying for something that didn’t directly benefit them was unfair. This is the American Dream. Take nothing. Earn everything. Do it yourself.

Our Dream never quite made sense to me. In truth, it has appeared to be more like a myth. Oftentimes, the term myth is preferred to describe the United States’ belief system since it masks or excuses what would otherwise be considered corruption, abuse or institutional injustice.

From what I’ve learned, I know a state to be “an imagined community” of people with a specific boundary and a united goal. I’d like to emphasize one word in particular in this working definition: united. This word implies we all are invested in one another’s future. On a large scale, it means the actions of one person are not trivial or inconsequential to the actions you make. We are all connected.

Though the idea of statehood is tied to a definition, it is still an idea. In this vein, we can ascertain that a state can morph into anything (or need not even exist), as the physical laws of the universe do not bind it. That is, there’s nothing that necessitates a United States, Pacific Ocean or South America.

In fact, there has been a choice (often by force and most frequently by white males) to divide the land and sea. Within these divided boundaries, there have been more choices to allocate resources and opportunities within these boundaries to differing groups of individuals. There is nothing biologically — inherently, based on nature — different about these groups of people. But even now, specific groups have become stratified, so much so that some groups of individuals are exceedingly better off, on average, in each country around the world. The American Dream has masked this story in the United States.

Optimistically, however, our state could change tomorrow — if enough citizens so desired.

With an altered mindset, the amount of stratification, inequality or otherwise difference between these socially constructed groups could be closer to zero. Economically, politically and socially speaking, every individual could live more equal lives depending on how our constructed state allocates its resources. But this can only be true if we are to live in a place where citizens believe themselves to be part of a united, integrated cause.

Unfortunately, I did not discuss the American Myth with the two men I had recently met. Personally, I did not have the energy to expend, explaining how we are united by systems that should progress every ones way of life. I could have accomplished something, though, if I’d only asked two questions: What is your idea of a state? And, how (and to whom) should it distribute its resources?

Sam Corey can be reached at samcorey@umich.edu.

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