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The Strange Politics of Dreaming

The Strange Politics of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhat does it mean that conservative Republicans have almost three times as many nightmares as do liberal Democrats?  When I presented this research finding at a recent conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I said my pilot study was far too small (56 participants, 28 on the left and 28 on the right, evenly split between males and females) to support any certain conclusions.  However, to my surprise and amusement, this little research factoid—“Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats”—was quickly seized by political partisans on both sides who did not hesitate to assert their interpretation of my findings.

As reported by UPI correspondent Mike Martin, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, declared “If George W. Bush were the leader of my party, I’d have trouble sleeping at night, too.”  Not to be outdone in the game of “dream spinning,” Kevin Sheridan of the Republican National Committee quickly replied, “What do you expect after eight years of William Jefferson Clinton?”  The reaction was not limited to politicians in the U.S.: Alexa McDonough, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (on the left side of the political spectrum), said she was not surprised by the findings of my study because true liberals follow their dreams to find creative solutions for problems: “The very essence of building a better world starts with dreaming….  Until we get politics being about chasing dreams again, we’re going to be causing people a lot of nightmares, and we’re mostly going to be implementing right-wing nightmares.”

A number of people on the left sent me emails praising my research, saying it confirmed their conviction that Republicans are by nature repressed, uptight, and insecure.  One of my correspondents explained, “Republicans tend to be more out of touch with their own feelings and emotions,” and their repudiated unconscious emotions “later arise in their dreams as nightmares.”  Several conservatives also sent me emails, angrily accusing me of being a “tree-hugging liberal” out to slander their political viewpoint.  One conservative man who visited my website was evidently disappointed to discover that I’m a man—“I thought only a woman could come up with something so stupid,” he commented, before sharing his hope of joining other Bush supporters in tearing me a new bodily orifice.

I have spoken to the hosts of several talk radio shows since the ASD conference, and every one of them has taken my research as good news for liberals and bad news for conservatives.   Radio hosts of a leftward bent enjoy lingering over the gory details of the torments suffered by Republicans in their sleep, while rightward-leaning hosts ask pointed questions about my methodology and make fun of the fact that I live near Berkeley.

I find all these reactions very interesting.  Why do so many people assume that having nightmares is a sign of a defective personality?  This implicit assumption reveals a widespread attitude toward dreams that does not square with current knowledge.  Dream researchers have gathered abundant evidence in recent decades to show that many nightmares serve the valuable function of alerting people to threats and dangers in the waking world.  Some researchers call this the “sentinel function” of nightmares, pointing to the evolutionary benefits such dreams might have in terms of promoting heightened vigilance toward potential threats.  Nightmares may be frightening and unpleasant, but they often have the beneficial effect of focusing people’s attention on real-world problems.

Seen in this light, the greater frequency of nightmares among conservatives could indicate a greater realism in their approach to life—they could be more attuned to the actual dangers and threats in the world, and more sensitive to the frailties of the human condition in the face of those dangers.   If that is so, then perhaps the dreams of liberals, which in my study had a greater frequency of bizarre and magical elements, are not indicative of greater emotional maturity but rather reflect a relatively irrational approach to life, with tendencies toward fanciful, utopian, “otherworldly” thinking.

Again, my study was much too small to decide this question with any certainty.  For the moment, I would simply say liberals should not be smug about their supposed psychological superiority, conservatives should not be insulted by the fact of their apparently darker dream life, and anyone who has a nightmare should not immediately assume they are suffering from a severe personality disorder.

Naturally, I hope to build on these preliminary findings on dream content and political ideology by conducting more research.  It would be interesting to expand the analysis to include other political parties like the Libertarians and Greens, and also to compare the dreams of politically-active people with the dreams of people who are disaffected from politics.  I must say, however, that the most interesting prospect of all, the “Holy Grail” of this line of research, would come from the answer to one simple question.  I don’t expect ever to learn the answer, but it’s worth asking anyway:

What are you dreaming about, President Bush?

Iraqi Nightmares

Iraqi Nightmares by Kelly Bulkeley

“I slept very well my first two nights in New York and had no dreams, but I think it was because of the jetlag.  The rest of my nights have been full of dreams and nightmares.  In one dream I am stuck in Falluja and I can’t get out.  I am on the ledge of a high wall that separates the American soldiers from the insurgents.  They both see me and are ready to shoot.  In another dream I am kidnapped by the Iraqi Army and thrown into a dungeon with a foreign reporter.  In yet another, I go to Baghdad and find the streets empty.  There are only roofless houses and ruined walls.”

Ayub Nuri, an Iraqi who recently immigrated to the U.S., “My War Away From War,” New York Times, 2-16-07, p. A19

“Sometime during my four years of traveling to Iraq, I developed a recurring dream in which a Middle Eastern country invades the United States and occupies, among other places, my old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The dream flashed briefly through my mind on Thursday as I walked the dirty, broken streets of Sadr City, a teeming Baghdad slum that forms the power base of Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric.

Here is what happens in the dream: Because I know a little Arabic, I somehow find myself a translator for the invaders, even as some of my Chicago buddies are in the alleys plotting against my employers. And each night when I walk home along my beloved Dearborn Street under the rusty elevated tracks and past the White Hen grocery store, I wonder what the guys poring over maps in their armored vehicles plan to accomplish against a few million South Siders fighting in their own alleys. That’s usually when I wake up.

That dream, a nightmare, really, flashed through my mind as I stood at the end of a filthy, pothole-riddled alley talking with a small-time deputy commander in the Mahdi Army, the militia that is the armed wing of Mr. Sadr’s political movement. Standing there with his arms folded over his potbelly as his fighters scurried about behind him, the man who called himself Riadh, 34 years old, was effectively deputy commander of an alley.

“We can’t face the armored tanks of the Americans face to face, because all we have is light guns,” he said. “So we just wait for a chance to attack something.”

He could be dead now, because the next day at least one American helicopter swooped over Sadr City and engaged in a gun battle that killed four, according to American military officials, although Iraqi police put the toll much higher. Or the potbellied deputy could still be out there, plotting his next move. Either way, before dismissing the ragtag Mahdi fighters, it would be well to remember that — partly because the alleys of the neighborhoods they control are too narrow for the Iraqi Army’s armored vehicles — Mahdi units like Riadh’s have been fighting Iraq’s federal forces to a standstill in Basra, the country’s southern port city, for nearly a week now.

Alleys: they are dangerous only when used by those who grew up in them. That is the basic reason Mr. Sadr and his fighters simply will not go away in this war….

As I sit here writing this piece, listening to the intermittent whooshes and booms of rockets and mortars fired into the Green Zone, almost certainly by Mr. Sadr’s fighters, I can no more predict where the conflict is headed than I can say what will be in my dreams tonight during the few hours of sleep that this war and my editors allow me. But when it comes to Mr. Sadr’s loyalists in the alleys of Basra and Baghdad, one thing is irrefutable.

In those alleys, waking up will not end the dream.”

James Glanz, American reporter in Baghdad, “Bad Dreams: Alley Fighters,” New York Times, 3-30-08, “Week in Review” p. 1.

A conversation about the American Dream with Jim McDermott

Thanks again to an introduction provided by Tom Campbell, a former U.S. representative himself (and my uncle-in-law), I also interviewed Jim McDermott, a nine-term representative from the seventh congressional district of Washington.  McDermott is a leading Democrat and a professional psychotherapist, so I hoped he could provide some thoughts about the idealism of the “American Dream” from a liberal perspective.  We spoke by phone on November 5, 2007, the same day I talked with Martin Anderson.

As with Anderson, McDermott’s initial response to my questions was both surprising and intriguing.  I expected he would discuss the American Dream in terms of a liberal optimism about progress and the hope of a better society in the future.  Instead, he took a decidedly negative approach and associated it with a deceptive promise made to immigrants coming to this country—a promise more often broken than kept.  McDermott spoke of the painful struggles of his immigrant ancestors when they first came to America, people who were filled with unrealistic hopes and then exploited by powerful others.  The dream “was not always what it was cracked up to be.  Many Americans found it a false dream.”  He asked, “What about people who don’t make it?”

McDermott’s compassion for those who have been left behind clearly underlies his political ideals, especially the cause of expanding health care to include all Americans, and it defines his opposition to Republican policies that neglect the human wreckage caused by the selfish “dreaming” of the economically powerful.

McDermott was understandably reluctant to discuss his personal dreams, or anyone else’s actual dreams.  He recalled losing the 1980 governor’s race due in part to getting “clobbered as a liberal Seattle psychologist,” and ever since he’s been reluctant to offer easy ammunition for his political opponents.

I was sorry to hear that.

Even though I agree almost entirely with McDermott’s political priorities, I felt something was fundamentally missing from his perspective—something that, ironically, I found in abundance in Martin Anderson’s portrait of Ronald Reagan.  It’s a sense of connection with the creative power of dreaming, which I believe is the psychological truth at the core of the national ideal of the American Dream.  McDermott’s skepticism about that dream reflects the liberal virtues of rational clarity and empathy for the suffering of others, but it seems to depreciate the equally liberal virtue of courage to imagine and envision new possibilities and new hopes for the future.

Jim McDermott is the Democratic Representative from Washington