Rebooting the American Dream in Tompkins County

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Tompkins Weekly – March 7, 2011.  By Gay Nicholson.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief.
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”

With these words, Bob Dylan starts his most performed song  “All Along the Watchtower,” about the clash of values in America between those focused on what really matters and those focused on guarding the hierarchies of the “Castle.” I’ve been hearing Dylan’s song in my head these past weeks of struggle and liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. The Joker and the Thief represent archetypes of those who reveal hidden truths and a Robin Hood approach to justice, challenging conventional power and wealth.  They are not concerned with the rewards of life in the castle.   Their goal is to stop the domination of the castle over the surrounding wild lands where Nature abides — where one might “know what any of it is worth.”

Now the tussle for control in Wisconsin and other states over collective bargaining rights brings the song closer to home. For millions of Americans, the path to the American Dream seems to be utterly obscured, hidden by a confusing jumble of global economic forces and political power plays.  It’s no wonder that many are confused and easily convinced to strike out at scapegoats such as public employees as the cause of their lost dreams and their lost place inside the castle walls.

These feel like momentous times.  Important choices are being made.  We in the sustainability movement watch the march of rising food prices, crowding populations, climate chaos, energy addictions, fishery depletions…. and understand that political and economic systems tend to collapse along with biological systems.  What will take their place?

I wonder if we will just end up with a different set of Princes guarding the watchtower, or if we will finally recognize that achieving the American Dream – being free to live a fulfilling life – depends upon dismantling the systems that create such great imbalances in our society and its underlying life support systems.

As we rise up in protest against further losses to the “American way of life,” let’s look closely at the choices before us and resist the temptation to only defend our immediate interests and ignore the considerable challenges of redesigning our overall systems.  We can’t afford to allow so few to control so many on this planet.  We can’t afford a war economy in our nation.  We can’t afford business as usual in NYS.

“Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.”

If we want to live fulfilled lives – to have the American Dream – and if we want our children to have that chance too, its clear that we must embrace the winds of change.  We must find our courage and step outside the walls of the castle into the unknown to join the Joker and the Thief in their quest for deeper meaning and justice, and discover what new fresh ways there are to live out our lives.

Sustainable Tompkins is working on a part of this process, along with many others in the local sustainability and social justice movement.  We invite you to join us — to come and support the process of change.  Help us redesign our political and economic systems and halt the slide towards injustice and dysfunction.

In the coming month, we are offering three gatherings to stir up discussion and continued action: March 8 on building a resilient economy (; March 14 on coping with rising oil prices, and April 6 on transitioning to a clean energy economy (  Come help us reboot the American Dream.

Gay Nicholson is president of Sustainable Tompkins and founding president of the Green Resource Hub.

Lyrics to “All Along the Watchtower”

By Bob Dylan

‘There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief

“There’s too much confusion”, I can’t get no relief

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.

“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke

“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

But you and I, we’ve been through that and this is not our fate

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

All along the watchtower, princes kept their view

While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

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