- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 1/27/21
Today, something completely different...
As I watched the inauguration last week, it got me thinking about the real “reset” that the Biden administration can bring—daring to dream.
TWO DESERT MIRACLES AND TWO DREAMS
There is a pandemic gripping our nation that has nothing to do with viruses and rates of infection. It permeates our schools, our legislatures, and our public discourse. This pandemic is one of ennui, capitulation, and the belief that our challenges might just be too bit too much to tackle. In a speech that ranks high in the American canon are those great words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream.” I fear that in our current state, we have lost our ability to dream. Regaining the ability to dream will require us to remember our heritage and what we are capable of and imagine what we can achieve together.
Two stories—both set in the desert—illustrate what it will take to rid ourselves of this plague. The first is set in the deserts of ancient Egypt and the second is set in the desert of the 20th century American southwest. Together they provide us context for dreaming again and achieving those dreams.
The seminal story of the Jewish people is the exodus from Egypt. When Moses led his people out from slavery, he reversed the story that began when the Israelites became enslaved in Egypt. What people often forget is that the beginnings of enslavement and the exodus from that enslavement are connected by a reference in the bible so seemingly inconsequential that it easily can be missed. The generation departing Egypt stopped to pick up something before they left Egypt and carried it with them for 40 years of wandering. In the midst of having to make a “quick getaway,” they stopped to take Joseph’s bones with them. What an odd choice…
We all know the story of Joseph and his dreams. A dream that he described to his brothers precipitated their selling him into slavery. Once in Egypt, he was able to rise from his humble beginnings to become a senior advisor to Pharaoh, not only due to his acumen but also the interpretation of his dreams. What is not the focus of the story, however, is his dying wish. Upon his death bed he elicited the promise that when his people ultimately left Egypt, they would take his bones with them for burial in the Land of Israel. Generations later, Moses closes the loop, and fulfills this obligation when he leads his people to freedom.
That the Israelites fulfilled this responsibility says much about Joseph and about the Israelites. In making his wish, Joseph perceived an unimaginable future, one that would allow his progeny to leave for the promised land. He had the hope in a brighter future and confidence that his people would eventually have their freedom. Meanwhile, the Israelites under Moses demonstrated their responsibility to fulfill Joseph’s dream as they made their leap of dreams.
In our current era the Israelites’ honoring the wishes of an ancestor long deceased and the pause in the midst of what undoubtedly was a hurried departure to fulfill this wish seems almost quaint—even foolish. But when they brought Joseph’s bones with them, they were saying, “look at this old man’s audacious dream—being fulfilled by us who honor what he has passed on to us.” And the very fact they chose to honor this ancient request was an act of faith—and a commitment to a dream—that they would eventually succeed collectively in their monumental task of deliverance.
RECAPTURING THE ABILITY TO DREAM
Today, we are gripped by a failure to acknowledge the past—both its good and its bad. This last election season reminded us of the need to respect the institutions created by those before us, institutions that are more fragile than we had thought. We learned to look to our past to celebrate how far we’ve come and yet acknowledge how far we must go in addressing our historical racial inequities. That said, we have a huge swathe of our population that apparently has no interest in, knowledge of, or need for, our history, our hard-fought freedoms, or the dreams of those before us.
With this failure to consider our past comes a decline in our capacity to dream. We hear people talk about major legislation for infrastructure and yet have little to show for it. We hear people speak of addressing issues of homelessness and housing affordability, yet see little progress on that front. We increasingly have “lost our mojo” and tend to “think small.” We address issues that affect us in the short term (like our personal taxes or the personal inconvenience of wearing masks or social distancing), but tend not to address existential issues that may affect us our progeny for generations to come.
Moses saw that carrying Joseph’s bones along to the promised land was a statement of shared responsibility, commitment, and ideals going forward. These people dared to dream. Carrying history forward was an important enough responsibility to pause before embarking on a long journey through the desert. President Biden has been criticized for too wide-ranging an agenda. Yet I think an ambitious agenda is just what we need.
There has been much talk of a “moonshot” commitment to big ideas—addressing climate change and alternative energy, getting to Mars, fixing our bridges, roads, and dams, updating our technological infrastructure, and criminal justice reform. We need to think big in planning for the future and in preserving what we have—we need to embrace again the ability to dream.
We tend to forget that our nation once prided itself on “moonshot” projects. But they weren’t considered moonshots—they were considered necessary and expected. The transcontinental radio was a game changer. As was the taming of the great rivers of the west. Hoover Dam, albeit a project of epic scope, was just one project built during the Depression Era. During that same period, the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Grand Coulee Dam were also built. In those days, people had high hopes and big ideas. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built over 97,000 miles of roads, planted three billion trees and created 700 state parks. The Works Project Administration (WPA) built over 650,000 miles of roads, repaired 125,000+ buildings, built 4,000 schools, and built hundreds of airfields. And while doing all of this, the WPA also documented slave narratives, pioneered oral history, and supported entire architectural and artistic movements.
During the Eisenhower years, the Interstate Highway System was conceived and constructed, consisting of nearly 50,000 miles of roadway (TRIVIA QUESTION: Can you identify its highest point and what’s so unusual about it?). And then there was the eponymous and ultimate “moonshot” program, which actually landed men on the moon…!
Fulfilling dreams is hard. As John F. Kennedy said, “we choose to do these things not because they are easy; but because they are hard.” Dreams aren’t often proclaimed loudly but sometimes are reflected in the most unusual of representations. One such emblematic expression of dreams is a mural set in the stone entrance plaza to Hoover Dam. The times I have visited, I have been transfixed by the marble inlay of that plaza and what it says. It screams out to the future—a future so far beyond their world—“We were here!” and “We did this!”
The plaza lays out a representation of the axial rotation of the Earth around Polaris, the pole star, at the time the dam was finished. But things always change and, as the Earth wobbles around in its journey, different stars at different times will appear to be the “center” of our night sky. The plaza takes into account these vast spreads of time, showing the star Thuros, which was the pole star during the time of the ancient Egyptians—the time of Joseph and Moses. The picture in the plaza also acknowledges this will not always be so, showing that one day Vega will be the pole star in the Northern Hemisphere.
Finally, the stone inlay of the plaza depicts the location of all the planets on the day the dam was completed. To these builders of the Hoover Dam and the great infrastructural expansion of their time, both honored the past and the future, noting that what they were doing at the time was truly monumental and would last for ages.
To have hope, to have expansive ideas, to imagine building for the future, expanding the pie and not rushing to tear it apart, these are aspirations to believe in—and to dream of achieving. We are bound to and informed by our past and we have a responsibility to work to create a better future, even if we are not there to witness the fruits of our efforts. Joseph dreamt and Moses delivered. The builders of the dam in the desert dreamt and declared their dream for the future. It is now it is our turn to deliver. Time to dream.
THE HIGHEST POINT IN THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM
Here’s another piece of useless trivia… The highest point in the Interstate Highway System is actually underground. It is the Eisenhower Tunnel, sitting at 11,168 feet in elevation, between Denver and Vail on Interstate 70. The east and west tunnels are nearly 1.7 miles long, going through the Continental Divide. At the time they were built, they were the highest tunnels in the world.