The Dream of a Thousand Cats; or, Reaching the Tipping Point of Liberation

by Sarah Roark, reprinted from Medium

June 18, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


With thanks and apologies to Neil Gaiman.

In the bound volume of Sandman comics titled Sandman: Dream Country, author Neil Gaiman relates the excellent tale, A Dream of a Thousand Cats. Which, I’ll note, crucially concerns not a dream that is being had, but a dream that could be had. And that once had, could turn injustice and oppression on its head.

I won’t belabor it with a long, detailed summary — you should definitely read it for yourself — but it goes something like this (content warning: animal death):

A young purebred Siamese cat escapes her house one night for a tryst with a wild ragged tom, and in due time delivers a litter of kittens. While she suckles them and thinks of all the things she’ll teach them as they get older, her human owners are unhappy; taking care of these little mutts hadn’t been in their plan. The man of the couple puts the kittens in a sack and drowns them. The young Siamese, heartbroken, goes on a kind of spiritual walkabout to discover why her children were taken away, and after passing through dangers and guardians, she comes upon Oneiros, the Lord of Dreams, and poses her question.

The dream-king tells her a fable (or is it only a fable?) about another Earth that once was, where cats were huge and humans were tiny, and cat-lords and cat-ladies took their endless leisure while the humans served as both slaves and food. One day in this world, a clever human began to preach to his fellows that if enough of them could dream a different kind of world, it would become reality. Though it took time, one night the magic number was struck: a thousand humans all dreamed the same dream, and the very next day the cat-lords and cat-ladies were gone as though they’d never been; the world became as it is now, and seemingly must remain forever. But, the cat realizes, it doesn’t actually have to remain that way. If she can only get a thousand cats to dream of that lost paradise, they can get it back.

And so she travels from city to city preaching this gospel. The cats come in numbers to hear her, out of curiosity, but they depart saying that while it was all very interesting, there is no way to get a thousand cats to do anything together. One young kitten in the audience, however, tells the now-old Siamese that she believes her. The old Siamese replies, “then there is hope.” We close on a scene of that kitten’s owners chuckling at her as she sleeps that night — how cute, it looks almost as though she’s chasing some small creature in her dreams...

That’s the kind of cat-herding I want to speak about here. That is the knife’s edge of the dilemma we’re sitting upon. We don’t know if, in this case, the number is one thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand. But we do know that there is some kind of magic number. Some tipping point, where enough of us decide at the same time that the chaos and cruelty of the fascism rising to envelop us should stop, and therefore, it stops.

After all, it works the other way around too, doesn’t it? Fascism and atrocity happen when enough people decide that that should happen...and not enough people decide to stop it.

That’s the simple part. The tricky part with people, as with cats, is to get to enough, and more than that — enough at the same time. Ay, there’s the rub.

But the whole moral of the fable is to remind us that this is a self-imposed problem. Literally, all that’s standing in the way of our enacting it is our own will. And while we can’t control the will of others, we can certainly take charge of our own, and the day that enough of us do that, the world changes.

What are the obstacles to persuading enough individual cats to take up the common dream?

One of them, the one I want to discuss here, is what Zeynep Tufecki in her book Twitter and Tear Gas refers to as “pluralistic ignorance.” It’s a phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy. The analogy she uses is that of an audience of miserable concert-goers all sitting together through a terrible musical performance — each person there secretly longs to get up and leave, but since no one else is getting up and leaving, why obviously that means everyone else must be enjoying it, and becoming the lone person to disrupt things could only lead to ostracism and punishment. So everyone sits in their own little bubble of self-imposed silence, and never has the opportunity to learn that in reality everyone else there is feeling exactly the same way. Masha Gessen, in The Man Without a Face, speaks of a similar phenomenon during the 2012 protests against Putin — Russians who had each imagined that they were alone in hating the autocrat, discovering that they had never really been alone at all.

I would also add to these examples that of the gay liberation movement. One of the reasons coming out of the closet was such a powerful component of LGBTQ liberation was that it broke through that pluralistic ignorance where each queer person thought they were the only one, or at least the only one who longed to live openly as themselves, and each straight person thought they didn’t know anybody who was gay. Once the truth was discovered, that revelation could not be forgotten. Once that door had opened wide enough, it wasn’t going to shut.

Try to imagine yourself this way now. Here you are, reading from a page that many others have read, are reading, will read — and I’ll bet you are thinking exactly what I keep getting told repeatedly: “Well, you’ve convinced me of your case. For my own part, I’m totally ready to take to the streets to stop the Trump/Pence regime! But you’ll never get all these other people to see the truth, so it could never possibly work.”

Really? Which ‘other people’? You mean all those other people who’ve said to me literally the same thing you’re saying now? Because they do, you know. All the time. So are you still so sure of what’s going through their heads? Why do you assume you’re exceptional?

What if we’re all just choosing to grit our teeth through the same terrible performance? What if each of us is the only cat we know who could possibly ever dream of a better world? And what if that idea were bullshit, and all we needed to do was find each other, and what if all it would take was the courage to keep looking?

Wouldn’t that be just too sad and funny all at once?

Think about it. Maybe sleep on it.

Read, share, add your name to this new Call to Action that diagnoses the existential threat to humanity posed by the Trump/Pence Regime and the only way to stop it. There is a way to do this...

This Nightmare Must End:
The Trump/Pence Regime Must Go!

In the Name of Humanity
We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America

We are horrified and angered at the shocking damage already done to lives here and around the world by the Trump/Pence regime.  We recognize that they are poised to do far worse, including threatening WAR, even nuclear war.  Through an unrelenting barrage of daily outrages and twitter outbursts, the Trump/Pence regime is radically remaking society – step by step hammering into place a vicious American fascism. This is not insult or exaggeration, it is what they are doing.

Therefore, WE RESOLVE that nothing short of removing this whole illegitimate regime from power will stop this nightmare.


Read, share and endorse the full Call to Action here.

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