This week I was in a discussion where the concept of freedom came up, and I’ve been tossing it around in my mind ever since. What does freedom mean to you? Looking beyond the flag-waving …
This week I was in a discussion where the concept of freedom came up, and I’ve been tossing it around in my mind ever since. What does freedom mean to you? Looking beyond the flag-waving cliches, it seems to me that our different perspectives on freedom may be at the heart of most of the arguments we have with others, from individual spats to all-out warfare. It’s quickly obvious that any definition of “freedom” is wrapped around the rights that one feels are essential for their sense of freedom.
Take a simple example of a couple that has only one car, when the occasion arises that both need to use it. If the couple can’t figure out a co-operative arrangement, they may feel that only one of them can do as s/he wished, which is an example of zero sum thinking: if someone gains something, someone else must lose. In reality, there are many options: one person dropping off the other; calling a friend for a ride; arranging for a taxi or Uber; or, if within a reasonable distance, someone getting a bit of exercise.
In her book, The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee addresses how zero sum thinking has run rampant throughout our nation’s history in the embedded inequality and racism underlying our country’s development, structure, and economy. Today it also plays a significant role in people’s sense of who is an American and whether granting more rights to other people will come at their own expense.
She reminds us that the idea of being a free person was “a radical and aspirational concept with no contemporary parallel” at the time of this country’s formation, an abstract, undefined concept, which could be made concrete by contrasting it with what it meant to be unfree. Historian Greg Grandin makes the point that “when most men and almost all women lived in some form of unfreedom due to indenture, land rent, a workhouse, prison, or the authority of husband or father, identifying what freedom was could be difficult. However, saying what it wasn’t was easy: “a very Guinea slave.”
European immigrants were usually at the bottom of the social hierarchy in their native countries, often coming from orphanages, debtors’ prisons or poorhouses, and at best, without status or wealth. The colonial laws of the 1680s and early 1700s show the deliberate attempt to establish an underclass based on color with a zero sum relationship established between non-whites and poor whites. Property of enslaved people was confiscated by the church in each parish and given to the white poor, whose title to any property they had was protected by law. The poor whites didn’t have much, but they were better off than slaves.
The lack of freedom for the African slaves was complete, affecting every aspect of their beings, up to and including legally sanctioned physical and sexual abuse and even murder by their masters. In a land promoting religious freedom, they could not worship as they pleased. They could not even keep their family together.
Thus, the poorest white-skinned person could define himself as “better than” with the accompanying sense of freedom gained at the expense of the subordination of others. White women were allowed to own their own slaves when they were not allowed to own other property, which gave them some financial independence, but they often abused their power. Owning slaves also gave them freedom from farming, household work, child rearing, nursing, and even the sexual demands of their husbands.
The War of Independence was failing for lack of financing until the French lent money in exchange for tobacco grown by enslaved people, so actually America was founded on debt and bought its independence with slave labor.
As we know, the citizenship that promised freedom of religion, assembly, movement, speech, and property was not available for most persons of color and all enslaved persons, who could not vote, own property, or get an education, which profoundly affected the generations to follow. White citizens were able to get an education and better jobs, save money, buy property which they could leave to their children, and enjoy the benefits of citizenship such as voting, running for office, and having a voice in the structure and governance of the country.
As we now take a long overdue look at the true history of our country’s economic dependency on slavery and indentured labor and the ongoing unwillingness to address the imbalance in our nation, there is resistance to that truth-telling. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis lit a conflagration that rivaled our current forest fires, illuminating the abuses in the Minneapolis police department and across the country, unleashing the pent-up frustration about the lies and inaction concerning the poverty, inequality, and injustice that has been allowed to exist in our nation and the fears of those who don’t want to look at the truth.
Currently, half of Americans are near poverty, defined by the World Bank as “a pronounced deprivation in well-being,” with people struggling to get living wage jobs, pay rent or mortgage payments, and get medical care. The poverty line is set at $26,500 for a family of four, a standard that has been described as inadequate to meet basic needs. Twenty-one percent of all children live in poverty today and 70 percent of them are children of color. How can anyone hear that fact and not be appalled in this country rich in resources?
Given those statistics, it’s easy to understand the despair of those with limited opportunities as well as the fear of those who want to hang on to what they have. McGhee would say that the social implications of zero sum thinking mean that people will consciously or unconsciously push back against anything that threatens their own status, believing that if others succeed more, it will affect their own success and status.
The disparity of income and wealth distribution is not accidental. Changes in the tax structure since the 1950s, promoted primarily by Republicans, have consistently skewed benefits to the wealthy and corporations and starved the economy of taxes essential for infrastructure, innovation, and social services. Ten percent of Americans own 70 percent of the nation’s net wealth, not including their primary residence. Over ten percent of Americans are millionaires while half of us live near poverty!
As we celebrate Labor Day, can we acknowledge that change needs to happen to provide living wage jobs and other services so people can rise above a subsistence level? What does freedom mean to you and me? Can we recognize that we will be freer if others in our communities are freer also? If everyone has an opportunity to thrive and contribute in positive creative ways to build stronger, healthier relationships and communities, we will all benefit. Consider how we can actively promote this shift.
“May freedom be seen, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” Peter Marshall