Sweet Land of Liberty

Yes, the inauguration of President Barack Obama is a testament to the freedom we enjoy in this nation. It's a testament to our democracy, our fair elections, our smooth transitions of power, etc. Every inauguration is - assumedly. (Note to the people who make the spell-checker in this word processor: assumedly is a word!)

Despite this, I find myself slightly confused when I've heard people say that this inauguration has somehow made us more free or will give us more liberty. As far as I'm concerned, however you think about the state of liberty in this country, the situation will probably remain pretty unchanged with President Obama.

There is the commonly held belief that we have a large abundance of freedom here in the United States. I acknowledge that comparatively this is a pretty great country to live in, but to believe that all the flowery ideas written about freedom throughout our history have ever been reality in that history (or our present) is to deny the frequent limits on freedom with which citizens of this nation are so frequently denied. Take a moment to just consider these few things:
  • clandestine chattel slavery - bondage of the most blatant and literal form still going on today, such as in human trafficking including sex slaves and others (Yes that occurs in this nation as well as throughout the world.)
  • wage slavery - a far more widespread presence in the world, even and perhaps especially in this nation
  • incarceration - This is the area of liberty-destruction in which this country most excels. Our status as a prison state is only matched by the People's Republic of China.
There are many many ways in which inherent human liberties are denied to people every single day. The three methods I just bulleted are in no way all-encompassing. The first is the most violent, certainly. Although chattel slavery is outlawed in all the nations of the world it still occurs illegally, and it takes no great morality to see that that vile injustice must be ended. My second and third forms of freedom-denial may need more explanation.

Wage slavery occurs when people are forced to work, not by chains and whips, but by imposed necessity. Their situation is hopeless and their wage is only a means by which to keep them indentured. We've seen this romanticized in novels and movies - stories of bygone eras when a coal miner or factory laborer lines up for their pay and then is charged fees upon fees afterwards, sending their money back to the company.

The truth is that such situations continue today; they simply look different. Instead of children going to the coal pits for a few pennies a day, we now see single mothers working three shifts each day for minimum wage, still unable to pay the rent. We now see seniors having to work for their living long after they should have retired - not because of their own failings at industriousness, but because of the demands of the system and its paucity (or division) of wealth. There are millions of people enslaved in the United States still, not enslaved to a particular master, but enslaved to a lack of opportunity coupled with demands they can never fulfill. For a revealing look at wage slavery, I would recommend reading the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

In the book Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote:

A plongeur [dishwasher] is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack... they have been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.

Think for a moment about those unable to earn even $100 a day - a whole ten hours or twelve hours or fourteen hours of demanding, degrading labor. The availibility of housing and transportation conflicts, further increasing the demand of such things on the pitiful amount of cash earned each day. There is no way to escape - a person is forced to work, and their options are limited or nonexistant. The only difference between wage slavery and chattel slavery is that direct ownership of the worker means the master has to take care of them. When the master can enslave the worker to their work - and to having to take care of themselves - the profit only becomes greater.

With all the paucity of liberty for poor Americans there come many other instances of how we are not free. Think of how hard it is on a minimum wage earner to ever be sick or have to use the medical system in this country. That, I think, is a topic for another post though. The final instance I want you to think about in regards to this nation's lack of liberty involves another profession - that of the law.

The United States, as per official statistics, is the most imprisoned country in the world. As per reality, the prize probably falls to China, but even so, there are great and ongoing abuses occurring the the U.S. criminal justice system. It is not a system that grants justice. Instead, the political demand for harsher punishments and the focus on imprisonment has destroyed the liberty of millions of Americans by forcing people to spend years and years in prison for crimes that in no way merit such destruction. Minimum sentences and other abuses are destroying this nation's liberty - and yet I still have hope.

I can think of one man in particular who was familiar with the American prison system. His name is not Barack Obama. He was a hero - the American hero - and he told us that,

With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day - this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring! ...

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!