Yesterday was July 4th and I celebrated big. As in BIG. I had a party at my house that was very well-attended by a large, diverse group of interesting, bright, caring, talented people who enjoyed themselves and each other, and stayed later than they planned. The occasion? My freedom! But not freedom in the “patriotic” sense; rather, my liberation from traditional full-time employment last month, and the tenth anniversary of my arrival in my adopted home state — which also reprented liberation from my miserable, toxic, abusive marriage.
So what is freedom anyway? Yesterday morning I went to work out, and as we left the small studio after class, one of the owners made a point to say numerous times in a loud voice things like “Yay for freedom!” and “be grateful to live in America where we are free!” and “Yay for democracy!” This sentiment was generally met positively, with one lady pontificating in return about how grateful she is to live here and enjoy freedom instead in other parts of the world where “all they have is a bowl of rice.”
This really bothered me, and it seemed to also bother my companion, who was born and raised in a “third world” country. When the co-owner said her “yay America” piece after us, all I could muster was a “we’re not the only ones [who are free].” This left me feeling yucky. I didn’t want to pretend I agreed with what she was saying and let her perspective go unchallenged, especially coming from a person in an authority position, but my response felt incomplete and flippant.
Now that I’ve thought about it, this is what I might have said instead:
I appreciate that you love the United States and are grateful for your life here. I am curious though, what do you mean by “free”?
I think this is the key question. What does it really mean when U.S. Americans say they are free? It seems folks don’t always know — perhaps it just sounds good and they accept it as a truth since they’ve heard it since childhood. Sometimes they say something like “I can do whatever I want” or “I can say whatever I want” or “I can worship whoever I want.”
But is this true?
To the folks who say they are proud to be an American because they can do whatever they want, I ask — do you have the freedom to live wherever you want? How about the freedom to go wherever you want, including Cuba? Do you have the freedom to go to school wherever you want, for as long as you want? To not go to school at all? To see a doctor when you need one? To drive a car or fly a plane at age 14? To drink alcohol at the same age you can vote and get married? To only go to work when you want to? To be able to survive by doing work you don’t hate — or even enjoy? To follow your dreams with no fear of starving to death? To obtain a loan or mortgage? To eat food that has not been poisoned by pesticides or environmental toxins, nor genetically modified? To have sex with whomever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want? To terminate your pregnancy? To dress however you please — or not at all? To lay down in the park or on a meridian and take a nap anytime? To not pay taxes if you don’t approve of the government? To kill yourself by jumping off a bridge or building without the police trying to stop you? To spend less and still live in a thriving economy?
The answer would likely be confusion or a no, followed by protests that you can’t do any of those things anywhere, that we need to earn certain things, that we need money, that there are rules based in human nature, that this is a stupid question, that it’s still better here than anywhere else.
Really? Often folks with this mindset haven’t been outside the United States, nor had significant relationships with people outside of the United States. If they did, or if they just did some critical reading and research, they would learn that on some of those questions, several countries (particularly in Europe) fare better than we do — particularly with regards to health care, social and geographic mobility, education, work, healthy food, and even equitable pay.
I remember the first time my sister visited me when I was living in Mexico for the second time. I think she was 19 or 20, and we were driving through the streets of my beloved city one morning in a friend’s car, passing a city bus packed to the gills with a staggering number of people inside, and plastered by even more clinging to the outside. She casually remarked: “Wow, people are really free here — free to hang off a bus clinging on for dear life with their butts hanging into traffic and no one will tell them not to. They get to face their own consequences. Back in the U.S. you can’t even step beyond the white line on the bus.”
So what is freedom? Ok so what about the freedom to say whatever we want? Do you have the freedom to speak your mind to your boss? To your spouse or partner? How would you be treated if you expressed an unpopular opinion (like a belief in UFOs, a talent for telekinesis, or support for a single payer healthcare system?) or lifestyle choice? How do you see folks that express unpopular opinions, ideas, and lifestyles get treated? How diverse and balanced are the viewpoints you read in newsmedia, or on TV? Are you free to talk about terrorism or participate in left-oriented political movements without being labeled or surveilled?
The answer is usually no, followed by a protest that it’s better here than elsewhere. Are you certain? Have you spent any significant amount of time in other countries to gauge this?
Granted, freedom to do or say doesn’t necessarily mean freedom to do or say without consequences. And granted, in many ways we have more freedom of speech than in countries struggling with repressive governments. But are the consequences for people’s choices of that to do and say the same everywhere? Is it truly the freest in the United States?
And how about freedom to worship whoever we want? Ask a Muslim about freedom of worship in the United States. Ask a fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, pagan, Wiccan, or Scientologist. Or an atheist.
This is the point at which I might be called “unpatriotic” or “anti-American” for raising these issues. So I ask another key question — does being “pro-American” or “patriotic” mean I have to believe in the superiority of the United States over all other countries? Does “loving” American mean I have to believe it’s the best country on earth?
Personally, I don’t think so. As a progressive, I tire of being told my love of, and loyalty to, this country is measured by my level of unquestioning belief in the USA as the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth. It’s not. Look at the data. Our educational system is one of the lower-performing of comparable nations. Our healthcare system is more expensive and in many ways less effective than in many other nations. Our political system increasingly lacks credibility and effectiveness. Our financial institutions are increasingly unstable and corrupt. The health of our population (including life expectancy and infant mortality rates), particularly in communities of color like urban African Americans and rural Native Americans, is worse than that of many “third world” nations. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. We have a wide (and widening) gap between rich and poor and a very high percentage of folks in poverty. We have some of the highest rates of drug use and antidepressant use in the world. A majority of us are unhappy with our work, and a lot of us are unhappy in general compared to other (even third world) countries. Most of us are slaves to our jobs and to a material lifestyle we rarely question (just notice the tone, flavor, stress and obligations tied to the Holiday season). And we are enslaved and controlled by corporate interests who limit our choices and prime us constantly to buy their products and consume to a level that is destroying our planet, and us.
In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think the United States sucks. I think we are good at innovation. We are good at business and making money. We are good at creating new technologies. In some ways we are good at nurturing and supporting new ideas. This is a good place to be a woman – especially a single, childfree woman over 40 like me.
But there are many countries that are as good as us in some things, and better than us in others. There are countries where it’s easier to be a woman — economically and politically — than the U.S. (several countries are way ahead of us in terms of women in positions of political power, for instance, even in the “third world”). There are countries that are much more supportive, financially and socially, of children, mothers and parents in general. There are nations whose populations enjoy better health, better healthcare, better education, and more equity. There are countries where it’s less devastating to fall ill, lose a job, or face major hardships — not just because of those nations’ social and economic programs, but because of cultural norms and more collective ways of being in community and supporting one another.
The danger of beating the “America rules!” drum is that beating that drum drowns out other voices and realities. This narrowness and ignorance is dangerous. We really aren’t the underdog of the American Revolution anymore, and we haven’t been since World War II. The freedom the revolutionaries fought for in the 1770s is not the freedom we enjoy today. In fact, movements similar to that of the revolutionaries are suppressed by our government — both here at home and abroad. We are The Empire now.
The other danger of the drum is that it drowns out the truth of our history. There has been plenty of ruthlessness, cruelty and dishonesty on our road to power and “freedom”. We have invaded occupied lands, exterminated entire populations, enslaved people, raped and mutilated women, stolen land, stolen ideas, dishonored treaties and agreements, excluded whole populations from politial and economic participation, and manipulated political processes here and in other countries.
To me, love is not about blind admiration or pedestals. It’s not about justifying ourselves by insisting on the perfection of our creation or object of our affection. Love is about commitment. Love is about acceptance. It’s about honesty and truth. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about growth and support. It’s also about self-awareness, accountability, integrity, and healthy boundaries. I don’t believe “loving” American means I have to believe it’s the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth any more than I have to believe a child (or person) is only lovable if s/he is perfect, without fault, and the best. To truly love the USA is to look at it, see it for what it is, tell the truth about it, and help it be better.
This is what progressives try to do, at least the way I see it. This may come across as “unpatriotic” only because it may feel threatening, or because I offer this additional perspective in an occasionally strident way as a counterbalance to the constant rhetoric about how great we are. This is only part of the story, and America deserves for us to look at all of who she is, love her for who she really is, and help her be her best self.
And she is not being her best self right now, and neither are we. In the USA when we talk about being “free”, I think we really mean “rich”. This why we instantly refer to material situations like having more than a bowl of rice to eat, or allowing women to go to school or work as evidence of our freedom. It’s not really freedom we are proud of, it’s our “American way of life” which is about our material wealth and ability to endlessly consume. We consume, unaware, unbelieving, or uncaring that the lone daily “bowl of rice” some folks eat in other parts of the world (or other parts of the USA) is a direct consequence of our “way of life”. I once heard a figure that if every person on earth lived like the average American we would need six additional Earths to provide the necessary resources. This level of consumption is selfish, narrow-minded, short-sighted, abusive, and destructive. This is not us being our best selves.
While gratitude in general is a positive way to approach life, the admonition to be grateful for what we have in the USA, and to appreciate how “fortunate” we are, absolves us of guilt or responsibility. We don’t have what we do by magic or by accident. We enjoy more than others because we take from others. Those of us who experience more “freedom” (more wealth, more available life choices) often do because we are in the majority, or enjoy some form of privilege, or both. We choose to be ignorant of the big picture, to not take responsibility for our contribution to this big picture, or to justify why we deserve more.
So what then is freedom, really, if not wealth or an abundant “way of life”? My very fat dictionary says “state of being at liberty rather in confinement … exemption from external control, interference, regulation … power of determining one’s or its own actions …the power to make one’s own choices or decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination.”
So how free are you after all? How do we experience more freedom? Is it true that “freedom isn’t free”?
Freedom is a state of mind, a commitment, and a choice which manifests in action. It is mindful, it is powerful and it is scary. Choices have consequences, some more difficult to face than others. Leaving my husband was one of the best, most difficult decisions I ever made. Leaving traditional full-time employment was one of the messiest, most complicated decisions I’ve ever made – and after only a month I can already tell this was one of the most important, life-affirming choices I’ve ever made … and one of the most courageous.
But saying that “freedom isn’t free” — usually to justify military action — obscures the fact that the majority of our military action around the globe in the last few decades has nothing to do with liberating us from some oppressor (even though it’s framed that way so we’ll play along). It has to do with securing our economic interests in other countries so we can continue to take more than our share of the world’s resources. It has to do with ensuring the reign of our Empire — maybe because we are too terrified to imagine our lives liberated from the enslavement of material addiction. The terrorist threats we face today are real, but they are not from a powerful oppressor. They are from the rebel force, the freedom fighters, and the underdogs we still admire and identify with in stories and films. But we have more in common now with the 18th century British Empire than the American Revolutionaries. We have more in common with The Empire in Star Wars than the Rebel Alliance.
Since yesterday’s encounter at the gym, the line from that country song keeps running through my head: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Maybe that’s the heart of it all — many of us are unhappy, or frustrated, or struggling, but we calm ourselves and justify our choices by choosing to believe here is better anywhere else, and that this is as good as it gets.
Perhaps it’s time to declare our independence from unhappiness, ignorance, material addiction and low expectations! Time to show up as our best selves … and help this country we love do the same!
What do you think? What does “freedom” mean to you and how can we experience more true freedom?
¡Paz, justicia y libertad!