Freedom by Another Name
The Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan wrote " A happy man has no past, an unhappy one nothing else." A nice turn of a phrase; there is something to it, I'd allow. But I would suggest a different take. A poor man has no future while a rich one buys both the past and the future he wants. Money can do that. It can allow a person to reinvent their past, retrospectively making them popular in high school, turning them into war heroes, giving them previously missing friends and lovers, and converting mean-spirited greed into the braggadocio of business gurus. And, of course, it gives the person the means to buy the future they choose, or at least the material aspects of it.
A meaningful future means being able to chose a path that the person desires. This ability to chose is freedom. The poor have limited choices while people of economic, political and social means get to chose - the best school for their children, a place to live that has little crime or pollution, a prestigious college, a career with a future, not a dead-end job, and activities such as golf or tennis that provide social and political connections. As Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, is reported to have said, "You are your choices." But you are just as surely the choices that are available to you. If you cannot avail yourself of them, they are not choices at all.
It has always been thus. Slaves had no choices; they did only what they were told; all choices were made for them. Since emancipation there has been a steady widening of choices for African Americans but it has happened painfully slowly, with institutional constraints at every turn, from Jim Crow to mass incarceration, from segregated schools to defacto, if not dejure, segregated neighborhoods.
The path for women was perhaps not as onerous but was still slow and laborious. Historically women were legally considered the chattel of their husbands; one of his possessions. Any property she might hold before her marriage became her husband's on her wedding day; she had no legal right to appear in court, to sign contracts or to do business. And, of course, she could not vote. After two centuries of incremental improvement women still have fewer choices than men - they are paid less for the same work, have less access to top level jobs, are underrepresented in political office and do not have complete legal control over their own bodies, usually as a result of decisions made by male-dominated organizations. Woman still have fewer choices. Freedom still alludes them.
The situation for gays and lesbians is particularly interesting. After being hidden and often reviled, with little or no discernable change for virtually forever, amazing progress has occurred in a very short period of time. The freedom to chose marriage seemed well out of reach just a decade ago and now it is happening everywhere. How did this happen so fast? Probably because activists in this community cleverly turned what had been seen as a social issue into a civil rights cause. Americans responded to the appeal to simple fairness and to the plight of the underdog. But just as important was the fact that many of the individuals in this group were not poor, were white, and had the means and connections that provided the power to effect change.
But it is not just groups of people who are seen as "different" or "outsiders" whose choices are limited, it is everyone without means. If you are poor, and increasingly even if middle class, you may not be legally prohibited from buying a house in a desirable neighborhood, but without money the effect is the same. So you are likely to be stuck in a neighborhood with higher crime, more pollution and poorer schools, regardless of what choice you would like to make. Fewer choices equals less freedom.
Money and power are inexorably entwined. Money buys power and power begets money. For many of those with power it is not sufficient that they have more choices and more freedom; they are intent on others having less. Much of that power is directed at limiting the choices of people of lesser means and power. This need manifests itself on many fronts. Take abortion as an example. One could perhaps understand a moral aversion to the practice. But if that was the case such people would be leading the efforts for sex education, family planning and the universal availability of every conceivable type of contraception. Instead, what we see is a concerted effort to prohibit access to women’s health care and to suppress their ability to make their own choices.
Choice is privilege. The more choices a person has available to them typically the more privileged they are, and the more freedom they not only have, but importantly, can exercise.
The country is in the midst of a great struggle, perhaps the greatest since the Civil War, and choice is fundamental to that struggle. It is between the privileged, predominately white males, and the "others" - people of color, people of lesser means, people who are different. Much as the Civil War was started by the southern elites - plantation slave owners - this struggle has been undertaken by the current elite of white people in positions of power in government, business, and the media.
This war is being waged on many fronts: On voters, using voter suppression, gerrymandering, reductions in polling places and times, to reduce participation among non-elites; on workers by destroying unions, driving pay to starvation levels (try living on a minimum wage job, or two or three), outsourcing to minimize those getting benefits, doing away with defined benefit pension plans and creative use of bankruptcy; on students, by privatizing schools, vilifying teachers and minimizing their pay, raising tuition and fees, charging exorbitant interest on student loans and the establishment of a network of private schools and tutoring; on values, by the substitution of money for virtue, integrity and morality by the religions of prosperity, the capitulation of campaign financing to the ultra-wealthy, the maximization of shareholder value at the expense of society, the environment and ultimately our democracy and our future. Each of these efforts limit choices for groups of people and thereby reduce their freedom.
Be not distracted by tweets and outrageous gibberish. It is on these battlefields that freedom, choice and equality will be determined. As Florence Reece famously asked in her song, "Which Side Are You On?'
One Small Voice
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