This week I was in a discussion where the concept of freedom came up, and I have always had it in my head ever since. What does freedom mean to you? Beyond the flag clichés, it seems to me that our different perspectives on freedom can be at the heart of most of the arguments we have with others, from individual quarrels to all-out war. It is quickly obvious that any definition of “freedom” revolves around the rights that one considers essential to one’s feeling of freedom.
Take the simple example of a couple who only have one car, when the opportunity arises that both must use it. If the couple can’t come to a cooperative arrangement, they may feel like only one of them can do what they want, which is an example of zero-sum thinking: if someone wins something, someone else has to lose. In reality, the options are multiple: one person deposits the other; call a friend for a ride; arrange a taxi or Uber; or, if it is within a reasonable distance, someone who is doing some exercise.
In her book, The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee explains how zero-sum thinking has spread throughout our country’s history in the ingrained inequalities and racism that underpin development, structure and culture. economy of our country. Today, it also plays a big role in how people feel about who an American is and whether granting more rights to other people will be at their own expense.
She reminds us that the idea of being a free person was “a radical and ambitious concept without contemporary parallel” at the time of the formation of this country, an abstract, undefined concept, which could be realized by opposing it to what it meant to be unfree. Historian Greg Grandin points out that “when most men and almost all women lived in some form of non-liberty because of a contract, land rent, a work house, a prison or the authority of the husband or the father, it could be difficult to identify what freedom was. However, to say what it was not was easy: “a very Guinean slave”.
European immigrants were generally at the bottom of the social hierarchy in their countries of origin, often from orphanages, debt prisons or retirement homes, and at best without status or wealth. Colonial laws of the 1680s and early 1700s show the deliberate attempt to establish a color-based subclass with an established zero-sum relationship between non-whites and poor whites. The property of enslaved people was confiscated by the church in each parish and given to the poor whites, whose title to any property they owned was protected by law. The poor whites didn’t have much, but they were better off than the slaves.
The lack of freedom for African slaves was utter, affecting every aspect of their being, up to and including legally sanctioned physical and sexual abuse and even murder by their masters. In a country promoting religious freedom, they could not worship as they pleased. They couldn’t even keep their families together.
Thus, the poorest white-skinned person might define themselves 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 while not allowed to own other property, which gave them some financial independence, but they often abused their power. Owning slaves also freed them from farming, housework, child rearing, nursing, and even the sexual demands of their husbands.
The War of Independence was failing for lack of funding until the French lent money in exchange for tobacco grown by slaves, so in fact America was founded on debt and bought its independence with labor. slaves.
As we know, citizenship that promised freedom of religion, assembly, movement, expression and property was not available to most people of color and all enslaved people, who could not vote, owning property or obtaining an education, which deeply affected the generations to follow. White citizens were able to get an education and better jobs, save money, buy goods they could bequeath 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 story of our country’s economic dependence on slavery and contract labor and the continuing reluctance to redress the imbalance in our nation, there is resistance to this truth. George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis sparked a conflagration that rivaled our current wildfires, highlighting abuses in the Minneapolis Police Department and across the country, sparking pent-up frustration at the lies and the inaction regarding the poverty, inequality and injustice that has been allowed to exist in our nation and the fears of those who do not want to see the truth.
Currently, half of Americans are close to poverty, defined by the World Bank as “severe deprivation of well-being,” with people struggling to get paid employment, pay rent or mortgage payments, and obtain care. medical. The poverty line is set at $ 26,500 for a family of four, a standard that has been described as insufficient to meet basic needs. Twenty-one percent of all children today live in poverty and 70 percent of them are children of color. How can you hear that and not be dismayed in this resource-rich country?
Given these statistics, it is easy to understand the desperation of those with limited opportunities as well as the fear of those who want to hang on to what they have. McGhee would argue that the social implications of zero-sum thinking mean that people will consciously or unconsciously repel anything that threatens their own status, believing that if others are more successful, it will affect their own success and status.
The disparity in income and in the distribution of wealth is not accidental. Changes in the tax structure since the 1950s, promoted primarily by Republicans, have systematically skewed benefits to the wealthy and businesses and deprived the economy of taxes essential to infrastructure, innovation, and social services. Ten percent of Americans own 70 percent of the country’s net wealth, not counting their primary residence. Over ten percent of Americans are millionaires while half of us live near poverty!
As we celebrate Labor Day, can we recognize that changes need to occur to provide paid jobs and other services so people can exceed the subsistence threshold? What does freedom mean to you and me? Can we recognize that we will be freer if others in our communities are also freer? If everyone has the opportunity to thrive and to contribute creatively and positively to building stronger, healthier relationships and communities, we will all benefit. Think about how we can actively promote this change.
“Let freedom be seen not as the right to do what we want, but as the opportunity to do what is right. »Pierre Marshall