How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Defining Freedom

“The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion (Sitting Bull).”

The concept of freedom is one of the defining characteristics of democratic government. People living in western democracies consider themselves to be “free,” and this belief is reinforced within the institutions of education, media and politics. Given the condition of freedom as a baseline assumption, most people never ponder the deeper implications of freedom and how they apply to our civilization.

In the democratized world, a lot of political capital is placed on the concept of freedom. Citizens of countries like the United States that enjoy voting privileges and a free press perceive themselves, for the most part to be free. “Freedom” is one of the great rhetorical catch words mouthed universally by those in power to assure the rest of the population they are looking out for our interests, but in reality, freedom is subjective.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word freedom as:

1a, “the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action.”
Personal freedoms are outlined by the laws of sovereign nations. In western democracies citizens are autonomous in terms of daily activities, but those activities must fall within the boundaries of established laws. Some laws protect the common welfare. In general, it is illegal to do anything that infringes on another person’s liberty. Citizens cannot murder, maim or threaten other individuals, yet the government can do all of the above to people it deems to be threatening to national security.

“Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one (Benjamin Franklin).”

1b, “liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another: independence.”
While slavery has been universally denounced in the western world in modern times, how many people can say they are entirely liberated from restraint or from the power of another? If a person is born into familial property and capital, he or she can certainly enjoy all of the opportunities our capitalist system has to offer in the form of the finest education, adequate childhood nutrition and healthcare. If he or she is wealthy enough through the accident of birth, working for wages will be optional. But for a person born into poverty, the above freedoms are not available. The child in poverty has to work hard, in spite of the obstacles of poor nutrition and failing public education to even grasp at the possibility of getting out of poverty in their lifetime. Most likely, they will be forced to work for the rest of their lives in servitude to wealthier, more powerful entities for pittance wages. How is this demographic different from slavery?

1c, “the quality of being released or exempt usually from something onerous”
Much of the modern life is in fact not exempt from onerous realities. The vast majority of Americans must go to work every day in the corporate wage environment, which I would argue is an unnatural and egregious condition. Furthermore, we are not exempt from being exposed to poison on a daily basis. Our air is polluted by industry. Every aspect of our modern lifestyle is polluted by chemical contaminants. Even those individuals with entirely natural ways of life, like the Amish, Amazonian Indians or North American Inuit are exposed to the civilized world’s toxic brew of dioxin, PCB’s and endocrine disruptors to name a few. No living organism in the modern world is exempt from exposure.

1d, “ease, facility”
In 2010, 46.3 million Americans are living in poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which translates to one in seven people. Many of the impoverished work full time at menial jobs just to be able to feed their families. The lives of the American poor are not easy or facile.

1e, “the quality of being frank, open or outspoken”
Freedom of speech is alive and well in the United States of America. In fact, the right to exercise free speech has now legally been extended to powerful, non-human corporations. The recent midterm election demonstrates just how effective the exercise of free speech is in the hands of the powerful. Corporations can also engage in the political discourse by funding negative and untruthful attack ads anonymously. So they can sling mud without having to stand by their slanderous accusations. In terms of undisclosed campaign contributions, Republicans outspent Democrats by a whopping margin of six to one. The results are telling. In almost every race where undisclosed funds were used to smear a Democratic opponent, the Republican won the election. Being frank and/or outspoken may ensure the speaker’s freedom but often infringes on the liberty of others.

1f, “improper familiarity”
The right to privacy is a much-touted American privilege that is guaranteed in the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. Americans are protected in their “persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” However, this right is for all practical purposes no longer extant in the United States. Emails, telephone calls, library accounts, medical records and various other private concerns are openly monitored by our government under the Patriot Act. If this doesn’t constitute “improper familiarity,” I don’t know what does.

1g, “unrestricted use”
The right of unrestricted use is probably the most compromised freedom in American culture, but most people accept the imposition without question. Arising from the concept of private property, the land base of the North American continent has been subdivided and distributed amongst those individuals and entities who have the good fortune of sufficient capital to purchase it. Once land becomes private property, it is illegal for anybody to utilize the resources of that land except with the permission of the owner. In this fashion, the indigenous people of North America were denied access to the natural resource base that was once their birthright. Today, poor Americans and native organisms are also inadvertently denied access to those same natural resources.

The Native American peoples originally did not have a concept of private property. When an unspoiled continent stretched from sea to sea five centuries ago, it was shared equally amongst all of its human and non-human inhabitants. Today, unless one owns the natural resources, he must have money to buy them. What was once communal is now rationed by those with financial might. The right to unrestricted use is limited to those with capital.

2) A political right
As noted above, government defines which privileges are extended to its citizens, but freedom is a dubious concept. One person’s right to private property reduces another’s access to natural resources. The right of free speech can be used to falsely undermine the integrity of someone else. The freedom of access to private information gives government liberties while simultaneously taking them away from private citizens. Exemption from regulation increases corporate liberty, but imposes onerous toxic costs on the rest of humanity and the environment. One could argue that the mere fact that rights are given to citizens by their government implies that individuals living in a governed state do not have any freedoms at all. For what is given can also be taken away.

Once upon a time in North America, the native inhabitants of this land were truly free. They lived within a healthy ecosystem and governed themselves largely by consensus. The Native American way of life was so pleasant, colonists often fled to live with the Indians, and early colonial governments were forced to inflict capital punishment on defectors.  It is telling that defections in the other direction were non-existent.

“No European who has tasted Savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies (Benjamin Franklin).”

American freedom is a concept that has been crafted by the very institutions that also restrict personal liberty. Most citizens, knowing no other lifestyle, accept the established definition of the concept with blind patriotism. But we are not free. We are given a few choices from within the cage in which we are trapped and mistake those choices for the reality that lies beyond the cage.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (Martin Luther King).”



  1. Well done. A cogent analysis of our delusional attitudes regarding freedom.
    Nonetheless, it behooves us to remember that without execption, all of the destructive behaviors and forces--poverty, enslavement, violence and oppression-- cited here predate the rise of democracy and the United States. Mankind has been thoughtlessly degrading his environment and oppressing his fellow man for many thousands of years. We're just the latest flavor of that. It's in vogue to blame western civilization for the planet's ills; the deprived ecosystems and vast deserts located where we find the remains of mankind's earliest civilizations (Peru, North Africa, the Indus Valley, etc.) put the lie to that by demonstrating conclusively that mankind has destroyed his surroundings--and other men--for as long as he's been present on the planet.
    We should also be careful not to over-romanticize native Americans, a bad habit which modern Americans are ever eager to indulge in. While their societies had many good features, they were also notoriously violent- reliable historical accounts of their devotion to the torture and murder of captive enemies, for example, are horrific (Champlain was utterly appalled by it) and evidences of warfare and cannibalism in the American southwest are, at the very least, disturbing. They got a very bad deal in the end; but so does every conquered people. Once again, the extinction of indigenous peoples on the arrival of invaders is hardly a tale new to the American continent alone. Think Jericho.

    The only real freedom available to human beings is inner freedom. The pursuit of inner objectivity, a transformational approach to the experience of human consciousness, has been under way on the planet for as long as human beings have created civilizations.
    While the sciences are vital to an objective understanding of outer conditions, only a radical transformation of our inner understanding of our nature can lead to anything approaching a true morality, whether societal or ecological.
    This is a highly individual process, not a societal one; and yet, as teachers from Christ to Buddha have proven over the course of human history, it's exactly that individual process of inner transformation that can have the greatest impact on our overall understanding of the human condition--both inner and outer--, and what might be needed to transform it.
    In summary: there is something wrong INSIDE us: what is it? This is the essential question.
    Morality, in the end, must arise from an inner transformation, and convictions which are not based on just ideas alone, but rather reside, as a zen master might say, "in the very marrow of our bones."

  2. @Lee, Thank you very much for your thoughtful addition to the conversation. Your comments regarding the negative aspects of human civilization predating contemporary western culture is duly noted. I would argue, however, that not ALL civilizations have been inherently destructive. Jared Diamond's "Collapse" provides an interesting summary of which societies have collapsed under their own consumption and those which managed to find a more sustainable existence.

    The North American Indians for the most part were in the latter group, but as you note, one should not generalize. Hundreds of tribes had hundreds of different cultures, not all of them ideal, but some including the collective tribes of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest were generally egalitarian, peace-loving peoples who lived sustainably with Earth.

    It is believed the Minoan people of Crete lived for over one thousand years in an egalitarian society without warfare. Making them perhaps the most peaceful people of all time before their civilization was wiped out by a tidal wave.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your summary. Indeed, morality must come from within and must be a construct of an individual's own conscience, not something imposed by external influences like churches and governments. If every person in Western society would take responsibility for their own, individual morality, the world would be a far superior place.

  3. Didn't the Pacific Northwest have potlatches where they wantonly destroyed stuff to demonstrate their wealth? I think there are darn few examples of egalitarian, peaceful, sustainable societies.

    It's very depressing to me but I am close to concluding that it is an integral part of human nature to burn through resources until there are none left, and foul our nest until it is uninhabitable - and then to try to grab our neighbor's.

    And the problem now is of course that we have run out of neighbor's, because we need an entire planet to grab, not just an island or a continent - and there isn't one available.

  4. @Gail, I understand your distress, but I also do not believe that wanton destruction is part of human nature. Examples of sustainable cultures do exist. Those examples may seem sparse, but the reason we don't see many examples is because the dominating, aggressive, patriarchal cultures have destroyed them. Just because the aggressors won, doesn't mean they represent the entirety of humanity. The spoils go to the victors so to speak. Maybe from the ashes of our contemporary destructive, global civilization a new awareness will be reborn. One can but hope.

    I will have to review the history of the potlaches. It was my understanding the ceremony was a celebration of abundance but also one which fostered sharing. Thanks for the info.

  5. hmm..I will have to look into this more. wiki has only positive things to say about potlatches, which were banned for a long time. So perhaps it is Christian propaganda that they were wasteful? On the other hand, this is what says:

    Literally, ‘giving’. An extravagant festival held by the Indian tribes of the northern Pacific coast, especially the Haida, the Nootka, and the Kwakiutl. The ceremonial destruction or giving away of possessions by chiefs and leading warriors establishes superiority in social or political status, or permits the assumption of inherited rights. One chief might ‘shame’ another by destroying valuable pots, killing slaves, and burning down houses. If the other chief failed either to give away or to destroy more things, then he would lose public esteem. According to legend, the first patlatch was concerned with the exchange of feathers, long regarded as sacred objects by the North American Indians.

    Read more:

  6. Wow, excellent essay regarding the concept that both thrills and perplexes me more than any other. The concept of freedom is the heart of the human. I know we don't have it everyday and we strive to fill our days with freedom as much as possible within a system that has little to offer except security.

    As you point out freedom has a cost within the American idea... I am thinking Sitting Bull never really thought much about it until he observed white people enslaved by their own minds. Of course maybe I'm wrong... maybe indigenous people are very conscious of this concept.

    Thank you again and thanks to Gail for leading me in.

  7. @Gail, the way I heard it was the potlach was a kind of contest to see who could be the most generous. To me, the senseless killing and plundering doesn't sound like something hunter/gatherer cultures would do. In fact, waste is almost universally taboo among such cultures, as they tend to be familiar with the hardships of scarcity, particularly temperate peoples who must endure winter. I will definitely look into this subject more and post if I find anything interesting. Thanks for the great conversation.

  8. @Tommy, thanks for joining the conversation. All comments and ideas are always welcome.

  9. Potlach is today generally regarded as a social time of sharing. And while the violent tendencies of native Americans are undoubtedly true, 'counting coup' sounds like a cunning way of allowing controlled aggression to serve as a demand for respect.
    The taking of scalps was a reaction to the British bounty and not a practice before that. Since there was a common sign language understood by all that speaks to a community of interest we only approach with technology.

    Democracy and Representative Government are not the same thing : especially when the rich control the process. I won't tell you that what is more correct would be something like 'narco-kleptocracy'...but I sure can't disprove it.

  10. Ultimately, the fact remains that North America's First People lived on this land for 10's of thousands of years and left the place relatively intact. The foreign culture that invaded the land does not have such an impressive track record. Thanks for following Opit.