“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Most know these words from the Declaration of Independence. Words can be powerful. Over the weekend I heard a line in the movie Cloud Atlas based on the David Mitchell novel of the same name that caught my attention: freedom is the fatuous jingle of our civilization, but only those deprived of it have an inkling of what it really means. The absence of freedom is something many Americans rarely consider. Being free to do what we please is something we more or less take for granted—that we can travel when and where we want to go, eat what we enjoy eating, and associate with whom we want to be around. There are constraints such as having the resources to do what we want to do, and laws like those that forbid us to drive at excessive speeds. We Americans do enjoy much freedom.
Several hundred white supremacists believed they had the freedom and the right to descend on Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the government’s decision to remove a statute of Confederate Civil War hero, General Robert E. Lee, from a public space. That statute—like the Confederate flag—is a revered symbol to many white southerners of their struggles to resist constraints on their freedom imposed by the federal government—such as the freedom to own slaves, the freedom to discriminate against same-sex couples and to do whatever they please within the boundaries of laws set by the various states. For them, states are sovereign despite the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
The hoard of white supremacists who invaded Charlottesville also believed they had the freedom to hate and that their right to freedom of speech allowed them to hurl slurs and invectives toward anyone they pleased. It turned ugly when counter-protesters confronted them and vociferously demanded that they leave and take their hate some other place. Freedom has its limits. A clear red line was crossed when James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of protesters resulting in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The driver forfeited his right to freedom—perhaps permanently—with his dastardly deed. It was an act of terrorism plain and simple, and had a Muslim been the driver of the car, President Trump would have forcefully condemned the act. Instead he equivocated by castigating “many sides” for the mayhem generated by the white supremacist rioters.
The experience of freedom in the United States have different historical contexts for white citizens and persons of color. After centuries of bondage in slavery and restrictions through state-sponsored discrimination, black Americans really do appreciate freedom. We have always had to find happiness with less than our white brothers and sisters. The alternative is to fester with envy and self-deprecation. There is far too much of that happening but it is not the norm for black Americans. Most black Americans will never be content with second-rate citizenship, but we really appreciate living in a free society. Black Americans will continue to fight for unfettered access to the polls, against criminal justice policies that target young black males, and seek to change our system of education where the wealthy has every advantage. Many enjoy relative degrees of happiness, but certainly are not satisfied.
The deranged neo-Nazi white supremacists who showed up and showed out in Charlottesville are not representative of white Americans. They are a fringe group who have seen their notion of white supremacy devalued in recent years. They would like their whiteness to have meaning again. They believe that will make America great again. They have listened to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levine, and Chris Plante spew bile that fosters hate among their listeners because it makes them wealthy. These commentators are truly despicable human beings and as anti-American as anyone can be. Pitting Americans against each other the way they do is evil.
Many white Americans have gravitated to the Republican Party despite its obvious fealty to plutocrats. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have successfully promoted supply-side economics that have resulted in tax cuts that helped shift much of the country’s economic gains to those at the very top of the economic ladder. They now control the three branches of government and would like to double down on those policies. Our President seems clueless about how to help those angry white Americans who helped to put him in office. More tax cuts for the rich is not the answer.
Freedom engenders happiness if you have an inkling of what it means to be deprived of it. Experiencing widespread freedom and happiness by the people of the United States rest in our ability to think beyond ourselves and our immediate circles. We must drop the “us versus them” thinking and begin developing visions for a future that works for everyone. President Trump seems to be an unhappy person much of the time. The accolades from his family and associates and the roar of the crowds provides manic relief. But he is never free from his miserable self.
Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D
Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness was originally published @ Charles Lewis – Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy and has been syndicated with permission.