I heard the Star Spangled Banner hundreds, if not thousands of times throughout childhood, and I took its words to heart. I got misty eyed every time I heard Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” I grew up proud to be an American. The idea that I lived in the land of the free and the home of the brave was ingrained into my ethos. It was part of who I was.
After having lived in America for thirty something years, knowing what I know now, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you still believe America is “the land of the free,” then you must either be insane or have a useless definition of the word “freedom.” Every facet of Americans’ lives are controlled by various public and private parties. There are layers upon layers of agencies, departments, councils, businesses and associations that enforce rules everywhere you go. We’re so used to being inundated with rules we take them for granted. We’d probably notice them if they were all shouted by a single conspicuous dictator, but they’re a stack of invisible circles covering the entire Venn Diagram of our lives.
You may be able to justify some of the freedoms Americans have lost, but when you start adding up all the ways our lives are controlled, it’s impossible to deny we’ve gone far past the point of reason. The more we justify losing freedoms, the more we’re building the case that America isn’t the land of the free. It’s the land of the justifiably unfree.
That’s not good enough. I can’t accept that. Personal freedom isn’t supposed to be convenient to anyone other than the individual. When one party’s agenda trumps another person’s right to self-determination, that’s not just a watered down version of freedom. It’s the definition of oppression. That’s what Americans run into all day, every day, everywhere. Here are a few examples:
In many cities it’s illegal to sleep in your car or public spaces. So you’re practically forced to rent or buy a home. It’s becoming harder to find housing in neighborhoods that aren’t deed restricted and/or managed by a home owner’s association, which can fine you and ultimately confiscate your property as punishment for not mowing your lawn, planting trees that are too short, having the wrong kind of vehicle in your driveway, painting your house the wrong color or having a garage sale in your front yard without first paying for permission, etc., etc., etc.
Local, state and federal laws place further restrictions on what you can and can’t do in your own home. In some states a dead beat renter can stop paying and stay in your house rent free until you pay to go through the year-long process of having them evicted, and you can go to jail if you inconvenience them in any way while they squat on your property.
There are so many laws dictating how to buy/sell property that you have to hire a professional realtor to help you navigate the labyrinth of rules. Mortgage and tax laws double the cost of a 30 year mortgage, making it impossible for poor people to afford even the cheapest real estate. The laws that inflate the cost of housing don’t have to exist. The government that keeps saying it’s going to fix the housing market created and enforces those laws.
Even if you buy land in the country, where building laws are more lax, you still have to pay property taxes you never agreed to, or you’ll have your property taken away. So it’s impossible to move off the grid with no money and survive like our pioneer ancestors did.
Traffic laws are necessary evils. Drivers should have to stop at stop signs/lights, but many traffic laws fall into morally gray areas, like why you have to wear a seat belt in a car (yet it’s legal to ride a motorcycle, which has no seat belt), or follow arbitrary speed limits in the middle of nowhere, park on the side of the road in the direction of traffic in low-traffic suburbs, register your vehicle every year or pay private companies for auto insurance. Probably the most cut and dry example of government overreach is jaywalking laws. If you can’t walk across the road, how free are you really?
Even if these laws are reasonable, the consequences for breaking them aren’t. If you have no savings and make $1,000 per pay check, a simple speeding ticket can cost 10%-50% of your total net worth. If you’re poor, traffic fines come out of your rent and grocery money. If you’re rich, the cost is inconsequential. This is why some European countries have made traffic fines relative to income, so the rich can feel the same magnitude of consequences as the poor. This will never happen in America, and some people would call that a win for freedom, but I call the system we have now, economic oppression.
You’re almost guaranteed to get a ticket eventually, because law enforcement agencies partly fund their budgets by issuing citations. This motivates them to aggressively hunt and harass drivers. That’s life in America. When you see a police cruiser, you don’t feel safe. Fear and panic jolt down your spine, and you try to act as calm as possible and hope the shark circles away and eats someone else. This fear is completely rational, because everyone knows the cops are preying on the public for funding, and we all know they’re doing an amazing job at it. They shake down the public for $7.5 billion a year. The more money they make, the more tools they can afford to hunt more people with.
Your Public Spaces
It’s illegal to sleep, skate, loiter, smoke, or walk your dog in many public spaces. You can also be fined or jailed for public indecency and public intoxication.
I knew a man in Texas who walked home from a bar because he was too drunk to drive and was arrested for public intoxication. I went tubing on the San Marcos River in Texas, and when I reached the exit point, there were three police making everyone pour any alcohol they had left out in the river, and if anyone tried to bring an open container out of the water, they’d be given a ticket. Those police didn’t stop anything bad from happening that day. They just scared and harassed the public as usual.
Some American may say, “Yeah, cops are a hassle, but I don’t want drunk tubers and stoned skaters around me.” The more you justify banning any behavior, the more you justify banning freedom. You can’t go anywhere in America where some kind of behavior isn’t banned. Even if you leave the city and escape to nature in of the America’s national parks, you’ll have to drive past a guard shack where a government employee will charge you money and give you a list of all the rules you have to follow. Then park rangers will check up on you to make sure you’re following all the rules, and they’ll force you to leave when your time runs out.
Even though the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” citizens are only allowed to organize a large-scale protest if they apply for a permit, and even then, the times and places you’re allowed to protest are severely limited, and the police will mace, taze, beat and arrest you for exercising your First Amendment right outside the cordoned area assigned to you. Even if you do everything right, you’ll still probably be attacked by the police.
Your Work Place
Employers can force employees to wear humiliating uniforms and drastically censor the way they talk and act whether they’re at work or off the clock. Hospitals are fining and firing workers who are caught smoking cigarettes at home. Employers can take their employees’ blood and urine for drug tests. Employment contracts often include clauses that require applicants to waive any number or rights and freedoms.
Citizens who join the military sign a contract that waives all their rights. This is legal because they volunteer, but most troops enlist, not out of patriotism, but out of economic desperation. So America’s economy creates poverty that drives poor people to sign away their rights out of desperation and then go fight to secure an economy that creates poverty and uses that desperation as leverage to get people to “voluntarily” waive the freedoms they’re fighting for. In this way, the military defends poverty and oppression more than it defends freedom. You can say it’s necessary for the troops to sacrifice their freedoms, but don’t say America is the land of the free, when 1% of the population isn’t.
Most Americans spend half their waking hours at work. So they spend half their lives in a space where they’re not free. If a foreign government took over America and extended the same restrictions outside the work place, there would be riots in the streets since that would be a clear violation of human rights.
Many Americans will angrily defend these practices when employers do it, arguing that if you don’t like the terms and conditions of a contract, you’re free to go work somewhere else. This argument loses weight when every business in the country places similar conditions on employment. Being free to choose who takes away your freedom isn’t freedom. In a utopia, the needs of a business wouldn’t trump the dignity of the workers to begin with. It just goes to show how far America has gone down the road to dystopia that we would justify and defend our own oppression. Freedom is so foreign to us that we’re scared and disgusted by the thought of it.
Business owners have a lot to answer for, but they’re also victims themselves. Every step of the process of opening a small business is mired in bureaucratic red tape. The tax laws alone are enough to scare reasonable people into closing their business.
I registered a small business in Texas in 2008. I didn’t make any profit the first quarter and didn’t report it to the government. They sent me a letter saying that since I didn’t report any earnings, they assumed I made enough profit to owe $1,000 in taxes, which they billed me for. They didn’t fine me. They picked an arbitrary number and sentenced me guilty without evidence, which violates the legal principal of “innocent until proven guilty.” They could have just as easily worded it as a fine, but the fact that they went out of their way to frame their actions in a way that violates the Declaration of Human Rights just goes to show how meaningless that document is to the American government.
I paid the fine and closed the business soon after. If my company had been successful I would have eventually had to hire a lawyer and a human resource department to make sure I was in compliance with the thousands of laws I don’t have time to learn. Conservative Americans in particular cry that there are too many regulations strangling businesses, and while don’t believe companies should be able to freely pollute the environment or exploit their employees, every business owner can agree the government has made it soul-crushingly difficult to operate a business.
Schools that don’t require uniforms still have some sort of dress code. While it’s good that kids aren’t going to school naked, the rules aren’t always reasonable. At my high school men had to wear a belt, and if they were caught without one, they would be given a piece of rope to tie around their waist. Many schools forbid wearing offensive clothing, which is subject to opinion. Others don’t allow students to wear red or blue clothing because it’s considered gang-related. There are also puritanical limits on how students can talk or act.
Moral policing is even worse in college, where teachers can be fired and students can be expelled for committing microaggressions that offend overly sensitive professional victims. Students and faculty aren’t allowed to speak out against legitimate grievances either. Staging nonviolent protests will likely end with you and your classmates being maced and arrested.
Teachers have even less freedom to dress, act and express themselves than students. They can lose their job and go to jail for breaking up a fight or defending themselves against a student who is attacking them, and they have little power to fight for more rights since it’s illegal for teachers to unionize in some states.
Some people might say the freedoms you lose in school are negligible, and that nitpicking them is just being whiny. This raises the question, how “big” does a freedom have to be before it’s important enough that it shouldn’t be taken away? Maybe Americans are so lackadaisical about their freedoms being taken away because they’ve been trained to get used to it at school.
Your Electronic Devices
The American government spends billions of tax payer dollars on top secret surveillance technology that tax payers aren’t allowed to know about, and if a government employee leaks this information, they’ll be labeled a traitor and face life imprisonment or execution.
Congress keeps telling Americans that their surveillance programs are well-meaning and limited in scope, but the public has to take that on faith and has no power to stop it. While citizens theoretically have the freedom of speech (when they’re not at work), the government has the freedom to sneak into almost any communication device to find out what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to. They also have broad powers to label anyone a terrorist, even peaceful political activists. So Americans only have the freedom of speech until it becomes inconvenient for the existing power structure. Then they have the right to remain silent.
Even if you were free to dress, talk and act however you want, whenever you want, your freedom still only extends as far as your bank account. Nothing is free in America, and everything costs as much as possible. If you make minimum wage, which is less than the living wage, the cost of living necessitates you work at least 40 hours per week just to survive. Even then, your quality of life will be inhumane. You won’t be able to afford to travel, take time off (even when you’re sick or pregnant), change jobs, go to school, or go pretty much anywhere except to work and back home. You’re functionally under house arrest. While the government didn’t officially impose this sentence on you, they did meticulously craft the conditions that led to it.
If you have enough money to hire a lawyer and pay bail, you’re functionally free to break most laws. If you’re poor, you’re easy prey for the prison-industrial complex. Even if you obey the law, earn enough to save and have disposable income, your options in life are still limited to how much money you have, and every dollar you spend limits those choices. Since health insurance laws have made health care in America more expensive than anywhere else on Earth, the freedom money affords you will only last as long as your health. This guarantees that on a long enough time scale you’ll go bankrupt. Even after you’re too old to work, you’ll still have to answer to the hordes of bill collectors that have been hunting you since you were born.
Your County, State, Nation And World
Police will tell you that “ignorance of the law” is no excuse for breaking the law, but there are literally too many laws for anyone to learn. It’s nearly impossible to figure out how many jurisdictions you fall under or how many agencies are responsible for policing you, especially since there are top secret security agencies you’re not allowed to know about. Given the ubiquitous presence of laws and law enforcement agencies, it should come as no surprise that America has more people in jail/prison than any other nation in the world. One out of every one hundred adults, and one out of three African Americans, are behind bars. If that isn’t evidence that America isn’t “the land of the free,” then how much worse does it have to get before it’s undeniable that there’s a problem?
There are millions of patriotic Americans who refuse to acknowledge America’s oppressive nature, and will tell any native who doubts their freedom, “If you don’t like it, then leave.” But unless you have a college degree, $10K and are in excellent health, you’re not fee to permanently leave. You can justify the glass ceiling of immigration requirements by saying, “Other countries have the right to decide who they want to let in their borders,” but that argument loses weight when every government has collude to place similar limitation on travel. The fact that all the governments in the world have conspired to trap their tax payers within their borders, doesn’t make it right.
Given all the examples cited here, let alone all the thousands that aren’t, it’s delusional to assert that America is “the land of the free.” Without being hyperbolic, it would be closer to the truth to call America a police state. It would require fundamental changes in the American system to turn it into a country worthy of the title “land of the free.” It’s going to take a lot of dialogue and cooperation to do that, but the healing process can’t begin until Americans collectively acknowledge their dystopian lack of freedom.
Please leave a comment if you have any other examples or stories of how Americans aren’t free.
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