You Call This Freedom? coverby Chaz Bufe

One hears, sees, or reads it every day. Often several times a day. It’s inescapable. And it’s an almost unquestioned article of faith: the United States is a free country. But is it really?

Civil Liberties—Freedom from Restraint

The more enlightened part of the American public (perhaps as much as 15% or 20% of the whole) regards freedom in purely negative terms, as freedom from restraint, intrusion, and compulsion—such things as freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association. In short, the freedom to do or say anything that one wishes as long as one does not directly harm or intrude on others.

Many who believe in freedom in this sense find it very troubling that the government routinely violates supposedly guaranteed individual freedoms whenever it feels threatened, or even at its whim. Examples of such violations abound in U.S. history, from the first days of the republic to the present day. To cite but a few: under John Adams, congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave the government license to arrest and jail those who criticized it. It wasn’t the courts that saved Americans from these totalitarian laws; rather, they expired, due to a built-in time limit, while Thomas Jefferson, who had opposed their passage, was president.

Another example is the Espionage Act of 1917. Under it, criticism of the government was again declared illegal, and the victims of this law numbered in the thousands, many of whom were imprisoned for lengthy terms for exercising the supposedly guaranteed right of free speech. Victims included innumerable members of the Industrial Workers of the World, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and the great Mexican anarchist and revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón.

Shortly after World War I, many states passed “criminal syndicalism” laws prohibiting unions and their members from advocating and organizing for worker management of the economy and dissolution of government. (The states permitted only AFL-type business unions, which accepted and supported capitalism.) Again, these laws and their application constituted a gross violation of the rights of free speech and free assembly; and thousands of IWW members were jailed under these laws throughout the land, often for lengthy terms.

Still another example, this time aimed at freedom of movement and freedom of association, was FDR’s executive order mandating the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Of course, the courts found that this was perfectly legal.

During the Vietnam War, the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign did its best to silence dissent through the use of wiretapping, blackmail (of, for instance, Martin Luther King), use of agents provocateur, framing activists (such as Black Panther Geronimo Pratt and American Indian Movement [AIM] leader Leonard Peltier), and on more than one occasion murdering activists (including Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, murdered by Chicago police in an FBI-planned raid, and dozens of AIM members murdered on the Lakota reservation during early 1970s by goon squads operating with FBI help). Because these violations of individual rights were carried out secretly, none of the agents responsible for these violations were ever brought to justice.

At present, we’re seeing a renewal of COINTELPRO-type FBI activities directed against peace and political activists, notably the Occupy and Anonymous movements. In an eerie echo of WWI-era hysteria and its “espionage” act (virtually none of whose victims were engaging in espionage), this time the excuse is “terrorism,” even though the government must be well aware that peace and left-wing political activists pose absolutely no “terrorist” threat, and that the only “terrorist” acts which have resulted in bodily injury or death that have taken place in this country for the last four decades have all, with the sole exception of the “Unabomber” attacks, been carried out either by the extreme racist right (for example, the murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg by The Order, and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing), right-wing “right to life” religious fanatics (numerous bombings of abortion clinics and shootings of abortion providers), and, in the most spectacular acts, by right-wing Muslim religious extremists.

More routinely, day in and day out, the government violates the individual right to be free from intrusion, the right to be left alone as long as one is not harming or intruding on anyone else. These violations of individual rights are codified in the laws against victimless or consensual “crimes,” most prominently the laws against drug use and possession, prostitution, gambling, and, until recently, “sodomy.” The oft-times extreme penalties for violating these laws have ruined literally millions of lives, with many of those who violated such laws serving far longer terms than rapists and murderers.

As well, the government still jealously guards its “right” to press its citizens into involuntary military service via conscription. The fact that this is an obvious violation of the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of “involuntary servitude,” and that the courts have repeatedly ruled that this form of involuntary servitude is not, somehow, involuntary servitude, serves to point out the weakness of the supposed guardians of individual rights: written constitutional guarantees and the courts that interpret those guarantees.

Occasionally, as in the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down the sodomy laws, the courts will uphold individual rights. But the courts tend to do this only when public opinion has shifted powerfully against the laws in question, and the government feels no compelling need to maintain them in force. (The Supreme Court upheld the sodomy laws as recently as 1986; since then public opinion has shifted strongly against such laws.) In most other cases, the courts feel no compunction in declaring that black is white and that written constitutional guarantees do not mean what they plainly state. To cite a few additional examples showing how near-useless the courts are as guardians of our rights, one might consider the numerous decisions upholding the government’s “right” to intrude into the private lives of individuals via laws outlawing private drug use, consensual sex acts between adults (such as prostitution), and gambling.
The courts and paper promises are not in any real sense guarantees of individual rights; and federal, state, and local governments continue to routinely violate our most basic rights, especially the right to be left alone so long as one is not intruding on or harming someone else.

How did this sorry state of affairs come to be? How could gross violations of individual liberty be so common in a country whose citizens supposedly value freedom? The answer is simple: a large majority of Americans passively accept this state of affairs in sheep-like silence, and at least a sizable minority actively support the government’s violations of individual rights. The few who have the courage to stand up against these violations, and the authoritarian herd supporting them, are often crushed like bugs.

The government’s treatment of author Peter McWilliams, civil libertarian and author of Ain’t Nobody’s Business, is a tragic example. McWilliams, who was diagnosed in 1996 with AIDS and cancer, began using medical marijuana to combat the nausea caused by his AIDS drugs. Due to his high-profile status as a defender of individual liberties and medical marijuana use, he was targeted by the DEA, which invaded his home, trashed it (a very common practice), and arrested him on marijuana cultivation charges. At his 1998 trial, the judge refused to allow a “medical necessity” defense, and thus refused to hear both scientific evidence of marijuana’s efficacy in combatting nausea and any mention of California’s 1996 law permitting the use of medical marijuana. McWilliams was convicted, and after his family put up their houses to raise his bail ($250,000—higher than for most rapists and armed robbers), he was released on bail, but on the condition that he not use medical marijuana to combat his nausea. In 2000, while his case was still on appeal and he was still under the restriction prohibiting his nausea medication, he died as a result of choking on his own vomit.

The “Freedom” of Voting

Again, how could such a horrible thing come to pass? How did our fellow citizens become so degraded as to support such horrendous misuse of government power? How is it that so many Americans have so little understanding of and so little concern about their own freedoms and those of their fellows?

A good part of the answer lies in what they consider freedom to be. It seems that a great many, probably a good majority, of our fellow Americans do not consider freedom from restraint and freedom from intrusion as fundamental. No. What they see as fundamental to freedom—and many seem to regard this as freedom’s only component—is the right to vote. Numerous consequences flow from this.

The primary result of believing that freedom consists only of voting, of choosing one’s rulers, is the belief that anything the government does is okay as long as the government is elected and enacts its decisions into law.1 In individual behavior, this attitude manifests itself as passive acceptance of intrusive, authoritarian government violations of individual rights, or in many cases goose-stepping enthusiasm for those violations (in cases in which the goose-steppers dislike those targeted by the government). This hypnotic fixation on voting is so strong that most people don’t even notice glaring contradictions, such as “making the world safe for democracy” (during World War I) while suppressing free speech and free association, and the intermittent practice of forcing multitudes into involuntary servitude in the armed forces to keep our country “free.”

Institutional Support for Voting

The reasons for this hypnotic fixation on voting are not difficult to see. The first, though not necessarily the most important, is the miseducation system in the United States. Its backbone is a system of rigid routine cued by bells and buzzers, inculcation of competition (for grades1 and teachers’ favor) rather than cooperation, participation in mandatory rituals of subordination (e.g., the Pledge of Allegiance), endless indoctrination that the U.S. is a free country (with heavy emphasis on the right to vote), and mindless rote memorization.2 Add to this that critical thinking and skepticism are often discouraged—it’s no accident that year after year U.S. students score badly in science compared with students in other countries—and one can only conclude that the U.S. miseducation system is succeeding very well in its mission: production of automatons who do not think for themselves, who are barely even capable of thinking for themselves, who submissively accept humiliating government intrusions into their lives (e.g., urine tests), and who accept hierarchy, gross economic inequality, an artificially low standard of living, a huge, parasitic military sucking the economic life from the country, and their own subordinate places in a rigidifying class structure as normal, natural, and indeed inevitable—and, most amazing of all, who consider themselves “free” (because of the right to vote).

The second important factor in the fixation upon voting as “freedom” is the corporate media, which also presents hierarchy, gross economic inequality, a highly intrusive government, militarism, religious irrationality, and a class structure (though never identified as such) as normal, natural, and inevitable. Again, as in the miseducation system, one finds a focus on “great men” (especially, as in CNN’s coverage of the Iraq invasions, military men). Again, one finds in the corporate media drumbeat repetition of the claim that the U.S. is a “free” country. From this flows the (generally unstated) conclusion that present social, political, and economic conditions constitute freedom.3 Then, there’s the day-in-day-out obsessive coverage of elected officials and elections. This, combined with the constant repetition that the U.S. is a “free” country (and respectful coverage of the courts as freedom’s arbiters and guarantors), provides powerful reinforcement of the belief that elections in and of themselves constitute freedom and that freedom is something delivered by the state.

One might add that the corporate media almost invariably present all radical alternatives to the present socioeconomic system as threatening to “our freedom,” and the advocates of such alternatives as being dangerous and/or crazy.4 A good example of this is the corporate media’s treatment of anarchism. There is a near-total media blackout of anarchism’s most respected spokesman, the renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky. Instead, the corporate media focuses on fringe figures such as the murderous schizophrenic, Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”), and advocates of the ridiculous, such as primitivists, and presents them to the public (with generally not even barely concealed ridicule) as the face of anarchism.

Religion, more especially authoritarian, patriarchal religion, is the third primary component in the machine which churns out the indoctrinated automatons who equate voting with freedom. Patriarchal religions, such as Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, Catholicism, and Mormonism are extremely hierarchical and authoritarian in nature. In these religions, God, in almost military manner, gives orders and his lieutenants convey them down the chain of command to the laity. (That’s the theory; somehow, one suspects that the orders don’t originate with God.) In all of these religions, the role of the laity is to obey, period.

The Catholic Church is perhaps the clearest example of hierarchical structure and the dominant/submissive relationship between clergy and laity. Here, “God’s” orders are relayed first to the “infallible” pope, and then down the chain of command: cardinals, archbishops, bishops, monsignors, priests—and then to the laity.

It’s also important to note that all of these patriarchal religions are virulently anti-intellectual (notwithstanding the Catholic Church’s intellectual pretensions), and all systematically discourage rational inquiry and skepticism. All too often, this “discouragement” has taken physical form, such as the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno and other heretics, the Index of Prohibited Books, etc.
In all of these religions, great emphasis is placed on blind acceptance of the words of “holy” men and “holy” books. In all of them, blind faith—that is, not using one’s ability to think, not using one’s ability to reason—is presented as a virtue. Martin Luther stated the matter quite plainly in his Table Talk: “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.”

Then add in the fact that all of these religions teach that it’s the duty of their respective flocks to impose their beliefs (their “morality”) on others, either directly through violence or through the threat of violence embodied in the law and the governments that enforce it, and it’s little wonder that the members of these religions have, overall, so little respect for freedom and so little understanding of it.

One can begin to appreciate how abysmally these religious folk misunderstand the nature of freedom by listening to their near-interminable whining about how their freedoms are being violated. When one gets to the bottom of these sniveling complaints, one almost always finds that their “freedom” is being “violated” by nonintrusive individuals who are committing private, consensual acts condemned by religious “morality.” A good contemporary example of this is the current bleating about gays (who make up perhaps 5% of the population) attempting to “force” the “homosexual agenda” upon poor, god-fearing Christians (who make up a mere 75% to 80% of the population). When one looks at this even briefly, it becomes immediately obvious that all that gays want are the same very limited legal rights (against employment and housing discrimination, etc.) as everyone else. For fundamentalist Christians, Mormons, and conservative Catholics, this granting of equal rights is a “violation” of their (the religious believers’) “freedom.” One might also mention the unceasing attempts of Christian true believers to use taxpayer dollars to have their creation myths taught as “science” in the public schools. (Of course, the creation myths of other religions are simply silly superstitions and not “science.”)

All of this quite clearly reveals the religious concept of “freedom.” For religious fanatics, “freedom” consists of the “right” to intrude into the private lives and private activities of others, to use public monies for religious indoctrination, and to force others, either through direct or institutional violence (the law), to live their lives in accord with the dictates of religious “morality.” In other words, “freedom” for religious true believers consists of their “right” to intrude and impose.5

Examples of religious “moral” intrusion into our private lives (via the state) abound. To cite two additional examples, the Catholic Church managed to keep birth control devices illegal until well into the twentieth century in many parts of the U.S. (until the 1960s in heavily Catholic Con-necticut), and many courageous advocates of reproductive choice were sent to prison as a result. Having lost that battle—though it’s now clamoring for the “right” of religious employers to deny contraception coverage in health plans for their employees—the Catholic Church is now attempting to impose its “moral” views on the rest of us through its attempts to outlaw abortion. If these attempts would succeed, those who view freedom as simply the right to vote for one’s rulers would see no contradiction between these intrusions and the assertion that the U.S. is a “free country.”

In fact, many religious folk have an even more restricted concept of freedom than that of its simply being their “right” to choose rulers to impose their “morality” on others.6 Many (such as the Christian “reconstructionists”) would actually prefer a theocracy or some other form of dictatorship. For these folk, “freedom” consists solely of obeying (and imposing on others) the dictates handed down by their “holy” men and “holy” books. In other words, for these religious believers, abandonment (voluntary or forced) of self-direction is “freedom.” To put the matter baldly, for them slavery is freedom. A huge painted (and oft-defaced) slogan on the side of a former local mosque nicely distills this Orwellian concept: “Freedom is submission to the will of God.”
In sum, it’s fair to say that to the extent that they take their religion seriously—that is, to the extent that they follow the dictates of their sects’ “holy” books and “holy” men—members of patriarchal religions cannot be good citizens, even in the common, very restrictive sense of that term.7 Through their belief in and support of authoritarian hierarchies, and through their unrelenting attempts to impose their “morality” on the rest of us, they are in fact deadly enemies of individual freedom.

What Voting Delivers

Getting back to the common belief that freedom consists of voting to choose masters who can, and often try to, control every aspect of life in accord (the voters hope) with the voters’ wishes, it’s obvious that the present system doesn’t deliver the promised goods—even for the authoritarian individuals who want to impose their twisted morals on the rest of us. In the first place, there’s no guarantee that elected officials will act in accord with voters’ wishes. In fact, once they’re in office, there are very few checks upon their actions, and they very often act in the arrogant manner befitting what they really are: the masters of those they “serve.”

In the second place, those with unpopular views are sometimes denied their elected positions. A good example is Victor Berger, a member of the Socialist Party who was elected to the U.S. house of representatives in a landslide in 1918, but was denied his seat in 1919 because he was a Socialist who had opposed World War I. A more recent example is Julian Bond, who was denied his seat in the Georgia state assembly in 1965 due to his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

In the third place, the U.S. electoral system is by far the most undemocratic of any in the western democracies. It’s set up, from the local to federal levels, as a winner-take-all system which by its very nature has cemented the two-party system in place and which has systematically prevented those holding minority views from having any share of power, no matter how minor. (In contrast, European democracies feature proportional representation, which guarantees legislative seats to all but the smallest political parties.) Further, the electoral college is a national embarrassment which has led on more than one occasion to the presidential candidate who garnered the most votes “losing” the election. And the U.S. senate is elected on the basis of geographic areas (the states) that vary wildly in size and population. This results in extreme inequities, such as Wyoming, with a population of half a million, having the same number of senators as California, with a population of 38 million.

In the fourth place, participation in electoral politics is far from an equal-opportunity affair. With the costs of even county supervisor races often running above $100,000 and the costs of U.S. house and senate races often costing well up into the millions, even tens of millions, electoral politics, above low-level local races, is a game only for the rich. At present, over half of the members of Congress are millionaires, and virtually all of the rest are far above the median in both wealth and income.8

Thus the vast majority of those who support the electoral process not only have no control over their rulers, but they’re effectively barred, because of their economic status, from becoming one of those rulers. Instead, they’re reduced to trudging to a voting booth every two years—and because of this “privilege,” they consider themselves “free.”


1. This is a powerful, near-continual inducement to seeing others as rivals and to seeing their bad fortune (poor grades) as one’s good fortune.

2. This last is perhaps most pronounced in history classes, which rarely consist of anything more than memorization of dates and the names of “great men,” in conjunction with a carefully sanitized version of U.S. and world history focusing on the deeds of the “great men.”

3. This conclusion was presented in bare-faced form, and heavily promoted, as the (now nearly forgotten) “end of history” conjecture in the 1990s; this conjecture stated that the late phase capitalism under which we live is as near to utopia as we’ll ever get. That this absurd thesis received considerable, respectful coverage is a good indication of the subservience of the media to the socio-political agenda of its corporate owners.

4. Formerly, the primary tactic (which is still occasionally employed) was to present the false dichotomy of “free enterprise” vs. Soviet-style “communism,” as if no other alternatives were possible.

5. A quick, dirty means of determining who in fact is being oppressed in most situations is to look at who wants to regulate the private conduct of others, and who wants to use the law to throw others in jail.

6. The deceased “father of Christian reconstructionism,” the unapologetic racist R.J. Rushdoony, wanted to install a theocracy that would pass laws mandating the death penalty for, among other things, homosexuality, adultery, heresy, blasphemy, and atheism. Rushdoony wanted the victims of these laws to be stoned to death.

7. A reasonable common usage definition of “good citizen” might run as follows: someone who follows the law, takes part in the electoral process, and respects its results. Religious zealots cannot be “good citizens” under this definition, because they place “God’s law” above all else, and they’ll violate “man-made law” if the two are in conflict. (The murder of abortion providers by “right to life” zealots is a good example of this.)

8. Some of the above-listed defects in the American electoral system have been recognized as serious problems since the 19th century. That nothing has been done about them speaks volumes in itself about the undemocratic nature of the American “democratic” process.


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