It’s July, and you know what that means. We’re supposed to eat some hotdogs, wave a flag and blow shit up while shouting, “USA! USA! USA!”
But, to be perfectly honest, I really don’t feel like celebrating this year. It seems so silly, so selfish to celebrate Independence Day, when so many of us are not free.
I know, I know. We’re “free-er” than a lot of countries. Believe me, I’ve heard all the reasons why I’m supposed to love this place. But, I know we can do better than we’re doing right now, and that makes me sad, sick, scared, angry and at the end of the day, super frustrated.
I am the daughter of a Disabled Army Veteran. I was taught to stand for the pledge, and place a hand on my heart for the anthem, and to respect the flag and what it stands for. But, now, I’m constantly asking myself, what the fuck does it stand for? If we take away all the buzz words we’re supposed to use when we think about the United States, what’s left? Is this still the land of opportunity, or have we become the land of missed opportunities, wastefulness and greed?
We have all these stupid sayings that are meant to evoke some kind of emotional response, like, “Freedom isn’t free.” But, what if it totally is? Freedom is an idea- an abstract concept of what it means to live without restriction. Ideas are one-hundred percent free. The cost we’re implying is the carnage our military personnel sign up for when they choose to serve our country, to “fight for freedom” as they say.
But, as I see it, the men and women who go off to war today are not fighting for our freedom. They’re definitely not fighting for peace- that’s the opposite of war. What they are fighting for is power, control, oil and money. They are pawns in a game that no one will ever win. They give their lives, their limbs, their sanity and futures to a machine that will never stop grinding them up and spitting them out. And, when they come home broken in every way imaginable, as too many do, they begin fighting for enough disability benefits to just barely survive.
We leave our Veterans literally out in the cold- homeless, hungry, and without basic necessities like shelter, medical care, and food. It’s shameful. It’s sad. And, it’s not “freedom”. I promise you, our homeless Vets don’t feel free. They are, perhaps, among the most restricted population in the United States. A cruel irony that is rarely addressed by our government.
Even my dad, who was fortunate to have my mother to take care of him and keep him off the streets, isn’t truly “free”. Struggling to pay the bills and keep food on the table while navigating schizophrenia is not freedom. He swears he would do it all again to have my sister and me, but I wonder if he had known at age seventeen what his life would look like, would he have still made the choice to enlist in the Army? Would he have risked it all if he knew what America would look like today? What was his sacrifice for?
And, it’s not just our Veterans who are living less than their best lives here. Just ask every single student in every high school who sits in class with one eye on the classroom door all day. Watching. Waiting. Listening for gun shots. Our kids can’t learn in a warzone. But, that’s how it feels when you have to do active shooter drills, and plan all the hypothetical ways you could survive if one of your classmates snaps and starts shooting up the place. My son once told me that he would charge a shooter and try to stop him if he thought he could save someone else. These aren’t thoughts our sons should be thinking on their way to school in the morning. How many families have lost their precious little ones to these senseless acts? How many more will experience the worst kinds of tragedy before we finally decide that nobody needs to own a goddamned automatic assault weapon?
I know, I know. “This country was founded on guns and Jesus! ‘Merica! Blah blah gun control! Libtards!”
Sure, the right to bear arms is a constitutional right. I get it. But, these killing machines didn’t exist when the constitution was written. There was no way for the founding fathers to predict the kind of death and destruction people would find a way to create. And, like other laws that seemed like a good idea at the time- like, “The Importation of People” aka “Slave Trading”, for example – we have a responsibility to make changes to antiquated laws that no longer make sense. Putting our citizens’ best interest ahead of tradition, dollars, the NRA and outdated constitutional laws is a critical part of our evolution as a Nation. We have a responsibility to re-evaluate these things as we go- Republicans, Democrats, baby boomers, millennials- all of us.
Do you think we’re free?
There are thousands of people sitting in jails and prisons today for having a plant in their possession. And others serving maximum minimum sentences as people of color that would have been thrown out had their skin been less pigmented. And those who needed behavioral health care rather than confinement. This costs people their lives, futures, and so much more. It also costs taxpayers billions of dollars. That’s not freedom.
There are kids in trailer parks and housing projects who don’t know where their next meal will come from. The ones who will never rise above their raising, doomed to stand in the same welfare lines they watched their parents wait in because they don’t even know that there is a way out of the poverty cycle they were born into. They don’t dream of prosperous futures in families that have never seen a college diploma. They dream of just having enough to eat. That’s not freedom.
There are college students who are all but crippled with anxiety from the pressure they feel to be perfect, to outperform their cohorts, to keep their scholarships and grant money, lest they be crushed by student debt. They resort to all kinds of drugs to stay awake longer, push themselves harder, and make it look like they are learning and thriving. Many of them will break under the weight of their responsibilities. Many will become so overwhelmed and depressed, they will end their lives before graduation. That’s not freedom.
There are countless people on the spectrum of LGBTQ+ who are forced to hide who they are for fear that they will be cast out and shunned like lepers, because their families would rather cling to their religion and archaic ignorance than extend unconditional love and acceptance to their children. That’s not freedom.
There are little children in detention camps at our Southern border who were taken from their families and stacked on top of each other in cages. They are dirty, hungry and afraid. They don’t understand why they are being held there like animals, and may never recover from the trauma they are experiencing. I dare you to go there and tell those kids about the land of the free. Could you even look them in the eye and begin to justify the way they’ve been treated? Could you stand to see your children standing where they stand? That’s not freedom.
What about the families who are one missed paycheck away from living on the street?And, the thousands of families who will file bankruptcy this year because someone had cancer, a heart attack, or another illness or injury that resulted in astronomical medical bills? Or the ones who work two of three jobs to barely make ends meet? Do you think that’s freedom? It’s not.
But, it’s not just poor people suffering. What about the corporate slaves running on treadmills to nowhere every single day to make others wealthy? How free are they? Is sitting in your car three hours a day, to work eight, ten, twelve hours or more, only to come home in the evening and collapse from exhaustion even living? That’s not freedom.
Every woman who can’t walk down the street alone at night, who checks the back seat of her car for serial killers before getting inside, who works circles around her male counterparts to make less money, and dresses to conceal her womanly shape so no one can accuse her of “asking for it” is not free. We teach our daughters to be sweet, be nice, be quiet, be pretty. Society tells them that their worth is equal to how desirable men find them. We teach them to be submissive, because if they stand up for themselves, it could get them hurt or killed. This is not freedom.
And now, there are women in states that have banned safe abortions. They will be forced to carry unwanted children to term. To give them away for adoption, or keep them- some as souvenirs of rape and incest. They will be forced to share custody of these children with the men who assaulted them. Others will resort to dangerous ways to attempt to end their pregnancies, and like generations ago, many will lose their fertility if not their lives in doing so. This is not freedom.
Think of the men and women who are battling opioid addiction today, because a doctor prescribed something our FDA deemed as safe, and didn’t bother to check in with them and make sure they were taking it appropriately. And, everyone battling addiction to any other substance- alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, crack- they are self-medicating to escape something in their lives that is causing them pain. Many will lose their lives to overdoses. Some will take their lives to end their suffering. Precious few will seek rehabilitation and therapy to fix what is broken, because the stigmas around mental health in this country make people afraid to admit when they need help. And, even if they are willing to admit that they need it, many simply cannot afford it. That’s not freedom.
What about our brown friends who have to keep their hands on the wheel at ten and two during a routine traffic stop so they don’t get shot by a scared cop? The young men who must remove their jackets, hoodies- any article of clothing that might frighten someone after dark- for their own safety? The movies and tv shows that portray African Americans as criminal, dangerous, uneducated, lazy and violent? This is not freedom.
Here’s the thing: We will not be free until everyone is free.
“Freedom” as we celebrate it in America today is nothing more than an illusion. It’s a story we tell ourselves. An idealistic fairy tale we’ve passed down generation to generation. And yet, the problems we’ve been talking about every decade that I’ve been alive on this earth just seem to get bigger. The American Dream is becoming a nightmare for so many families, and there is no end in sight.
My children were born into the first generation that is not expected to live as long as their parents. We’re poisoning their little bodies with all kinds of chemicals in our environment and shitty food. We’re poisoning their minds with technology, over-sexualized images, violence, reality television and all kinds of ignorance. We’re poisoning their hearts with the hatred and division that we are actively perpetuating every single day that we’re not doing anything about it. If we want to be free- if we want future generations to experience the kind of freedom we wish we had- we’ve got to get our shit together.
Freedom won’t come to us on the wings of a screeching eagle, no matter how loudly we sing the old war songs and ring the big bell. We can paint stars and stripes all over everything here, but we will all still be in shackles until we realize that money is not god, and people matter more than profits.
If you can, let go of the illusion of freedom as you know it. Just let go of that pie in the sky notion that America is the best place on earth, take an honest look around at all the people who are suffering here, and all the problems that we choose to look away from every day. Are you part of the problem? Is there something within your control that you could change today? Something you learned when you were a child that no longer makes sense? Something you could do to extend kindness or resources to someone who needs them? How can you embody the changes that need to happen here? What could you do to make yourself, your family, your enemies more free? Why haven’t you done those things?
Freedom will continue to be an illusion until we are ready to demand change. It’s easy to put our blinders on and pretend that we are individuals here. It’s easy to be self-absorbed and ignore the problems that we don’t think have anything to do with us. But, that’s not how life works. We are part of something much larger than ourselves. Our neighbor’s problems are our problems, too. If their house catches on fire, and no one comes to put it out, it’s just a matter of time before our house starts burning, too. And, America, shit is burning all around us. It’s time to do something about it before it’s too late.
Every great empire in the history of human life has eventually fallen. We will fall, too, if we don’t learn how to take care of each other. Honoring the humanity of all people needs to become our first priority- above money, above any other agenda, above any ideology. Until then, we are only the land of the free straight, cis-gender, wealthy, white man.