I remember when George W. Bush talked about “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. I think we should consider the applicability of a similar spirit to a new category.
I think America might have a problem with soft tyranny.
We don’t get dragged out of our homes in the middle of the night by the secret police — but a lot of us are subject to all kinds of police abuse, and some of us, like Breonna Taylor, have even been killed by the police in our own homes, on top of all those who, like George Floyd, have been brutalized or killed in public, the list of whom grows remorselessly.
We’re not slaves or serfs, we can move and work wherever we want — except for incarcerated people who are compelled to work for a pittance or for nothing, many of whom are nonviolent offenders, and many of whom were subject to racial bias in sentencing. Those of us who are free people in private employment often receive little or no paid time off, no sick leave, and enjoy little job security.
Many people have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, receiving minimal compensation in comparison to the bonuses and stock options lavished upon the corporate elite. Moreover, people who are scraping by with gigs and extra shifts scarcely have leisure time to speak of, and therefore neither time nor energy to participate politically for the sake of change.
When people get fed up enough to protest, they are not uncommonly violently suppressed by militarized and adversarial police. And have you read the fine print on your health insurance? Mine says that if I am injured in any kind of civil disturbance, and I am deemed to have been at fault, my injuries are not covered. Better think twice about going to that march.
I hasten to add that medical bankruptcy wipes out sick people on a regular basis. About 2/3 of all bankruptcies are tied to medical expenses.
People are cowed by the threat of destructive lawsuits when they find themselves in the sights of the rich and powerful. You can be financially destroyed just by the discovery process if someone with a lot of money decides to sue you.
Our school children practice hiding from people prowling the halls in search of students to murder. They practice because this kind of thing happens over and over.
There is much more to say, many more examples to give, but I think this is enough to make my point. What do we think tyranny really is? What does it look like?
Our politicians are mostly dedicated to cashing in with the corporate oligarchs, which means they are allies in the cause of exploiting the labor of the population. The insecurity, financial precariousness, and exhaustion of many people’s lives are effective means of keeping them under control and plugging away to create wealth for their corporate overlords.
If we get out of line, we can be punished financially, physically, or both. We have seen clearly that a certain cohort of the police are perfectly willing to do their part, with the dominating mindset of a military occupation in a rebellious land.
No, we’re not North Korea. I can say all this without expecting reprisals. We’re not a hard tyranny.
But where is the line?
Perhaps you think I’m overstating things. America is supposed to be the land of the free, right? In the 18th century we had a whole revolution over it. Don’t we have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, private property, due process, jury trials, elections?
Let me ask the question another way: What do we think freedom looks like? Does it really look only like the things on that list, and nothing else? Does it truly not matter if millions of people are working their fingers to the bone just to barely scrape by, in one moderately low-paying job if they’re lucky or in more than one especially low-paying job if they’re unlucky? Does it truly not matter to our experience of freedom if millions of people are a paycheck away from disaster, or are afraid of being killed if they get pulled over by a cop, or are on a mass-incarceration conveyor belt from an underperforming school to a for-profit prison?
It’s easy to believe in your freedom when your daily life tells you that our society is working reasonably well for you. At some point, though, poverty and oppression and hopelessness become so crushing that to someone else their supposed freedom is nothing but an abstraction.
Yes, it’s unquestionably good and important to have freedom of speech, and religion, and the press. It’s good to have all the trappings of civic freedom. But civic freedom isn’t the only part of human freedom that matters. There is another layer of our freedom that needs to come into play in order for civic freedom to be an actual, blessed fact of people’s lives and not just something that only matters to the fortunate few.
I’m talking about the freedom that comes with earning enough for a dignified, secure existence without sacrificing personal relationships, leisure time, or civic participation.
The freedom that comes with being secure in your person and effects regardless of your skin color, ethnic origin, gender identity, sexual identity, or anything else that in human history has tended to get you marked out for ill treatment.
The freedom that comes with living in a society where money does not equal speech and corporations are rightly understood not to be persons, so that the concerns of real people are not shouted down by corporate interests or the politicians in those corporations’ pockets.
The freedom that comes with not being locked into your job to preserve the slender thread of security offered by your health insurance, nor being at risk of being financially obliterated by a medical misfortune.
The freedom that comes when you can send your children to school without fear of mass murder or eventual mass incarceration.
Isn’t that freedom important, too?
However free we may be on paper, our freedom is diminished if life is littered with injustices and indignities, and every day is a struggle for the bare necessities. Freedom is about the worth of human life as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an economic end; freedom points to the aspirations that move us at the core of our being.
Christmas is coming, and there are children writing to Santa Claus who are seeking help for their struggling families. The US Postal Service’s “Operation Santa” has the letters. Children write to ask for money for bills, or a bed for parents who sleep on the couch, or work for a parent who needs it.
As a society, we accept this. We accept poverty and vast inequality in the name of dogma. Yes, dogma: The dogma that equates freedom with unfettered capitalism and corporate domination of politics. The dogma that uses cries of “Socialism!” to declare a more just social contract to be anathema. The dogma that wields oppression and calls it law and order.
It would not damage, much less destroy, the economy, or economic freedom, or private property, to tax the rich a little more so that the poor can effectively have a lot more. A civilization worthy of the name would see this and do it. Many other rich countries have come to this exact realization and made this very bargain. They still have freedom, they still have jobs, and they still have profitable companies.
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution announces the intent of “we the people” to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”. Notice: The blessings of liberty, not just the legal trappings of it. The nature of freedom is not to be a mere assemblage of nominal civil rights, like the freedoms of speech and the press and so on that are enshrined — better to say, entombed — in the constitution of North Korea. What human beings cry out for is our freedom to flourish. We certainly don’t cry out for the mere freedom to work too hard and be paid too little so that corporations can profit too much.
A society as wealthy as ours, if it is decent, should say, yes, there is enough for everyone, and there is no reason to allow so much to accumulate in the hoards of so few while so many others shiver and go hungry. A decent society should be able to say, yes, there are things we need to change. Police abuse, racial disparities in sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, medical bankruptcies, poverty-level wages, mass shootings — they’re not tragic facts of the universe about which we can do nothing. They’re problems arising from policies that manufacture needless suffering. They are symptoms of injustice in our society, and they can be fixed to make things better — freer! — for everyone.
That would be in a decent society.
I say again: We have a problem. We have a problem with the soft tyranny of low expectations. We expect too little from our own social contract, stopping far short of “liberty and justice for all”. We make a bad bargain with societal injustice; we settle for too few of those “blessings of liberty” and we accept manufactured suffering in their place. And so we send our children to schools where they pledge allegiance and then practice playing dead.
After they play dead, maybe they’ll get to write to Santa Claus.