If asked why we live in a great country, an American is likely to respond: "Because we are free." Fortunately for the respondent, explanation is rarely required. Freedom is difficult to define, and today it seems to exist more in our minds than in reality.
In a 1941 Message to Congress Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to explain what it means to be free. He outlined the "four essential human freedoms":
The first is freedom of speech and expression...
The second is freedom of every person to worship...
The third is freedom from want...
The fourth is freedom from fear.
The 2013 version shows how our freedoms have been diminished, or corrupted into totally different forms.
Freedom from Want? Poverty Keeps Getting Worse.
For every three people in poverty in the year 2000, there are now four. Almost 50 million people were impoverished in 2011. Over 20 percent of our children live in poverty, including almost half of young black children. Among industrialized countries only Romania has a higher child poverty rate than the United States.
It goes well beyond economics. Not long after the FDR era, in 1960, the U.S. ranked near the top among 34 OECD countries in Life Expectancy and Infant Mortality. By 2008 we were close to the bottom. A 2007 UNICEF report ranked us last among 21 OECD nations in an assessment of child health and safety.
Freedom from Want has been least attainable for people of color. For every $100 owned by a white family, a black family has $2. For every $100 owned by a single white woman, a single black or Hispanic woman has 25 cents.
Freedom from Fear? The New Jim Crow.
In the decades before FDR young black men were under constant threat of arrest for 'vagrancy,' and the resulting slave-like conditions of forced labor. Today vagrancy has been replaced by petty drug offenses. In "The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander documents the explosion of the prison population for drug offenses, with blacks and Hispanics the main targets even though they use drugs at about the same -- or lesser -- rate as white Americans. In Colorado and Washington and New York City and Seattle the patterns are disturbingly similar: minority arrests are vastly out of proportion to their percentages of the population.
Freedom of Worship? Distorted by Visions of The Rapture.
In 2005 Bill Moyers wrote about the far-right evangelical beliefs that dominate much of conservative American thinking, and which impact social and environmental policies. He repeats a theology professor's summary of the Rapture credo: "The world cannot be saved." Believers are not responsible for the environment, and should focus only on personal salvation. Droughts and floods, which have been occurring with greater regularity as the earth warms, are simply signs of the apocalypse as foretold in the Bible, and thus should be welcomed.
With this attitude, freedom of worship is twisted into a radical dogma that threatens the health and safety of our entire population. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), like many on the conservative right, favors the Bible over science. "My point is," notes Inhofe with reference to a verse from Genesis, "God's still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."
Also to be welcomed by extremists is war with Islam in the Middle East, for it is an "essential conflagration on the road to redemption." At a Florida conference on "Biblical Prophecy about End Times," diatribes poured forth with a vengeance: "Islam is an intolerant religion...Islam is a Satanic religion." A reporter came away convinced that "A terrible, final war in the [Middle East] is inevitable."
Freedom of Speech? No, Surveillance and Harassment.
In De Jonge v. Oregon, 1937, the Supreme Court decided that the right of peaceable assembly is "cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental."
Recently released FBI documents reveal that the agency repeatedly monitored Occupy Wall Street activities, viewing them as possible terrorism.
Peaceable assembly and free speech might also describe the act of young men gathering on the streets of New York City. But their First Amendment rights, along with the Fourth Amendment prohibition against illegal search, are constantly violated by Stop & Frisk abuses by the police, which at times border on sexual assault.
In addition, our freedom of expression is increasingly compromised by advanced surveillance technologies. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act gives the government license to spy on us. New techniques such as Iris Scans, License Plate Recognition, GPS devices in pharmaceutical products, and Facial Recognition Technology invade our privacy. Drones are flying over our homes. The National Security Agency is building a data center big enough to store every email, text, phone call, web search, and video in the United States. With the Electronic Communications Privacy Act on its side, government is authorized to take anything it can get.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, "True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security." As inequality destroys our economic security, and the prison population grows, and religion continues to impact public policy, and our privacy is invaded, our precious freedoms become more and more a failed American dream.