Why I’m Happy, But Not Proud, To Be American On Independence Day

On this Fourth of July, I can say I’m happy to be an American, but not entirely proud to be an American.

Happy, because it’s undeniably pleasant to be a citizen of the most-powerful and wealthiest nation in world history. I like my mid-sized SUV and big flatscreen TV, and greatly enjoy the high level of comfort, safety, and freedom that being American affords me and my family.

Not proud, because I am acutely aware that the garden of “American exceptionalism” was heavily watered with the blood and tears of Native Americans and blacks. Our Founding Fathers may have stood for liberty, but they didn’t include Native Americans or African Americans in their bold Declaration of Independence. Instead, they rebelled against a repressive regime and then immediately created one of their own, embarking on what they saw as a divine mission to tame the land and use its resources for profit by subduing the people who had lived on it for thousands of years before the white man’s arrival. Yes, they championed some lofty and noble aspirations, but they were also warmongers and slavers of the worst sort, and we’re still stumbling through the gloomy shadow of their legacy. 

It’s important to remember that Native Americans suffered miserably when our European ancestors showed up. Foreign plagues like smallpox initially killed an estimated 45-90 million Indians, about 90 percent of their population. We couldn’t have predicted or controlled that devastation, but we could’ve prevented expansionist-minded white men from going after the rest of the Indians and their property with brutal, self-righteous vengeance. 

In my home state of Colorado, for instance, 700 U.S. militia surrounded a sleeping encampment of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians in November 1864, and then opened fire without warning or cause. Some of the soldiers under Col. John Chivington’s command protested the surprise attack, but he urged them into battle with the cry, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians…Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” And so they did, cutting fetuses out of the women while they were still alive, slaughtering infants by stepping on their heads with their boots, slicing the genitals off men and women, and decorating their horses and wagons with scalps and other body parts before parading them through Denver to celebrate the wanton murder. 

Our fury against Indians knew few bounds. 

For example, we went after their main food source, the buffalo, with unprecedented ferocity. A herd of some 30-60 million bison was cut to just a few hundred creatures in a couple of decades. We did it partly to sate our bloodlust, shooting them from trains and leaving their bodies on the ground to rot. We also did it to clear paths through the prairies for railroads and the commerce they fostered. But mostly we did it to starve the Indians out of existence. 

It worked, too, and when the remnants of their battered tribes finally surrendered, we rounded up their people and herded them like cattle to reservations on some of our new nation’s most-barren and inhospitable lands. Many of them still live there today, often in crushing poverty, our miserable treatment of them largely forgotten or ignored by the dominant culture we established. 

Blacks didn’t fare any better under American rule, and our history is tightly enmeshed with slavery. About 450,000 to 500,000 Africans were brought to North America between 1619 and 1866 to work in our homes and on our farms as slaves. 

Twelve of our first 18 presidents owned slaves, nine of them while they were in office. Presidential attitudes toward blacks seem horrifying by modern standards, and hypocritical and illogical even by the period’s standards. 

George Washington complained before the American Revolution that oppressive new British laws would make Americans “as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” Ten years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, he criticized Quaker abolitionists for fomenting unrest by encouraging slaves who were “happy and content to remain with their present masters…to leave them…” 

Andrew Jackson bought his first slave in 1788, and by 1794 he owned 16 slaves and his business included slave trading. 
Martin Van Buren said, “I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.” 

John Tyler said, “(God) works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.”

Even Thomas Jefferson, who described slavery as a “moral depravity” and was the key author of the Declaration of Independence, which argues “that all men are created equal” and are endowed with unalienable rights, to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” held blacks in poor esteem. He was one of the largest slaveowners in West Virginia, with more than 600 at his Monticello plantation. He believed blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children.” He also wrote that slavery was like grabbing “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” 

By the time morals shifted and the U.S. Congress decided to end slavery in 1860, there were 3 million to 3.5 million slaves in the South. Slavery was entrenched philosophically and economically, and the South reacted by seceding from the Union and launching a Civil War that led to the deaths of about 750,000 people, the bloodiest war in American history. 

Don’t let closet bigots or modern-day historical revisionists fool you into thinking the battle was over state’s rights or money. 

It’s true that 60 percent of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the South, which contained just 30 percent of its population, and it’s true the Southern states felt the federal government didn’t have a right to tell them what to do. But in the infamous Cornerstone Address announcing the South’s secession, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made the foul heart of the matter perfectly clear. The Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” is wrong, he said, adding that “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 

Or as William Thompson, the designer of the newly controversial Confederate flag, put it, “As a people we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race…”

I am not raising our ugly past on July Fourth to say America is a broken country or that today should be a day of mourning rather than celebration. We have done both bad and good since our first Independence Day in 1776, and the history of nations everywhere is littered with the corpses of failed political ideologies. Our weaknesses are unique, but not unprecedented. 

We have also progressed. Tribes gained significant civil rights and independence as sovereign nations in the early 1800s, and have received some modest reparations since then. Slaves were emancipated in 1863, got the right to vote in 1869, and discrimination against blacks was legally ended during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Coupled with recent, hard-fought civil rights gains made by women, people with disabilities, and just last month, gay couples who won the right to get married, America is looking freer than ever.  

Still, while we’re grilling hamburgers and waving sparklers today, I believe we ought to be mindful of our troubled legacy of oppression, if only because it’s recent and persistent. 

What do I mean when I say racism persists? 

Less than 100 years ago, entire Southern towns turned out for “spectacular lynchings,” the ceremonial torture, murder and burning alive of black Americans by whites. Angry mobs would truss up black men suspected of crimes, cut off their fingers, toes, ears, and genitals, sometimes flay them alive, and then tar their mutilated bodies and light them on fire while they were still conscious. Men, women, and children—even judges and police—attended these events like they were county fairs. Body parts were handed out as souvenirs. Food was shared, drinks quaffed. Celebratory postcards were printed and mailed to friends and family. 

Racism persists. 

Just last month, Donald Trump, one of the world’s richest and most-famous men, announced his Republican presidential candidacy by calling Latino immigrants drug dealers, rapists, and killers. He wants to build a 1,989-mile-long wall on America’s border with Mexico to keep them out, like the Great Wall China built more than 2,200 years ago. He was ridiculed by some people and lost business contracts with many former partners, but also jumped into the number-two spot in polls behind fellow conservative candidate Jeb Bush. 

Racism persists. 

Today, some of my neighbors are flying Confederate flags. I’m sure I’d see even more if I lived in Arizona or the Deep South. It’s part of the Mississippi state flag, and waves every day over public buildings in South Carolina, site of the racially motivated shootings of nine black men and women in June at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Some state leaders have called for the flag to be taken down and banned from public buildings. But more than 115,000 people a,so signed a petition within hours of its circulation calling for South Carolina to secede from the Union for the second time in American history if that happens. 

Racism persists. 

I can’t believe we’re even debating that flag’s sick symbolism. It’s steeped in racism and the blood of slavery, and I believe our society should strive to portray it only in that light. Not as a proud remembrance of Southern heritage. Not as a commemoration of the brave soldiers who died fighting for the South’s cause. Not even as a jaunty salute to a sort of admirable, playful juvenile, Dukes of Hazard-style rebellion. It is none of those things. It is an emblem of shame, ruination, and hatred. The flag’s heritage is wickedly corrupt, and while the Southern leaders and soldiers who died should be remembered, they shouldn’t be commemorated or revered any more than Himmler or Göring are. Nor should the old South. It was a bad place. One of the worst in history.

Racism persists. 

This is one reason—there are others—why I’m not entirely proud to be an American. But I am happy to be an American. God bless America, and I hope we all have a happy holiday. I intend to. 


Let’s Get Real

I’ll never understand the human urge to think positively. Not because I’m a negative thinker, but because I’m a hardcore realist. 

You can think all the positive thoughts you want in an attempt to improve your life. Go ahead and try it. 

Dim the lights, sit down, close your eyes, bow your head, and pray or meditate on goodness. Follow your bliss. Create your own reality. Avoid problems by accepting challenges and opportunities instead. Transform yourself into the delightful love child of Oprah and Joel Osteen.  

You might notice a difference. You might get a pay raise, or launch a new career that’s so exciting you end up skipping to work every morning instead of shuffling like a condemned man on his way to the electric chair. You might lose weight, overcome cancer, or just stroll around whistling instead of grumbling. That will be all the evidence you’ll need to be convinced it’s working—that the universe is answering the bell you rang for happiness.  

As the preacher and grandfather of the positive-thinking movement Norman Vincent Peale famously wrote, “Change your thoughts and you change your world…Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” 

But here’s the thing: Never forget that random dumb luck plays a bigger role in determining the course of your life than you want to believe. 

The universe isn’t here to help you out. It isn’t vibrating with a force of goodness that you can tap into or channel or command. At best, it’s cold and uncaring, and it’s playing a zero-sum game. For every positive action, science insists there is a counterbalancing negative reaction winding the universe down into a state of equilibrium. 

Practically speaking, that means you can muster all the positive thoughts you want, shoot for the moon, land in the stars, and still end up like Ann Hodges, the only person in history known to have been struck by a meteorite. 

Ann was peacefully napping on her couch under a pile of blankets one afternoon in late November 1954—two years after Peale became famous—when a fiery-red, grapefruit-sized meteorite trailing hot smoke ripped through the atmosphere above Sylacauga, Alabama. Seconds later, it swooped over the Comet Drive-in Movie Theater across the street from her rented house, pierced the roof, bounced off a console radio, and hit her in the thigh so hard it left an angry black bruise on her thigh the shape and size of a watermelon.

Ann and her husband, Hewlett, tried hard to view the event positively, in part because she wasn’t killed and also because meteorites are valuable to collectors. They were convinced the heavens had sent them a rare 8-and-a-half-pound treasure worth thousands of dollars. 

Unfortunately, the local police chief, a paranoid product of the anti-communist McCarthy era, confiscated the rock and turned it over to Air Force intelligence specialists. They confirmed it was a meteorite and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution, which inexplicably refused to return it.

“I feel like the meteorite is mine,” Ann protested. “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!”

Smithsonian curators finally relented, but only under pressure from an Alabama Congressman. Then in a new unhappy twist of fate, Ann was sued for the meteorite by her landlady, a recently widowed woman named Birdie Guy. Guy claimed the meteorite was hers because it had fallen on her property.

Legally, Guy’s case was strong. 

But an angry public pressured Guy to relinquish the meteorite to the Hodges in exchange for $500. 

Ann and Eugene then turned down a modest offer for the meteorite from the Smithsonian, and shooting for the moon with renewed enthusiasm, put their fallen star up for sale on the open market, where it promptly sat unsold. In 1956, sick of the whole affair, the Hodges gave up on their dream of riches and donated the meteorite to the University of Alabama Museum of Natural History, where it’s on permanent display.

Ann had briefly become a celebrity, appearing in magazines like Life, and on television. But she earned only a few hundred dollars from the experience, and attributed a subsequent nervous breakdown to the stress of her legal battles and fame. She and Hewlett separated in 1964. Her health worsened, and in 1972, at the age 52, she died of kidney failure at a Sylacaugan nursing home. Hewlett blamed her premature demise on the comet. 

But that’s only half the story of the fateful falling star. 

Literally half. 

It turned out Ann’s meteorite was 50 percent of the whole. The day after Ann was struck, the other fragment was found lying on a dirt road by Julius K. McKinney, who lived near the Hodges. 

How did fate treat McKinney? 

He sold his rock to the Smithsonian for enough money to purchase a small farm and a used car, and his meteorite remains on display at the Smithsonian.

There’s also more to the story of the Norman Vincent Peale.

Turns out he wasn’t always as effervescent as he appeared to be by the time Hodges got hit by the meteorite. When publisher after publisher rejected Peale’s 
freshman manuscript for The Power of Positive Thinking in the early 1950s, he became despondent and threw it into the garbage, making his wife, Ruth, promise not to fish it out of the trash can. 

Being clever and determined, Ruth carried the trashcan with the manuscript in it to one final publisher, who liked the book and published it in 1952. It went on to sell more than 20 million copies in 42 languages, made Norman and his ministry a household name, and launched an entire industry of hope.

“I don’t have as much self-doubt as he did,” Ruth told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1997. “I always felt I could do something if I put my mind to it and I wanted to.”

Now, I suppose you could argue it was positive thinking that saved the day for both farmer McKinney and Peale. But that’s only because we favor happy endings, forgetting that on the other half of the cosmic equation, things didn’t work out well at all for Hodges and that Peale came within a razor’s edge of remaining an unremarkable and bitter version of his eventual self.

Mind you, I’m not saying positive thinking is wrong, or a waste of time. Go ahead, muster as much can-do spirit as possible. Dream big. Be a champion. Or at the very least, as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior blithely encouraged the displaced and dying American Indian victims of U.S. expansionism in the 1976 movie The Outlaw Josie Wales“endeavor to persevere.” 

But never overlook the critical importance of random dumb luck. Pray it’s on your side, and that you don’t get hit by a meteorite. 

Official, Public Reaction Mixed To Shocking Report “Winter Wonderland: Exposed”

Hermey is a cruel dentist who delights in removing patients' teeth without anesthetic, according to the Wonderland report.

Hermey is a cruel dentist who delights in removing patients’ teeth without anesthetic, according to the Wonderland report.

U.S. officials and the public are reacting strongly to one of the most-shocking accounts of prisoner abuse released in years.

Not the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s brutal, illegal interrogation of prisoners captured after 9/11. That document is 6,700 pages long and depressing. Ain’t nobody got time for that. It’s Christmas, and Americans have fudge to bake and gifts to wrap.

No, politicians, business leaders, and social activists are focusing instead on a new landmark study detailing the alleged deplorable conditions at a top-secret detention center and toy factory called “Gitmo North,” sometimes referred to as The North Pole or Santa’s Workshop.

Titled Winter Wonderland: Exposed, the sweeping three-page report was compiled by a crack team of investigators that included Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, Bono, Oprah Winfrey, and Christmas crooner Harry Connick, Jr. The team examined Gitmo North’s 2,014-year history and discovered that:

• The facility is run by a jolly-looking but stern old man who uses the code name “Santa Claus” and looks suspiciously like former Vice President Dick Cheney in a long white beard and red-velvet suit.

• The elves confined at Gitmo North work around-the-clock assembling cheap plastic toys for privileged kids. Their factory is kept arctic cold to save costs, and reeks of peppermint sticks and pumpkin pie spice.

• The elves are routinely subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques used in Chinese forced labor camps and prisons. The techniques include snowboarding, having their chestnuts roasted over an open fire, being forced to handle electrified strands of potentially fatal Christmas lights, and being subjected to loud, insipid holiday music 24 hours a day. One especially brutal guard known as Jack Frost even nips at the elves’ exposed noses.

• The elves are stripped of their personal identity by being forced to wear identical uniforms—humiliating pointy felt hats, green tights, and curly-toed, bell-tipped shoes that make it impossible for them to run away from their captors without being heard.

• The elves’ growth is stunted because they’re fed nothing but a nutrition-deficient diet of hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies.

• The only healthcare the elves get is provided by a self-taught, ambiguously gendered dentist named Hermey. He is infamously cruel, and in one heavily redacted videotape appears to be gleefully pulling teeth without anesthetic.

• Freedom of religion isn’t allowed in Christmastown because the elves are required to participate in the center’s only endorsed religion, Christianity. As Claus told investigators, “Jesus is the reason for the season here at Gitmo North. Anybody who doesn’t like it is…well, let’s say they’re strongly encouraged to undergo spiritual reprogramming at our psychiatric hospital.” That hospital is run by a secretive local resident known only as “The Abominable Snowman,” who is described by some of his former patients as a torture expert known to eat some of his victims.

Christmastown Warden Claus ridicules Rudolph's nasal disability.

Christmastown Warden Claus ridicules Rudolph’s nasal disability.

• Reindeer at Gitmo North are treated worse than caged pigs in Iowa and New Jersey. Cruelly harnessed and mercilessly whipped, the reindeer pull Santa’s dangerously overloaded sleigh around the world at recklessly high speeds even in the worst weather conditions. One underage reindeer, identified in the report only as “Rudolph,” has a pronounced nasal disability that causes his nose to glow bright red and was so mistreated by Claus he fled into the wilderness to die. When he miraculously survived and returned to Gitmo North to see his family, Claus used sophisticated social-acceptance mind games to manipulate the young ungulate into leading his sleigh through the most-treacherous winter blizzard in decades.

• The source of Gitmo North’s funding is mysterious, but appears to have strong ties to super-rich titans of industry like the Koch Brothers and the clannish Walton family, owners of Walmart.

Reaction to the report is deeply mixed.

Social progressives say conditions at Christmastown violate U.S. and international laws against torture and illegal imprisonment. They also argue the elves and talking reindeer are entitled to the same basic freedoms as humans, including the right to vote in elections, decent working conditions, guaranteed livable minimum wages, and freedom of religion.

Conservatives counter that the Wonderland report is just another example of the secular humanist War on Christmas. They argue Gitmo North’s residents are happy for their opportunities at Christmastown and would be miserable without their benefactors, forced to huddle in dank caves and eat berries and pine needles. They also contend Christmastown’s low wages and efficient toy-making factory are essential to national economic growth and job creation.


Shut Up, Shut Up, Shut Up!

What’s the most-irritating sound in the world?

a) Unhappy children wailing at a restaurant?

b) Taylor Swift screeching her hit single, Shake It Off?

c) The contemptuous cackling of the Walton family, who have relied on generous taxpayer subsidies and the welfare system to make Walmart the nation’s biggest private employer while they accumulate $145 billion and pay their average worker a pathetic $8.81 an hour?

Answer: None of the above.

The world’s most-irritating sound is the collective caterwauling of the government-hating Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Party members who are once again sounding the alarm about the national debt, which recently hit $18 trillion. These purveyors of pessimism want to scare you into believing the country is ruined, and that President Obama is personally parading us down Mephistopheles’ crooked path to perdition.

But they’re as wrong as doughnuts for diabetics. Here’s why:

There is no new looming debt crisis. America has always been in debt and it has gone up every year except one without creating financial calamity of any kind. That’s largely because our economy, measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), also keeps growing. Economic growth erases debt, and nations often have to borrow money to help make that growth happen, especially during recessions like the global one created under the Bush administration. America has a lot of faults—if you were unlucky enough to see The Lone Ranger last year you know what I’m talking about—but making money isn’t one of them. We still have the world’s largest and strongest economy by a wide margin.

America isn’t overstretched. National debt is completely unlike personal debt, broad (and stupid) comparisons by the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding. Why? Partly because national debt is a collective liability, and therefore more secure than personal debt. But also because governments don’t usually borrow money to buy frivolities like new cars, although I wish they did because then I’d be tempted to go on the dole to get a free government flat-screen television instead of free government cheese. I need to see Game of Thrones more than I need to eat, trust me. Sadly, however, governments generally borrow money to finance boring stuff like roads, business loans and education, which have a positive return on investment.

Our national debt isn’t as bad as it has been. It was even higher following the Great Depression and WWII. It peaked at about 118 percent of our GDP then, and stands at about 100 percent now. Some wildly successful countries like Japan let it ride as high as 200 percent of GDP without suffering unduly, although I wouldn’t recommend that any more than I’d recommend eating day-old gas station sushi. Even when they do suffer, there isn’t a direct correlation between debt as a percentage of GDP and economic collapse.

Freeloaders aren’t the cause of our debt. Drug-addicted welfare moms aren’t breaking the bank, war is. America spends about $212 billion a year on all its welfare programs. By contrast, we’ve wasted about $6-7 trillion fighting terrorism, destroying weapons of mass destruction, and spreading democracy in the Middle East in the last decade or so, and we’re still spending like the arms dealers are holding a fire sale. Conservatives seem to love war, perhaps because their kids are rarely eligible for military service once their mouths get deformed from sucking on silver spoons.

Going into debt saved us from a second Great Depression. The national and global economy has been lackluster for years, but if we hadn’t invested in recession-busting economic stimulus programs, more of us would have been forced to obsessively save string and newspaper like our grandparents did. The U.S. economy has steadily improved under the current administration and is growing this year by about 3-5 percent, a remarkable feat considering that inflation has remained almost non-existent. The unemployment rate also has dropped below 6 percent, meaning we’re nearing what’s considered full employment statistically. Even Obama’s “scandalous” renewable energy loan program—headlined by the “catastrophic” and much-ridiculed $528 million failure of a solar-power company called Solyndra—has created tens of thousands of jobs and is expected to earn taxpayers about $6 billion.

America loans more than it borrows. While foreign investors like China hold much of our national debt, we also loan the world money to the tune of about 89 cents on every dollar we borrow. The quirky result, which conservatives hate admitting, is that because the U.S. government invests brilliantly, we earn billions more on the debts owed to us than we pay on the debts we owe others.

Debt isn’t a liberal problem. All politicians seem to be shopaholics, but former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Harry S. Truman reduced public debt as a share of GDP. The last four Republican presidents, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, increased the country’s debt. Conservative hero Reagan was the worst spendthrift, tripling the national debt by cutting corporate taxes and betting on a ridiculous trickle-down theory of economics that allowed rich people to piss on the rest of us.

So, am I saying the national debt is nothing to be concerned about, or that liberals are better at national finance than conservatives?

No, only a fool would say that given what happened to Greece, which couldn’t sell enough olives and yoghurt to stay solvent and keep allowing its lazy socialists to retire at the age of 55. There’s also no doubt the U.S. would be better off having less debt if the shaky global economy collapses, which it easily might if global warming makes farming any harder or people suddenly stop buying BMWs.

But people who carp about America’s national debt aren’t doomsday prophets we should heed. Or maybe they are in the sense that their repeated dire predictions are baseless and idiotic. They might be right one of these days. Nothing good lasts forever, and someday somebody has to pinpoint the financial collapse correctly even if it’s by random dumb luck. But so far they’ve always been wrong. They remind me of the infamous fundamentalist Christian preacher Harold Camping, who wrecked lives and made a mockery of the Gospel by repeatedly and brazenly failing to predict the End Times.

Conservatives make me sad, and for now, I wish they would shut up about the national debt. Their noisy clatter is making my ears bleed.


Freedom Isn’t Free

Nothing says freedom like the open range, a cowboy and the American flag.

Nothing says freedom like  a cowboy hat, the American flag and a taxpayer-supported open range that allows fiercely independent welfare ranchers like Cliven Bundy to get rich.

Remember Cliven Bundy, the mouthy Nevada rancher who ganged up with his militia pals and used an arsenal of guns to bravely stand down the federal government over an obscure cattle-grazing dispute that nobody cares about as long as it doesn’t raise the price of hamburger at Walmart?

I do, and I also remember thinking he was batshit crazy. Not because he risked getting his brassy balls blasted to bits by a pissed-off posse of federal marshals waving assault rifles. Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in, even if it’s shamefully wrong and gets you killed dead.

No, I thought Bundy was madder than a cowboy hatter because he believes in freedom with a capital F.

Freedom is a ridiculous concept. I’ll never understand why the word brings tears of patriotic pride to the eyes of flag-waving Libertarians, Tea Partiers, and mainstream conservatives everywhere from Poughkeepsie to Portland. Even liberals get a little misty-eyed when they hear the word, although I admit it doesn’t take much more than a box of kittens to make a liberal’s lower lip quiver.

Listen to me: There is no such thing as freedom, and there never was. There is fleeting freedom, or limited freedom, or relative freedom, sure. Given a choice between having lunch with an insurance agent and spending 10 years performing slave labor on the Gulag Archipelago, only a madman would pick the Gulag.

I think.

Maybe not. Insurance is extremely dull.

But what are we to make of this idea of pure unadulterated individual freedom? This nagging belief that every American ought to be able to strip naked, jump on a Harley Davidson and race at 145 mph from Denver to Detroit tossing hand grenades at bunnies in the brush just because it’s fun to blow things up?

Americans aren’t merely fond of this idea. It frames nearly every decision we make, from how we manage our health care system and regulate fracking to the size of the flags we fly on July 4th and how many loaded pistols we keep hidden under the condoms and vibrators in our nightstands. We treasure the idea of freedom, fantasize about it, mythologize it, and worship it like a god. If we could, we’d oil up and mate with it hoping to give birth to pretty neon butterflies that would float around spreading the true gospel of freedom to the rest of the world’s freedom-impoverished nations.

Is it any wonder our best-recognized state motto is New Hampshire’s Live free or die? Even more popular than Delaware’s motto, We can’t find ourselves on a map, either? Never mind that live free or die was stolen from the French, those unsupportive and arrogant butter-swilling socialists. Give me liberty or give me death is an idea that is as firmly wedged into the American psyche as a wet cork in a well-worn bunghole.

I don’t know how this idea of freedom grabbed ahold of America’s love handles so firmly. My conservative friends tell me it has a lot to do with the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Constitution.

I Googled "Benjamin Franklin womanizer" but thought this picture of Brad Pitt with Madisen Beaty was much nicer. Pretend it's Ben with somebody French.

I Googled “Benjamin Franklin womanizer” for an image but thought this picture of Brad Pitt with Madisen Beaty was much more interesting than an old man in a wig consorting with Betsy Ross. Pretend it’s that rascal Ben with one of his French lovers.

As I understand it, these wise leaders ordered their wives, mistresses and slaves to stay in the kitchen and leave them alone while they consulted mano-y-mano with God to hatch a new paradigm valuing individual liberty above everything else. Even beer and sex, which is hard to believe given their records of drunken debauchery and womanizing. Benjamin Franklin may be best-known for offering sound moral advice like “Early to bed, Early to rise, Makes a man Healthy, Wealthy and Wise,” but let’s don’t forget that he also wrote gems like “After three days men grow weary of a wench, a guest & weather rainy,” and “Neither a Fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.” It’s clear to me that if old Ben wasn’t in bed by 7 p.m., he went home. Presumably to write shallow and misguided aphorisms that would shape the nation’s destiny in unfortunate ways.

Now, before you storm my Chateau and exercise your Second Amendment right to shoot me in the face for criticizing our old-guard leadership, give me a chance to invoke my First Amendment right to free speech so I can explain what I mean. All I’m saying is that if it’s true our Founding Fathers are history’s greatest champions of the philosophy of individual freedom, then history sucks more than I imagined because they made several egregious mistakes when they laid out their case for it:

• One, they were horrible spellers. The Constitution and other documents are rife with mistakes. Choose became “chuse,” for example, and they couldn’t get Pennsylvania right, omitting one of the first two Ns, even though they were in Pennsylvania at the time, for fuck’s sake. Their grammar and punctuation was equally atrocious, sometimes making it hard for the Supreme Court to interpret what they meant. At the very least, these unlettered men set a troubling precedent for America’s educational system that persists today. But we can’t start redlining the Constitution now. It is what it is, and I suggest we chuse to ignore it.

• Two, when our Founding Fathers lobbied for freedom by writing “all men are created equal,” they meant rich white men. Voting rights weren’t extended to Blacks, Native Americans, women, or the poor of any race, perhaps because lead author Thomas Jefferson was a blatant racist who didn’t want his slaves stirring up trouble at his Monticello plantation while he was busy upstairs in the house “discussing abolition” with his scandalously young mistress, a slave of mixed race who ran the household. That same prejudice, misogyny and class elitism still taints our political processes and thinking today, and if you disagree then you’re most likely white, willfully ignorant, or one of the aristocratic Scrooge McDucks who runs the country. Possibly all three.

• Three, the Founding Fathers wrongly focused on rights when they should have discussed responsibilities. I blame this on youthful exuberance and ignorance. The more I study American history, the more I believe the Founding Fathers were basically like wilding teenagers who left home to attend college in another country. Having escaped the tyranny of their big, bad daddy, they wanted what all teenagers want: An endless supply of highly caffeinated energy drinks, beer, as much tax-free spending money as they could get, sex, and the keys to the Range Rover. When poppa—and I admit King George III was a little overbearing, as fathers of teenagers tend to be—tried to enforce some discipline, the Founding Fathers pounded their adolescent fists on the table and whined about their rights, overlooking the sad fact that adulthood is much more about shouldering dull and burdensome responsibilities than it is about running around naked and drunk with a pair of shoes tied to your unfettered dong, something I assure you I never did in college when I was supposed to be studying.

Really, I didn’t. I swear.

You have to admire the easy-to-clean lines of European toilets, even if they are freedom-hating socialists.

You have to admire the easy-to-clean lines of European toilets, even if the people who flush them are freedom-hating socialists.

I’d forgive the Founding Fathers the excesses of youth, but thanks to them America still behaves like a petulant tweener today, perhaps because the nation is just 238 years old. Europe has toilets older than the United States. Politically, it also grew up long ago, which is why people there are less materialistic, choosing to work less and make the financial sacrifices necessary to allow them to give decent minimum wages and benefits to all workers, invest in the education of their children, and provide health care and other social-welfare programs that ensure a basic quality of life for themselves and their fellow citizens.

• Four, the Founding Fathers failed to define freedom precisely enough. Their driving thought seemed to be that freedom means “no taxation without representation,” an idea that was closely tied to the idea that our society—not the African or Native American societies, mind you—had a right to self-determination, which was was in turn supported by laws protecting freedoms like speech and the right for militias to arm themselves.

Despite our modern mythological reverence for these freedoms as pure ideological concepts, however, none of them were viewed that way by early Americans. For instance, less than a decade after the First Amendment was passed, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, making it a crime to criticize the government. Speech that threatened public order was also restricted, especially rants against slavery and the Civil War, or speech considered pro-union or pro-socialism. Even our precious guns weren’t left untouched by the law. 1813, Kentucky enacted the first carrying concealed weapon statute in the United States, and in 1837 Georgia banned the sale of most pistols. Indiana, Alabama and Arkansas all had concealed carry laws in the early to mid 1800’s. Some of these laws were later struck down, but the point is that our freedoms have long been mitigated by reason, as they should be.

Such is the power of the American freedom myth and corporate anti-tax lobbying, however, that over time the Founding Fathers’ poorly defined and often contradictory thoughts about freedom magically morphed in the American imagination into a definition of freedom best summed up by the phrase, “Those goddamned revenuers better keep their fucking hands off my money and get their noses out of my business or I’ll pump them full of buckshot.”

Which is bullshit. Where on earth did we get the utterly false impression that laws, regulations, and taxes are freedom-stifling? The Founding Fathers never argued against the rule of law or taxes. In fact, they loved government. They just wanted fair representation and the freedom to plunder the new world for profit without interference from the homeland.

Of the nearly 200 nations on the planet, most of the advanced ones are more or less what many Americans would (wrongly) consider socialist, which is to say they have strong corporate regulations and social welfare programs funded by relatively high corporate and personal taxes. They should represent the antithesis of freedom and happiness, yet most seem as free and as happy as us, often more so. We may boast about our First Amendment and free press, for example, but according to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. ranked 46th among 180 nations surveyed, falling 13 places since last year. Meanwhile, when it comes to overall freedom, the Canadian Fraser Institute ranks the U.S. just seventh among its most and least free countries for 2013.

But studies are just horseshit shoveled at us by Ivory Tower academics, so let’s try a difference approach: Ignore the fact that you’re a fiercely proud American for just a minute and ask yourself who’s more free, the average Italian who is guaranteed 42 vacation days a year and often gets more, or the average American who gets less than 10, none of it guaranteed by law? Or how about Swedish mothers, who are guaranteed 14 months of paid maternity leave to spend bonding with their newborns compared to none—zero, for fuck’s sake!—for American mothers? Similarly, were we freer without publicly funded healthcare, even when 30-40 million Americans couldn’t afford health insurance at all and getting sick was the single biggest cause of bankruptcy even for those who could?

No! We not only take give me liberty or give me death too seriously, we take it too literally.

• Five, and perhaps most importantly, the Founding Fathers based their thinking on a false philosophical assumption that rich white men are endowed by God with unalienable rights. These rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, the right to bear arms, and access to a speedy criminal trial if you bear those arms too much and shoot your wife’s lover in his pimply arse after coming home from work early one afternoon and catching them betwixt the sheets.

This bold, faith-based assertion about unalienable rights wasn’t handed from God to Jefferson and his pals on stone tablets. It was borrowed directly from two Deist Englishmen—John Locke, a physician and liberal philosopher; and Sir William Blackstone, a popular law professor and armchair philosopher at Oxford University. Blackstone’s assertion that our rights are absolute and an inseparable part of our humanity because God is absolute and created us in His image struck the Founding Fathers’ fancy.

If you’re a heathen who doesn’t believe in God, you’re already cringing at Blackstone’s argument. But let’s set religion aside for a moment and look at the issue from another point of view.

Nothing in our life experience indicates we are independent, let alone bequeathed with independence by a creator. We might feel alone lying in bed at night with nothing to hug but an empty flask of whiskey and a crumpled photo of our high school sweetheart (I miss you, honey!), but we are never fully disconnected from others. We’re conceived as pairs, remain wholly dependent on our parents’ nurture for at least 10-12 years, and are raised in families. Families inevitably become clans, clans morph into cities, cities become states, and states form nations.

This is how it’s been since Ogg shacked up with Lucy 3.2 million years ago and they got busy populating the world. It appears this is how it will always be because there is no viable alternative. At every stage of our development we are by necessity governed by increasingly complex sets of rules that limit our individual freedom more and more, whether it’s simple familial rules like being expected to stop giving our brothers titty-twisters, or maddeningly complex rules that force us to sit down at the kitchen table every April 14th to fill out our federal and state forms. The very thing that defines our lives is the set of rules that bind us together with our families and society. We cannot live without them or one another, which means individual freedom is a complete fantasy.

Now this is freedom. Call me, Scarlett. Let's move to an island and start our own country.

Now this is freedom. Call me, Scarlett. Right now. Let’s move to an island and found our own country based the ideals of free love.

Because this point is important and may contradict your basic world view if you were blessed enough to be born in God’s first runner-up chosen land and then taught to mechanically recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, let me say it another way: Believing in individual liberty is right up there with believing in Santa Claus; Or the possibility that Johnny Depp or Scarlett Johansson might bed us if we only had a chance to meet; Or that there is a Mother Ship hiding behind Comet ISON waiting to take true believers to the New Earth. Any of these things is possible, but laughably improbable, although I swear Scarlett makes eyes at me in the theater.


We aren’t independent.


Americans may fear freedom-inhibiting collectivist societies like the Borg, the militant socialists who threatened the militaristic space cowboys who ran Starfleet in Star Trek, but like it or not, we are them. We live in hives, and we think and act in groups.

Simply put, the Founding Fathers had it wrong. If they believed in Jehovah and Jesus, something I increasingly doubt because most of them were Deists and Deists deny the Christian miracles and resurrection, then they weren’t listening to them because it seems clear he endowed us not with independence, but dependence. On Him and your fellow believers for starters, if you believe the story, and on one another.

For evidence, we need look no further than our own backyards. Even here in God’s country, individualism never existed–not among the settlers who landed at Plymouth Rock, not for Daniel Boone and the pioneers who pushed west looking for a little more elbow room, and not among the cowboys slept under the stars with nothing but horses, cows, and rattlesnakes for company. They all lived in societies, or at the very least, symbiotically with society.

Even America’s new freedom hero Cliven Bundy isn’t free. He might look good sitting on a horse with an AR-15 assault rifle and an American flag, but his ranch’s success depends on being able to graze his cattle on publicly owned lands without paying mandatory grazing fees, meaning he’s a freeloading welfare rancher who got rich on taxpayers’ dimes, not because he worked hard and tamed the land that our ancestors stole from the Mexicans and Indians.

Freedom is a treasured American myth, but in the real world, the serious, modern one that requires us to get up every morning and go to work so that we can pay our cable bills and then rush home at night to revel in the orgiastic sex and violence of Game of Thrones, it’s clear we’re not free at all. We are restricted by all sorts of bonds, and I’m not talking about the playful variety described (or so I’ve heard from my pervy friends) in 50 Shades of Grey. I’m talking about obvious laws designed to help prevent us from shooting one another or stealing one another’s comic book collections. Or behind-the-scenes regulations intended to keep companies from selling us poisonous food or dangerous cars. Or a host of unspoken rules that obligate us to our friends and families, and them to us.

Americans constantly grouse about these restrictions on our freedom, of course. We deeply resent them because they contradict our fundamental philosophical assumption that we are born free and should remain free. That the police and bureaucrats and government—especially Big Government, whatever those two frighteningly squishy words mean—are inherently bad and should be resisted at every turn. Sometimes, even violently opposed, Cliven Bundy style.

But mostly, we pout about these rules.


I didn't think I'd like the Captain America movies because I'm a grown man, but I was wrong. This dude is a stud and a half, and he appealed to the 13-year-old boy that dominates my psyche.

I didn’t think I’d like the Captain America movies because I’m a grown man, but I was wrong. This dude is a stud and a half, and he appealed to the 13-year-old boy who dominates my psyche.

In a word, we’re immature. We don’t understand why we need government and its rules to survive any better than 13-year-old kids understand why their parents tell them to go to bed and get a proper night’s rest before school. We disrespect rules because we stubbornly refuse to see how they benefit us, and harbor some vague notion that rules stand in opposition to freedom when in reality they more often make us freer. We refuse to accept that life without government, without rules and restrictions, would be, as 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short.”

One final thought: Freedom doesn’t even mean what we hope it means. It is a word with philosophical roots that run counter to our modern American interpretation.

Etymologists, the extreme language nerds who study word origins when they’re not dressing up as lords and ladies for Renaissance festivals, believe the English word for freedom comes from the pre-Christian German word “friede,” which means “peace.” Friede described a unique peaceful period following the end of a blood feud between two warring clans when the softer, feminine qualities of the god Freda held sway. To achieve peace, the clan that had committed the most recent wrong against another clan had to fork over a gift of meat or animal hides. American historian David Hackett Fischer traced the origins of the word and concluded that to Northern European cultures, freedom wasn’t something individuals possessed—Gasp!—but a communal good shared equally between all members of a society, which may explain why they have a more sophisticated and nuanced view of what freedom means today.

I can only assume that when the American colonists traveled across the Atlantic, that communal notion of freedom got lost like luggage. Let’s hope we find it before we soil our shorts and need a change of underwear.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin