By Lucas O’Connor
Marking this year’s Independence Day, the Supreme Court served up easy tie-ins for good and for bad. We saw the end of DOMA and of Proposition 8, and weddings began up and down the state of California. We also saw the end of fundamental voter protections in the Voting Rights Act, calling into question the viability of the most fundamental function of our democratic system. And if that weren’t enough, right here in San Diego we saw the culmination of the chalker case, raising all sorts of bizarre questions about the Bill of Rights that might actually be best not considered too carefully. But from the momentous to the trivial, all are steering us towards what it really means to be free and independent.
The ideas of Freedom and Independence often overlap, but aren’t necessarily interchangeable. Freedom is rarely easy, but is generally a simple concept to which we can aspire. Independence takes the opportunities of freedom to a higher standard, demanding a capacity for sustainability, not just separation from an outside authority, and that sort of independence can take a lot of work.
We hear often in this country about the virtues of hard work, and there’s no question that difficult challenges met and overcome through tenacity and ingenuity carry a satisfaction and a value that’s necessary to improving our own lot and to the business of forging this more perfect union.
But too often, that respect for the hard work before us is replaced by some notion that there’s nobility in creating roadblocks to success. We hear politicians lamenting that somehow it’s too easy to stay alive, so it should be more difficult to obtain food, or shelter, or health care. We hear politicians lamenting that it’s too easy to get a decent job (recent economics of recession and offshoring only providing sad irony), so we should be making college less attainable or taking resources out of the classrooms where our kids need the most help. Read Horatio Alger, we’re assured, and the path to success will reveal itself.
What’s missing from these concepts is a desire for everyone to thrive, as though too many people being fed and sheltered and educated would ruin it for the rest of us. But considering the alternative, the reasoning becomes more clear.
Often times, the second piece of the argument about society or government making things ‘too easy’ is the idea that there’s just too much government control over our lives. The weight of providing basic opportunities is so odious that nobody has any opportunities. But what’s the alternative? Having corporations control our lives is hardly a more attractive alternative, even if they’ve done a better job with market research than most government officials.
No matter how much or little you may feel your vote matters in this country’s elections, it definitely matters less at Wal-Mart. And the most essential aspect of modern corporate capitalism is that the public good is irrelevant. Profit is to be extracted from the people, not spent on the people, and the measure of a successful corporation is the degree to which it is able to not simply obtain, but accumulate that wealth. Independence doesn’t mean replacing white cats with black cats, it means having the tools not to rely on cats at all.
My job each day is specifically to deal with economic issues. All day, every day, the challenge is for people to have jobs that allow them to pay their bills, provide for their families (and even occasionally see their families), take an occasional vacation, and retire without having to worry about dying in poverty. It can be amazing how hard that work is and how much resistance there can be to those principles, but it’s the work of building independence.
But stopping at wages misses the broader challenge. Access to affordable, competent health care (even if you’re a woman!) is an economic issue. Air and water that doesn’t make people sick is an economic issue. Not allowing employers to fire someone for being gay, or for being old, or for being pregnant, or for getting sick, or for being the ‘wrong’ ethnicity or religion is an economic issue. Universal, meaningful access to an education that equips our children to pursue a sustainable, middle class career is an economic issue. And it’s all part of ensuring that we aren’t all left in fear of the whims of our employer, or our government’s next trade deal, or the next flu bug, or our children wanting to go to college. It’s all part of building that capacity for independence.
So, on this Independence Day, I reflected on what it takes to have a society that provides everyone the opportunity to be not just free, but independent. It’s hard work, and it’s never finished, which is the very nature of this national experiment.