I wonder if the words spilled across pages such as these will be equal to the amount of blood shed in America on any given day. Or in 2022, on a given Fourth of July, the day that supposedly celebrates Americans’ shedding the yoke of tyranny in favor of freedom. I checked the definition of ‘freedom’ and found several options. The one that seems truest, that speaks loudest to me is this one: “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” Perhaps it speaks to me more than the definitions that invoke “despotic government” or “the power to act…without restraint” because my origins as a Jew rest in having been enslaved and then freed. The notion of moving from imprisonment, or bondage, to a state of freedom is a profound one. It reminds us that the human condition can indeed be an appalling one, a debased one, a degraded one. And yet, we aspire, we hope.
The stories children are taught in American schools about the nation’s history trace a heroic narrative of throwing off the yoke of British monarchical enslavement and declaring ourselves a free people. Yes, there are the caveats about enslaved Africans and trampled Native Americans that deserve a full-throated reckoning, but that is not for this post. Here, I am focused on the origin myth of America, the one in which we tell ourselves that our national journey has been one of moving from tyrannized and enslaved, to free and self-determining.
But only a fool would take that characterization seriously. Only a rube among rubes would look at America today–a nation in which women’s bodies are shackled anew by intellectually dishonest jurists looking backward into the century of literal human enslavement for justification–and think that we are anything other than a nation of enslavers and imprisoners, of debasers and degraders.
There is no humane argument for forcing an incest victim to carry a baby to term, nor one for forcing the same upon a rape victim, or upon a woman whose life is at risk if she carries a doomed pregnancy to term. And yet, here we are. And we are unable to call out, it seems, the breathtaking, abject cruelty of such demands. We are unable (or unwilling) to say that such demands are an offense against God, if you believe in one, or that there is no God worth worshipping who would impose such cruelty upon women and children. So we say other things, like “bans off our bodies” and “my choice” and so on. But that is not enough. While control and power are clearly central features of the agenda to enslave and imprison women, cruelty is the point. As with the taskmasters of Egypt who whipped and abused the Israelite slaves, so it is with the taskmasters of contemporary America. They don’t use whips, brutal work and starvation to make their power known, but the intentions are the same. They are to deny half the population control over its most intimate choices, and even to demand death, choosing baby over mother, as if a woman is just a pass-through vessel, worthy only of birthing a child for Pharoah.
Am I being dramatic? Yes. But also no, because it is quite clear that the freedom not to be imprisoned or enslaved is precisely what has been sacrificed on the twisted altars of “originalism” and “Christian values” and “white supremacy” and a spectacular kind of toxic misogyny that is breathtaking in its proud reach and deep cruelty. Because again, the cruelty is the point. I can control, demean, and humiliate you. And because I can, I will. So has every enslaver ever said and done, and so it is for America’s enslavers. In 2022.
And then there is perhaps the most grotesque, perverted notion of freedom the world has ever seen. From our mythical origin story in throwing off the yoke of British tyranny, we have arrived at: freedom means unfettered gun ownership, even if that means that my right to own and use lethal weapons trumps your right to be free from the fear of the use of those very weapons by me. Because the cruelty–married to fear–is the point. No matter the number of gun deaths in America–about 20,000 gun-assisted suicides per year, plus another 13,000 or so other gun deaths–the blood-lust will not be sated. There is no amount of carnage, grieving and loss that will give the “freedom caucus” of gun boosters pause. Literally none. As the carnage is happening, we are told not to politicize it. As people are dying, legislation is being written not to protect victims, but to ensure that guns are not discriminated against, that guns are protected. Because as we have been told over and over again, guns don’t kill, people do. And since the gun worshippers love to remind us of the role of mental health issues, I suppose we must say that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and depression and what the hell, maybe even bulimia, also kill. But of course they only can or do when you marry them to an actual weapon. That morsel of truth, however, is buried beneath the rivers of blood and the pile-up of bodies that is the most tangible evidence of what freedom looks like in America.
Pharoah was dethroned by God, in league with Moses. I don’t know about God, but where is our Moses? Where is the human who can lead us to the promised land? He was, for a time, Martin Luther King, Jr., until his generation’s enslavers deemed him too dangerous. Because he called out their cruelty, and the silence of everyone else, the deafening sound of those who had the keys but refused to unlock the jail cells. No one I have seen has risen since to call us forward, to demand that we build the world we claim we want, one free of rhetorical and physical violence, a world in which a two-year old child is not orphaned at a Fourth of July parade when that child’s parents are gunned down by a 21 year old exercising his “freedom.” Maybe my mistake is thinking anyone might rise among us to call us to honesty, to clarity, to real reckoning. Maybe America is beyond redeeming.
The blood that will surely be spilled again, and the women who will die anew in a Roe-dead America, will be all the evidence needed to prosecute the enslavers. But if we too are in the dock, convicted by our actions and our inactions, who is left to blame? And who, we might ask in our weary, weeping rage, will set us free?