On Wednesday lots of Americans will be making lots of noise with firecrackers, eating 85 percent fat free hamburgers, drinking draught beer from a pressurized keg. For many it will be followed by a parade and a late trip to the park for a grand display of fireworks. Many Americans take the opportunity to wave flags even more vehemently in honor of our breaking away from British rule over 200 years ago and still others will be reminded to chant over the noise of fireworks, “I want to take my country back.”
Freedom is realized through a set of rights. No one needs to remind Americans of this, whether members of the Tea Party in defense of a perceived threat to their rights or an innocent convict on death row subsisting within the complete deprivation of any rights whatsoever.
While independence from the colonialism of Great Britain signifies the immediate meaning behind this most cherished holiday among American patriots, it’s only fitting that we revisit precisely what our freedom means and how it applies to the United States on the Fourth of July.
Thanks to the American Revolution those rebellious thirteen colonies broke themselves off from the imperialism of the British Empire in July of 1776, joining together in an armed conflict against the British in the American War of Independence. The war ended with effective American victory in October 1781. Our relationship with the British Empire was severed United States Declaration of Independence.
The resulting American Enlightenment brought with it a period in American history of a new intellectual freedom of spirit in the mid-to-late 18th century. It celebrated liberty, democracy, republicanism and religious tolerance. A new bridging of science and religion resulted in a rejection of fundamentalism in favor of a more reasoned view of our higher collective being.
John Locke is considered to have a major influence in the crafting of the Declaration of Independence. His thinking is grounded in social contract theory, holding that the individual surrenders in part to the authority of government in exchange for protection of natural rights. Individuals are then bound morally, by the Law of Nature, not to harm each other in their lives or possession, mutually agreeing that without government to defend them against those seeking to injure or enslave them, people would have no security in those rights.
In The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson writes, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
If these rights are distributed by a Creator based on equal creation, it’s government, then, that safeguards these rights, ensuring an equal distribution and its maintenance. So how well have we sustained this legacy? Here are several key indicators of those unalienable rights.
The broadest indicator of freedom in the 2012 United States falls under the heading of civil rights. Recently the Director of Legal Progress, Andrew Blotky recently said, “It bears remembering … that the most fundamental rights in our Constitution, from our nation’s founding all the way through to today, are civil rights…civil rights are truly front and center in our national dialogue today, and are what make our nation stand above the rest in terms of freedom, liberty, and equality.”
These unalienable rights of access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness continue to lag the rest of the country when it comes to several groups of Americans. You might fall into one of these groups. Civil rights continue to be fought for by African-Americans, gays and lesbians, women, students, immigrants, and federal prison inmates deprived of due process.
Almost 50 years after the enactment of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 we continue to witness a struggle for its universal application in America. This landmark legislation was enacted July 2, 1964. It outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation. At least on paper, it ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.
While many have heralded the election of our first African American president, Barack H. Obama in 2008 as the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s post-racial prophesy, others point to the surge in racially motivated hate crimes and institutional racism that includes voter suppression, a racially skewed criminal justice system and racial profiling by law enforcement officials.
And yet I’m reminded here of the 2010 statement by newly elected Congressman Rand Paul who argued that government should not force private businesses to abide by civil rights law.
Regardless of level, women continue to bump up against a glass ceiling. These 50 years since the passing of The Civil Rights Act have also not completely eradicated discrimination based on gender.
This past year has witnessed a spiraling war on women’s rights. In the first six months of 2011, states enacted 162 new provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Although we celebrated the 49th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, women, on average, still earn only 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts take home, and for women of color, the disparity is even greater. On June 5, a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act failed in the Senate in a party line vote of 52-47, falling short of the 60 votes needed to move forward.
In addition, women continue to be objectified in pornography and human trafficking in 2012 America.
Although women's suffrage was memorialized in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women continue to be disproportionately absent from public office.
Women still suffer from domestic and other types of violence. Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012 was not exactly easy going. Prior to its eventual renewal, it was fiercely opposed by conservative Republicans in the House in 2012.
In the military, some experts claim that women's perceived role as a sub-class of soldier encourages sexual violence against women in the military. The Department of Defense's new Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office is addressing these concerns.
Planned Parenthood is the agency that provides most poor women with health care. This organization provides important sexual and reproductive health information and services. It also advocates for sound foreign policy that impacts sexual and reproductive health and rights globally.
Seventy-five percent of their clients have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level." At over five million clients a year, that's 3.75 million impoverished people who depend on Planned Parenthood for health services. Cancer screenings make up 16 percent of Planned Parenthood's clinical offerings, while abortions make up only 3 percent. A total of 600,000 poor Americans depend on Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings each year.
To the thinking of most sensible humanitarians, “Family planning is morally laudable in Christian terms because of its contribution to family well-being, women’s health, and the prevention of abortion,” according to a document drafted by New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Unplanned pregnancies in a world of over 7 billion people where half of those people suffer in abject poverty can be one of the most inhumane aspects of 21st century humanity.
And yet, for the first time in recent memory, state legislatures have devoted significant attention to eradicating all forces related to family planning since 2010. Overall, about one in six of the 44 million American women who receive contraceptive or other reproductive health care each year receive these services from publicly funded family planning clinics. In six states that include Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin family planning programs have suffered deep cuts. In three other states the cuts to family planning funding have been disproportionately large. Those Montana eliminated the family planning line item, and New Hampshire and Texas cut funding by 57% and 66%, respectively.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of American civil rights legislation that banned discriminatory voting practices responsible for widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans. Yet, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, our voting system remains deeply flawed. Although we lay claim to the world’s oldest representative government, only half of all eligible Americans vote. Making this situation worse, since 2011, state governments across the country have put in place new laws with the possibility of making it significantly more difficult for as many as 5 million eligible Americans to vote.
The ACLU reports that there were eight states this year that passed some version of a law requiring photo identification for all voters. On June 29, the Department of Justice on Friday blocked South Carolina’s law, which would have disproportionately affected thousands of minority voters. In Florida, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has denied the U.S. Department of Justice's request to stop Florida Governor Rick Scott's purge of registered voters.
These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, elderly, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. These practices are likely to have long lasting effects on voting outcomes and therefore freedom, independence and unalienable rights in America.
Our war veterans are among the most venerable of Americans. They’re the most visible group of Americans charged with defending our freedom and independence. Yet, according to the Center for American Progress, veterans are disproportionately homeless. One in seven homeless adults is a veteran. More than 67,000 homeless veterans were counted on a given January night in America last year.
Over 30 percent of veterans ages 18 to 24 were unemployed according to unpublished 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, nearly 1 in 10 veterans with disabilities were not employed in 2010. More than 968,000 of veterans ages 18 to 64 had been in poverty in the past year in 2010.
The safety net provides veterans with critical food, heat, and health assistance, $31 million of SNAP/food stamps funding in 2008 was spent at military commissaries to help feed military members and their families who struggle against hunger. The 2013 Farm Bill contains a $4.5 billion cut to food stamps that will harm large numbers of struggling families that include these veterans.
These programs and other services help struggling veterans and nonveterans reclaim the freedom that comes with those unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence.
The United States Supreme Court has largely affirmed that state immigration laws like Arizona’s S.B. 1070 violate our Constitution, but it upheld one of the most troubling provisions of Arizona's anti-immigration law, while striking down three others. Lawsuits challenging the provision on racial profiling grounds will continue to be litigated and we are confident that the measure will ultimately be struck down. Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling today means that while we await that future decision, the fundamental rights of Americans living in those states will be degraded.
The American Poor
While global poverty overall has declined, it has risen in the United States. A February 2012 study from The National Poverty Center shows that the number of U.S. households living in extreme poverty (defined here as less than $2 a day per person) more than doubled from 1996 to 2011. The number of extremely poor children also doubled during that time, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.
The budget recently passed by the House would further cut the social safety net. House Budget Chairman Ryan’s plan would cut about 16 percent from the White House budget on everything from food stamps to housing assistance to the earned-income tax credit.
Poverty is a sure antidote for freedom.
These are just some of the ways that we have fallen short of the mandate for freedom we have inherited from our forefathers. In this era of post-American Enlightenment we can do better. The key word here is CAN. The right public policy aimed at a fair distribution of costs as well as benefits will go a long way in declaring independence this Fourth of July and every day. Let’s follow through on that social contract.