Sunday, January 12, 2014

Freedom's Just Another Word....

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." ~Janis Joplin, "Me and Bobby McGee" [lyrics by Kris Kristofferson]

In the context of the song itself, the line has a positive connotation. It evokes the removal of all constraints--in the particular case, for the two youthful individuals on a road trip. However, taken in a different way, the line can have a somewhat darker connotation: You have nothing left to lose because you never had anything to start--or have since seen it all taken from you--or have nothing you can lose because the little you have is essential.

Poverty is having nothing (left to lose).
Having nothing left to lose is freedom.
Poverty is freedom.

I think many of us would beg to differ with the conclusions of that little syllogism. Deprivation and denial of access to resources render any formal freedom meaningless.

I was thinking about the relationship between freedom and poverty recently after reading about the havoc that the ironically named Freedom Industries has wreaked on Charleston, West Virginia, and the surrounding counties.

Thursday morning, the chemical 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM),which is used to wash coal of impurities, spilled from the Freedom Industries tank into the river. West Virginia American Water did not notify customers until that evening, and since then, 300,000 West Virginians have been without safe drinking water and the governor has declared a state of emergency. Symptoms of MCHM exposure include  “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”

The event, particularly because of the name of the company, calls to mind key differences in how the left and right conceptualize freedom. To the right, freedom refers to Freedom Industries' ability to carry out its work with minimal environmental regulation or oversight. The market is freedom. Government regulation is a constraint. It is inimical to freedom. Freedom means that the state does not interfere with the actions of the boss, either over employees or over the community. And freedom means that the boss and the corporation s/he heads have no responsibilities to said community. Freedom means never having to say you're sorry (you being the corporate executive).

However, to those on the left, Freedom Industries is, in fact, an oppressor. By denying people access to clean water, it has constrained their ability to have autonomy over their own lives, to exercise their will (harmonious with those of others), and to participate in making the decisions that affect them. Bad health, an inevitable result of the spill, is inimical to freedom since it constrains action and limits agency. As West Virginia is the second poorest state in the nation, many of its residents do not have the means to spend time indefinitely in a hotel or on vacation while waiting for their home to be safe again. They are effectively trapped. When a company like Freedom tramples on the will, wealth, and well-being of the communities around it, it is taking away their freedom.

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