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"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 a 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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Comment Preferences

  •  good diary, but a small correction... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Simplify, allenjo, akeitz

    Me and Bobby McGee was actually written by the great Kris Kristofferson.  In the original song, Bobby was a woman, or at least that is what Kris said about it when I saw him perform it several years ago.

    "I don't want to run the empire, I want to bring it down!" ~ Dr. Cornel West "It was a really naked declaration of imperialism." ~ Jeremy Scahill on Obama's speech to the UN

    by gulfgal98 on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 06:19:23 PM PST

  •  I respectfully disagree... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...with the idea that progressives should use "freedom" that way. First, we should object to the right wing concept that markets are ever "free" of government control. Government regulates and/or makes possible all markets, and in most cases it also skews markets in favor of the few over the many. (Dean Baker explains this well.) There is no such thing as a "free market" and we should say so.

    Second, progressives should use "freedom" to describe fundamental rights like free speech, freedom of religion, and other freedoms in the Bill of Rights. This is called "negative freedom." When we talk about "positive freedom" like the right of West Virginians to avoid toxic chemicals, we make the word meaningless. Anything can become "freedom" and we lose the ability to criticize conservatives for their misuse of the word. Besides, although we desperately need progressive candidates to talk about "freedom," they never will feel comfortable with positive freedom. The best we can hope for is to convince them to use negative freedom.

  •  While agreeing that Freedom Industries oppressed (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jan4insight, EliseMattu, paulbkk, Justus

    downstream communities through their negligence, the opening paragraph misrepresents the concept of freedom as used in the song you reference. The freedom that the singer feels should be a worthy thing turns out to have no value - he/she is now free, but Bobby is gone. The song is a lament, not a celebration of that freedom. There is nothing positive about the freedom in the song.

    "I'd trade all of my tomorrows
    For a single yesterday..."

    Yesterday, when the singer wasn't free...

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