Throw-Away Freedom, Disposable People

I

If you’ve spent any time traveling through the rural United States, you will likely have seen a pickup truck belching thick clouds of smoke every time the driver guns the accelerator. While unpleasant, I have always written this off as one of the ills of a poorly maintained vehicle. I can relate; keeping cars in tip-top shape is expensive, and as long as your wheels are rolling, it’s easy to find more important things to spend money on than routine maintenance.

My charitable attitude went out the window this week when I found out that there is a sub-culture of diesel pickup drivers who purposefully modify their trucks to blow as much black smoke as possible. They call it “rolling coal.”

This is what freedom looks and sounds like. I’ll leave the smell to your imagination.

This is throw-away freedom: the opportunity to literally burn the excess of my abundant resources for nothing more than self-gratification and let others pick up the tab. Freedom ain’t free, but I came by mine cheaply and to hell with you. What right have you to tell me anything different? Anyone who dares to disagree is a filthy commie, am I right? Global warming is a liberal conspiracy, cancer is something that happens to other people, and I don’t know how to spell “myopic”.

II

This selfish, short-term view of freedom manifests itself in more than a bunch of rednecks attempting to help their rural communities achieve air quality parity with Los Angeles. It is also evident in the attitudes of many people towards the tens of thousands of children who are attempting to escape gang violence in Central America and find refuge in the United States. There is no denying that 53,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at the border presents logistical difficulties for U.S. government officials at the local level, but there is no good reason why they should present political difficulties at the federal level. The response of the good citizens of this country who took it upon themselves to travel to the border and scream at busloads of frightened children is shameful.

It also reveals a cynical, fearful view of human nature.

America used to be known for its optimism. Millions of would-be immigrants who come to these shores each year still believe it, and share that optimism to the extent they think their lives would be better within the United States than without. Then they arrive at the border and encounter the xenophobic locals who greet them with fences, armed patrols, shouted slogans and a deep-seated certainty that if these people – these Others – are allowed in, these great United States will somehow decline and fall. Give me your huddled masses, indeed.

People with a healthy attitude towards freedom do not regard it as a limited commodity or a zero-sum proposition. It need not run short as demand increases. True freedom does not suggest that I ask what’s in it for me, but rather what can we accomplish together?

When a communal desire for freedom for everyone is fractured into an individual desire to take as much as I can and hoard it for myself, I view other people not as fellow members of the human race but as members of competing tribes. Aliens. Others. Those who are not as important as me. Worth less than me. Less human than me.

When I lose sight of other people’s humanity, their welfare is no longer my concern. I care about them only to the extent that I expect my pet politicians to keep them far away from me and my hard-earned and well-deserved luxuries. Why should I worry about their hardships, or pay for their food or healthcare? They have nothing of value to offer in return, so to me they are worthless. Disposable. Let them die.

III

Once we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s kosher to be indifferent to the suffering of Others, we find ourselves on a diabolical highway to a destination where we actively cause the suffering and death of Others. Humanity has been doing this for a long time. Anyone who ever started a war is guilty of this line of thinking. These Others represent a threat to our god, to our race, to our resources, to our very existence. Let us do unto them before they do unto us!

The Middle East has an especially rich history of people doing unto each Other. In the narrative favored by the evangelical Christian West, Israel is the scrappy underdog: a beacon of democracy, surrounded on all sides by neighbors who are hostile to its very existence. Militarily, however, any nation that has enjoyed the support of the United States for the entirety of its history is never the underdog. Whatever the proximate reasons (or excuses) for its current actions in the Gaza Strip, Israel cannot credibly claim to be acting proportionally or morally when the body count after six days of Operation Protective Edge is 167 dead Palestinians, of whom 70% are civilians.

But to the Israelis, and by proxy to their American supporters, the Palestinians are Others. Worthless. Disposable. Let them die.

I have a modification I need to make to my truck.