Thursday, January 20, 2011

The golden age of liberty is now

Jamelle Bouie writes at The American Prospect: Segregation was more than separate water fountains and terrible bus seats, and it was enforced -- frequently -- by horrible violence. Which is why I can't help but me miffed by things like Mark Steyn's essay on the gradual "erosion" of liberty into the United States. In this narrative -- held mostly, but not exclusively, by conservatives -- the United States was once a place of great freedom and choice, strangled by big government and the welfare state. Newsflash. For at least a tenth of the population, "freedom" was anything but. From the 1880s until the middle of the 20th century, African Americans lived in a virtual police state. Want to start your own farm? The county won't sell you land. Want to escape sharecropping and peonage? Good luck finding the white landowner who won't cheat you out of your earnings every year. Don't have your employer-issued work papers? The sheriff can arrest you for unlawfully leaving a job. Walking alone without permission from a white man? The sheriff can arrest you for vagrancy. Can't pay your inflated court fees? Well, this nice man from the coal mines/cotton fields/turpentine farms has offered to pay your $15 fine, provided you work 14 months of hard labor. And so on, and so on. Which is to say, if there is anything that infuriates me about conservative rhetoric, it's this refusal to acknowledge the profound illiberty that existed in the United States for most of its history. Okay, so you don't like universal health insurance and you don't want the government to give your money to the lazy or "less deserving." Fine, that's fair. But let's not pretend like today is somehow less free than the past. For blacks, and virtually everyone but white men of privilege, the golden age of freedom is now.

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