Reading Commentary Term Paper

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American Studies - Anthology

American Studies -- Anthology: Freedom vs. Tyranny

America's history includes a number of competing forces. One of the chief struggles has been the clash between Freedom and Tyranny. As Why Freedom Matters shows, our national consciousness is dominated with the idea that our forefathers risked everything so that all people in America can have freedom. However, Public Speaking shows that the dominant or "luckiest" group in America consists of white, gentile, straight males, who form a very powerful and wealthy special interest group. An example of the favoritism enjoyed by a powerful, wealthy special interest group is the Texan oilman group mentioned in Dominion from Sea to Sea. The favorable treatment given to powerful, wealthy special interests groups results in oppression of "others" such as farmers who fought for America's freedom but seemed to trade the tyranny of Great Britain for the tyranny of the wealthy, powerful interest groups of America. The farmers suffered this tyranny by force of law, in which the establishment backed up the wealthy and powerful, to the serious financial detriment of these farmers. Still another group who suffered tyranny at the hands of more powerful groups, also with the aid of law and the "establishment," were those in religious minorities, such as the "Salem Witches" mentioned in Letters from a Nation. Thomas Jefferson tried to understand and explain the sources of religious tyranny, particularly by Christianity, in Notes on Religion, noted that people were oppressed with the help of magistrates, and bemoaned the fact that it was still a reality in 1776. Still another minority suffering persecution at the hands of America's "majority," here by force of law in the form of the police, were the Hispanics of 1942 America.

Oppressed minorities reactions to tyranny differ. Let America Be America Again apparently believes that America was once free and hopeful but now presents people seeking hope with the same old "dog eat dog" society. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Address to the first Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting shows his belief that freedom is in the natural order of things and that he/his followers will keep working until the biblical prophecy of justice and righteousness are fulfilled. Sharply contrasting with King's belief is James Baldwin's "The Crusade of Indignation," which asserts that "freedom" is not a common concept that people innately understand; rather, people have to work to understand and respect freedom. Whatever the source or nature of tyranny, its effect on the oppressed is to weary and wear them down, as "Lost in Place" notes. Finally, some writers mention methods of dealing with tyranny: Christopher Isherwood, who was in the Gay Underground of Los Angeles in the mid-60's suggests that one must be vigilant against the forces trying to determine one's life but should do so without self-damaging fury; in addition, Melville mentions a powerful effect of passive resistance. Though Melville predated Gandhi and King, he perhaps unwittingly mentioned an aspect of passive resistance that makes it so powerful: it aggravates. That "aggravation aspect" of passive resistance was relentlessly used by Gandhi and King as a method of overcoming tyranny. The writers' differing attitudes illustrate the constant struggle between the ideal of freedom and the reality of tyranny in America.


1. Daniel R. Katz, ed., Why Freedom Matters (2003), quoting from David McCullough's The Argonauts of 1776, pp. 2-5:

"We think we live in a dangerous, uncertain time, and we do. But theirs was worse, and they had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out, any more than we do. Their courage and determination, their commitment to what they called the Cause of America, were almost beyond our imagining. To sign your name to the Declaration of Independence was to declare yourself a traitor to the British Crown. If caught by enemy forces, you would almost certainly be hanged." (p. 4).

The property, freedom and even life that our forefathers risked in signing the Declaration of Independence were striking. Without being able to predict the future any better than we can, they gambled everything. This wager is often cited to essentially say, "They risked everything so that all Americans can be free."

2. Martin Scorsese's documentary about Fran Lebowtiz: Public Speaking (2010):

"Any white, gentile, straight man who is not President of the United States failed. OK? That's what a big piece of luck that is." (Fran Lebowitz).

Lebowitz is speaking to the reality that race, religion, sexual orientation and gender all factor into success in America. Being white, gentile, heterosexual and male are all assets in America; lacking one or more of those traits can hamper success, despite romantic notions about freedom for all in America. The barriers to success if a person does not mean one or more of those "successful" traits is a type of tyranny, as America is built on freedom to seize opportunity.

3. Bruce Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea (2010):

"Here was just another example of freedom Texas style, where the state was useful when compliant and any government infringement on what an oil man wanted to do was an outrage, bordering on communism." (p. 124).

This quotation illustrates the perversion of "freedom" to mean "freedom of the oil man to do whatever he wants without government regulation." This concept of "freedom" is actually a type of tyranny that twists America's purpose to meet a wealthy, powerful special interest group, without regard for the impacts of their actions on other people in America.

4. Eric Black, Our Constitution: The Myth That Binds Us (1988), quoting from Shay's Rebellion or Why the Farmers Framed (pp.3-8):

"The farmers found themselves asking what they had gained by risking their lives to throw off the yoke of English tyranny, only to find themselves in a new yoke of debt, tended by the Boston merchants and the local courts." (p. 5).

The type of tyranny and perversion of freedom mentioned in Cumings Dominion from Sea to Sea resulted in financial tyranny against farmers very early in America's history. Despite the idealization of the idea of freedom, those with financial and legal power nearly immediately began to persecute others for their own gain. This was done despite the fact that the persecuted fought for America's freedom, too.

5. Andrew Carroll, ed., Letters from a Nation (1997), quoting Cotton Mather's letter of August 5, 1692:

"Our good God is working of miracles. Five witches were lately executed, impudently demanding of God a miraculous vindication of their innocency. Immediately upon this, our God miraculously sent in five Andover witches, who made a most ample, surprising, amazing confession of all their villainies, and declared the five newly executed to have been of their company..." (p. 6).

The freedom supposedly safeguarded by the separation of Church and State in America is a fiction. Religious tyranny predated the Declaration of Independence, for example in the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th Century. While Cotton Mather's habit of attributing religious intolerance to God's miraculous work seems nearly comical to some of us, the idea of God as a "junior partner" who carries out the intolerance of the majority, here against religion, is a thread that has continued to this day. Despite the fact that Cotton Mather's letter occurred before the "Declaration of Independence," it is placed after the quotation about our Founding Fathers it shows the majority's modification of the ideal to suit their own purposes.

6. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (1776), Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, Vol. 2:

"Why have Christians been distinguished above all people who have ever lived, for persecutions? Is it because it is the genius of their religion? No, its genius is the reverse. It is the refusing toleration to those of a different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion. It was the misfortune of mankind that during the darker centuries the Christian priests following their ambition and avarice combining with the magistrate to divide the spoils of the people, could establish the notion that schismatics might be ousted of their possessions & destroyed. This notion we have not yet cleared ourselves from. Notes on Religion (p. 267).

Thomas Jefferson attempts to explain ongoing persecution, such as that which the "Salem Witches" suffered, by Christianity. He traces this prejudice back to "ambition and avarice" that spurred Christians, in league with people who administer the law, to take possessions of people they blamed for religious differences. Jefferson says that tendency toward tyranny distinguishes Christianity among all religions and that America still was not free of that tyranny in 1776.

7. Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight: Los Angeles, (1992), quoting from My Enemy by Rudy Salas, Sr., pp. 1 -- 11)

"In forty-two, when I was in my teens running around as a zoot-suiter, one night the copy really tore me up bad. I turned around I threw a punch at one…

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