The Common Good
January-February 2001

Free Citizens or Spoiled Children?

by Danny Duncan Collum | January-February 2001

Who owns our culture? Who decides what our songs and stories will be?

As the archives of this magazine could document, my young adulthood was largely spent tromping the streets, and sometimes filling the jails, for one noble cause or another. But my middle age, so far, has been mostly spent on the Long March of parenthood. We have three children now, ages 8, 4, and 10 months. But last fall I somehow squeezed out a few hours for the Ralph Nader for President campaign. One night I even missed a soccer game for a campaign meeting.

I tried to tell people that this sudden mini-surge of activism was a calculated strategic move. If Nader got his 5 percent, the Green Party would start 2004 with a $12 million-plus war chest, and radical democrats would have a place to stand in this country for the first time since the New Deal. This is what I told people. But we all know that no parent worth his salt would miss a soccer game for a mere political calculation. I really did it for love.

Last summer I heard Nader say, "The problem in our country is the concentration of too much wealth and power in too few hands." And my heart melted. In that moment, I discovered that, despite all that has gone so terribly wrong in the past 20 years, I could still love my country and its promise.

The American promise, of course, is now and has been freedom. And, as in centuries past, the struggle for the soul of America today is a struggle over the definition of human freedom. In 21st century America, it sometimes seems that struggle is over. The freedom of the marketplace has banished all opposition. Freedom, we are told, is simply the license to purchase and consume and, perhaps, make rude noises in public.

"Freedom carries responsibility," some old, 20th-century scold or another will intone. But this sermon falls on deaf ears. After 50 years of commercial television, our national impulse-control has regressed to "Why ask why?" as the old beer commercial used to say; just buy, buy, buy.

But that's not the whole picture, either. Yes, freedom carries responsibility, but responsibility presumes power. The great paradox of American life today is that we suffer from the curse of freedom without power. We are allowed to buy, sell, or say anything we please, so long as we do it within the elastic walls of the corporate system. Step outside those walls, and you are not just silenced; for all practical purposes, you no longer exist.

Ralph Nader seemed to understand all this. I suspect he was beginning to feel a little nonexistent himself, and that is why, at the center of his 2000 campaign message, he posed an alternative definition of freedom. "Freedom," he said, "is participation in power." And he was absolutely right. Everything else is bread and circuses. If we don't have our hands on the decision-making process—in the economic and cultural spheres, as well as the political—then we are not free citizens, we are just spoiled children.

Among other things, that affirmative definition of freedom calls us to break the cycle of endless nattering about bloody images and dirty words, or the inalienable right to flaunt the same, and instead forces us to ask: "Who owns our culture? Who decides what our songs and stories will be?" And the $64 billion question, "How can more of us become part of that process?"

Joe Leiberman and Lynn Cheney trooped to Washington this fall, summoned by an also-outraged John McCain, to make outraged noises about the marketing of violent and degrading cultural artifacts to children. But, in all the hours of on-camera emoting, no one asked the one question that matters: "Why do American parents have to work so many hours, leaving their kids to be raised by the wolves of the media industry?"

The answer to that one, of course, is that the vast majority of those parents are shopping in Year 2001 stores with a 1971 paycheck. All the sound and fury of our culture—commercial and political—is ultimately designed to obscure that simple mathematical fact.

For a brief moment, anyway, Nader's campaign put all of these unspoken questions out there on the American table. They are not going away.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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