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Redefining Freedom in America

Tavis Smiley: PBS talk show host, PRI radio host – Posted: 09/05/2012 12:00 am


There’s been a lot of talk about “freedom” lately. There always is when Republicans gather.

“Everything in America is free, but us.” Cute.

“Our rights come from God, not from government.” Not so much.

Republican guests on both my public television and public radio shows, including former presidential aspirants Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, have suggested to me that the latter is the line that Romney/Ryan need to repeat over, and over, and over again if they want to truly inspire turnout amongst their conservative political base.

As a Black man, I’ve got nothing against freedom, to be sure. Especially with Joe Biden talking about folks wanting to put me back in chains. (Although, for me, there is a distinct difference between “freedom” and “liberation.” Black Americans in particular may have acquired one, but not quite the other. But that’s another blog, so back to the matter at hand.)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 imagined an America in which we would all experience not only freedom of expression and religion, but also freedom from want and fear.

Roosevelt’s words invite us to consider not just the freedom of speech, religion or choice; but also the freedom from joblessness, hunger or inadequate housing. As long as fellow citizens go hungry, have not a decent place to live, lack medical care, are unemployed or underemployed, receive an inadequate education, are hated for their race, gender or sexual preference, are subject to random violence, or are intimidated out of their right to vote — they are not truly free.

It’s high time we start to focus on the freedom from want in America. This is why the conversation about poverty can no longer be kicked down the road like a can. We’re just days away from the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of the official numbers on poverty in America. The timing couldn’t be more propitious. The takeaway couldn’t be more unsettling.

How do we so easily accept that poverty has become the new American norm? The housing and jobs crisis has fostered a poverty unseen in five decades — not just in inner-city ghettos and barrios, but in suburbs and rural areas crossing racial, age, and gender lines. Nearly one-third of the American middle class, mostly families with children, have now fallen into poverty.

Senator Barack Obama ran in 2008 on a platform of “eradicating poverty in America.” Unfortunately, we haven’t heard much about his plan to actually accomplish that in his first term as president. We’ll see what he and his fellow Democrats have to say about economic injustice in Charlotte this week. Moreover, let’s see which presidential moderator has the moxie to ask Obama and Romney about poverty this fall.

In any event, those who continue to preach the gospel of “American Exceptionalism” are going to have to get a new sermon if something isn’t done quickly to rescue our democracy from the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us.

When people are without hope, democracy is threatened. The country is ominously headed to a point of no return.

It’s time for a righteous indignation toward poverty in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.” It’s time to marshal our collective power in an all-out offensive against poverty in America.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out — and join the conversation.

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