Let freedom ring!
Around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, some Americans tend to think about “freedom” in terms of the history of the emancipation of African-Americans. But White Americans have a history of struggle as well -- the struggle to break the oppression of feudalism and the Old World.
In the Middle Ages, the common men and women of Europe and the British Isles were faced with a choice between order and chaos. They had to choose between being slain by outlaw gangs or accepting the protection of the castles provided by the lords of the feudal system.
But protection came at the price of freedom. The peasants of the feudal system were required to give a sizable percentage of their produce to help stock the castles with food. In addition, each peasant was required to give so many days labor in the local lord’s fields and vineyards and even serve in his army. The lord had the power to decide whom the sons and daughters of the peasants could marry. And, in its extreme form in France, some lords claimed the Droit de Seigneur – the right to deflower peasant brides on the eve of their wedding.
As dreadful as the feudal system was, it was a workable bargain as long as the lord could give the peasants the protection they needed. But with the advent of modern artillery, the lords lost their monopoly on protection. Their castles simply could not stand withstand artillery.
Centuries went by before the peasants realized the lords could no longer keep their end of the bargain. But when they did, the world saw bloody revolutions in France, England and Russia and the eventual emancipation of the White European from a system almost as unfair and pernicious as the slavery into which the Roman and Arab slave traders sold the Blacks of Africa. I say “almost” because the only choice given to Blacks was slavery or death. The feudal peasants, for a time, at least got some protection in return for their lost freedoms.
But it wasn’t until the 14th Century that the peasants of England mounted effective armed revolts against feudalism. When the Black Death or bubonic plague cut the population of England in half, it created a grave labor shortage. Foolishly, King Richard II and parliament passed laws to cap what should have been a rise in wages. The stage for revolution was set.
The revolts, when they came, were savage. But the peasants stopped short of killing their King because he represented order and the peasants wanted order almost as much as they wanted to be free of feudalism.
In the 20th Century we were still trying to find the right balance between freedom and order. Hitler brought order out of the chaos of post-World War I Germany. Stalin killed over 20 million of his own people to establish his communist order.
By 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt found it necessary to proclaim the Four Freedoms: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.
We Americans have pursued the Four Freedoms at terrible cost. But our pursuit was uneven and it took the martyrdom of Dr. King to make us realize that no American is free until all Americans are free.
There is, however, cause for hope. Today, he advent of the Internet means that not even a Stalin or a Hitler could silence our Freedom to Speak. Freedom from Want is on the march. More and more of the world’s people are adequately fed and clothed.
Unfortunately, Freedom to Worship is not universal. The religious strife in the Middle East seems endless.
But our greatest need is Freedom from Fear. Today, many Americans live in fear of outlaw gangs. Sound familiar? How do we restore order without exchanging our freedoms for a new form of feudalism? That will be one of the great challenges of the 21st Century.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today.