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‘What I Learned About Freedom From Hitchhiking Around America’

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Posted on Dec 28, 2013
Bohman (CC BY 2.0)

“To be ‘free’ in America is at risk of becoming meaningless,” Amien Essif, who hitchhiked from Denver to Portland, Ore., writes in The Guardian on Friday. “Our choices are increasingly limited to just two: to exploit or be exploited.”

When he’s not traveling, Essif works food service jobs in Chicago. Along with food stamps, those jobs allow him to support his “decadent hobby of freelance journalism.” He could probably get an office job, he writes, “working for the handful of people who own everything. But he’d rather not.

“To some, I might seem the poster boy for American freedom, making just enough money to write and travel and seek my fortune. But once the hope for eventual stability is taken out of this formula, which is the reality for more and more Americans, all that’s left is the striving. And that doesn’t look good for our brand of freedom.

“Too often our lives are at the mercy of someone else’s interests,” Essif continues. “A guy who took me from Douglas to Casper, Wyoming, opened up about an awfully familiar dissonance in his life. He was around my age, two years of community college behind him, and working for one of the few employers in the desert: the natural gas industry. The problem was, he confided, ‘I know all about Gasland,’ the 2010 documentary that helped turn public sentiment against the environmentally destructive gas extraction process known as fracking, now his livelihood. His defense was that ‘it pays the bills,’ perhaps the closest thing my generation has to a motto.”

Another woman Essif met struggled with drug addiction. This made supporting her aging grandfather and newborn grandson difficult. An ex-cowboy saw the ranching business get taken over by big agriculture. He drives trucks well into retirement age. There were uplifting stories too, and Essif says he sometimes felt he was experiencing “true liberty.” But everywhere he went he was surrounded by “dissatisfaction and striving.” Claims of freedom, in this context, sounded “less like a line from a prideful anthem than from a sobering prayer.”

“If I could paint the country in one broad stroke, I would say it’s a place where one concept of freedom—used to lobby for private interests and free markets—is at odds with another kind: the ability to lead a life you enjoy,” Essif concludes. “Fewer and fewer seem privileged with this second kind. Not Trayvon Martin, who was a victim of a certain kind of racism which had, as its root, private property anxiety. Not the natural gas employee who has consigned himself to a life of doing something that he feels ought not to be done. Even I—who have managed to escape from time to time—always find, upon return, a cordial invitation to fall in line.”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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