debt“It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm laborers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live… It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him… These men… [have] the most imperious of masters, that is, need… They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?” French Journalist Simon Linguet wrote these words, comparing the wage-laborer to a slave, back in 1763, but it seems they still hold true today.

So what does it mean, to be a slave? It goes well beyond what most Americans think, in the historical sense, of a person brought from Africa by force, bought or sold in a market, beaten, broken, and forced to work in a field. It also goes beyond the tragic stories of women transported across borders and tricked into prostitution, or children laboring for diamonds or chocolate in remote regions like Sierra Leone. There are modern days slaves as well, all around us. And when they are enslaved not by force but by lack of alternative or awareness, they share several traits.

First, slaves are defenseless. Whether they lack physical strength or mental prowess, they have no means with which to fight back against those who would enslave them. Second, slaves are dependent. They need their captors to provide for them physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually. In the modern world, he who controls debt, controls the slave. Third, slaves are frequently ignorant. They know no other way of life. And if they are aware of their enslavement, they have a sense of helplessness; they justify why it is that they cannot overcome their current circumstances. Fear is the largest emotional component of this enslavement. Fear needs and fosters a system of explanations as to why others have the resources, the opportunities, and the power.

Finally, the most important characteristic that makes slaves of what would otherwise be free men is compliance. Children watch their parents submit to expectations of obedience, and institutions of work and school, and follow right along. On occasion, the misunderstood and rebellious, stubborn, or curious child or adolescent will find another path, through the luck of finding an unconventional teacher or education, or even by watching the right movies, or reading the right novels. These children grow to become free men with the willingness to defend their freedoms, and to evade or escape when the captor becomes too strong. This free man is stubborn, and determined, and he actively creates opportunities. He is non-compliant.

All too often however, the pattern of enslavement continues uninterrupted, from generation to generation. Fathers raised in a macho society cannot teach their sons to be at the same time dominant and compassionate, because they do not know this themselves. Moms cannot teach their daughters to be at once nurturing and determined, loving and independent, because they did not see these traits together in the in their own mothers. Ignorant teachers crush their students’ creativity while teaching for standardized tests, providing mandated lessons of obedience, repetition, and once again, compliance.

I thought a lot about it while I was on the road…

Along the roads that lead away from them, they can see me through the screens of their windows, but from a distance I can rarely see them through their windows, and curtains, and fences. I know however that within their boxes, are grotesque and twisted souls always looking for meaning and happiness outside of themselves, adopting strange fashions and customs sold by the television and magazines and other mass media. I imagine them alone in the dark, with their brand-name shoes and latest electronic appliances, staring through the window watching a lone man running in the dark. They must wonder, just for a moment, how can he be happy? They don’t know and they don’t really care, but at some point, still alone in the dark, the truth creeps in and their certainty weakens. And then the only truth left behind is that their houses are full and their lives are empty. No, that doesn’t really happen, it is just my imagination.

For as long as they need other people to tell them what is good and what is meaningful, they will always be slaves. To find freedom it is often necessary to go out in the cold, windy prairie and experience the discomfort, the fear, the hunger, and the exhaustion. Bring a slave out to the prairie and he will cry and bitch and moan, begging for a friendly voice. But the only voice he will hear in response, is the voice of a slave owner.