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Victor Stenger Headshot

The Freedom in Our Future

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I am reading Poland by James Michener, another one of his fine historical tomes--fiction based very closely on historical fact. It is now about 1650 and some nations in Europe are struggling to give the beginnings of basic rights to their common people who, up to this point, have had none whatsoever.

Poland will have no part of it. It is ruled by what Michener calls "magnates," whom today we call "oligarchs." They have all the land, all the money, and all the power. They select the king, but they never choose a Pole. Rather they select a member of the royal family of another nation, usually Sweden. They give him meager tax income so he can't build an army to threaten them and take away their power.

Since Poland was written in 1983, Michener couldn't have been thinking about today's America and its ruling oligarchy. But it sure sounded like that to me. Is this where we are headed as the oligarchs take over America?

Another sign that America is going in that direction can be found in a long article "Chemical Valley: Letter from West Virginia" in the April 7 New Yorker, by Evan Osnos.

The article is about the inept response of the West Virginia state government in handling a chemical spill in the Elk River that has made the water in the capitol city, Charleston, unfit for human consumption. The water tastes like licorice, causes rashes, and coats people's mouths. The chemical was identified as MCHM--4, methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used to wash clay and rock from coal. It came from a leaking tank up river that had not been inspected for ages.

At one time, West Virginia was a solidly Democratic state thanks to the United Mine Workers union and Franklin Roosevelt's depression relief programs. Republican presidential candidates did not bother to campaign there. In 1948 West Virginia had 126,000 coal miners. By 2011 this was down by 80 percent. Walmart is now the biggest employer and, with funds from King Coal and King Koch, Karl Rove helped transform the state to solid Republican. Democratic voters were always pro-gun, pro-prayer, and pro-life anyway. George W. Bush became the first Republican candidate to win the state since Herbert Hoover in 1928. Obama lost all 55 counties in 2012. While the state has a Democratic governor and senators, they might as well be Republican. They manage to keep regulation of industry at a minimum.

An article in Science reported that all 78 West Virginia streams near mountain-top removal mines had high levels of selenium known to cause deformities in fish. Environmental groups petitioned the federal government to step in to enforce the Clean Water Act, which is ignored by the state.

West Virginia ranks among America's worst states in smoking, obesity, disabilities, and prescription drug abuse. In McDowell county, the average man lives to be 64. Just over the border in Fairfax County, Virginia, they live 18 years longer.

Not all West Virginian politicians are venal. But those who aren't get quickly voted out of office as the coaligarchs see to it that their opponents broadcast plenty of negative ads. The message is: regulation just costs jobs and lowers workers' salaries. As the author explains, "West Virginia's coal industry has recast an economic debate as a cultural debate, a yes-or-no question, all or nothing. Viewed in that light, a vote for the industry is a vote for yourself, your identity, your survival." And I might add, your "freedom."

The company that caused the spill was called, appropriately enough, Freedom Industries. Restaurants in Charleston are still serving bottled water, sent by Obama. In one restaurant the country song "Aquapocalypse" was playing:

I smell freedom in my shower
I smell freedom in my sink
I will shower in my freedom
But my freedom I won't drink

If you live in Charleston, you'd better not shower in it either.

America's oligarchs and their GOP allies are working to bring this freedom to you too.