Citizen, Subject, Slave

This essay was published in Raven Chronicles Vol.14, No.2 (ISSN 1066-1883) June 2009

In the United States’ national anthem, author Frances Scott Key called this country “…the land of the free and the home of the brave.” And before arrival of the Americans, it was. With exception of prisoners taken in battle and enslaved, indigenous peoples were, by and large, free. And inasmuch as citizens are generally understood to owe loyalty to, exert influence upon, and expect protection by their nation, tribal members — men and women — enjoyed citizenship within the tribe.

Across the Atlantic, European tribes had given way long before to kingdoms, fiefdoms and a society of subjects ruled by royalty. Kings and queens, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses and lords with their ladies formed a ruling class that extended across national boundaries. They intermarried between kingdoms to shore up alliances of one kind and another. This was the society that “discovered” the rich western hemisphere. This was the society that disregarded indigenous peoples already living on the rich “new” lands, a society that instead saw opportunity for conquest, colonization and seemingly inexhaustible resources. The European invasion was on. Sweeping across the continent, the Europeans brought a new (to this continent) intermediate social position between citizen and slave. The new position was subject, and to this day, most of those who consider themselves U.S. citizens are in reality, subjects: living under the rule of, and owing allegiance to, the U. S. government but exerting no real inluence. Contrary to what we may have been taught in school, the ruling class came right along with the invasion. Americans, (folks born or naturalized in the U.S.A.) call themselves citizens. And they believe it, along with other fables like intelligent creation, manifest destiny, Santa Claus and Iraqi WMDs. But most anyone’s understanding of citizenship entails the three components — loyalty, protection and influence: loyalty to the government, protection by the government and influence upon the government.

We are taught the Pledge of Allegiance even before we are old enough to understand the words. If you think a first grader, who recites the pledge every school day, understands what the words mean, just ask the kid to draw a picture of the Pledge, then look at the drawing and try to keep a straight face. As we come to know the meaning of what we’re saying, we have already been reciting it for years. We are practically hard-wired. We are also shown pictures of police and soldiers as small children, and told they will protect us from anything and everything. Now, since the 9/11 publicity around firemen (actually, even before) kids look at firemen, policemen, soldiers, security forces, doormen and anyone else in uniform as guardian angels. It may be pretty much true for firemen, sometimes for police, maybe once in a while for other uniforms. But to find out how much protection those in uniform really provide, join a labor union picket line, or a peace demonstration. And take along some aspirin, for there may be official lumps or pepperspray to deal with.

Way back in elementary school we learn to vote for class officers, team names and colors, even refreshments for the Hallowe’en party. We hear so much about voting that by adulthood we believe it is a sacred duty and that our votes actually control everything from selection of the local dogcatcher to the most powerful office of the land. Stop and think about all the great ideas you have voted for. Where are they? Think about the actions of our political leaders. The majority of people in the U.S. want to bring our forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but “our” president has sworn that as long as he remains in office the troops will remain in Iraq. If G.W. should wake up some morning and decide to grow an Adolf mustache to go along with his neocon program, our “citizens” would probably want to vote for a shave. After the vote they might actually expect to see the moustache gone. Yeah, well…. We learn in elementary school about ancient Athens, and the word “democracy” is burned into our brain so deeply that we assume we live in one. “As American citizens,” we are told, “we use our vote to choose how the world’s most powerful country is governed.” We are also told to whisper in the ear of that department store Santa, so he’ll know what to bring us. But on Xmas morning there’ll be more excuses than ponies, and after the election there’ll be talk of investigating the voting machines, but meanwhile the same old deal: rich get richer, poor get poorer, middle disappears. With business dollars running the elections, succession is decided by the corporations, from candidates picked by the ruling class. Long before we are adults, “democracy” is made holy and we are shaped into worshipers. But the miracles are only promised, seldom delivered. Perhaps a closer look at the three components of citizenship is in order.


Not only is loyalty required for U.S. citizenship, anyone aspiring to the status of citizen must vocalize about it and otherwise display all the trappings — flags, pledges and the like. As a general rule, in order to do business or hold a responsible position of employment one must be visibly loyal to the flag, the government, the constitution, the “American way” and the U.S. right or wrong. Although many in the ruling class keep their money offshore and otherwise comport themselves and their corporations in a manner actually detrimental to the nation, they nevertheless maintain appearances of loyalty. This show of loyalty encourages patriotism among the “citizens.” (It works a little like piety.) We are so thoroughly inculcated with the concept of loyalty that we become loyal to our favorite radio and TV shows, our favorite newspaper, our pets and even our professional sports teams. Some fans weep and wail when their local franchise moves to another town, even though they personally know nobody on the team, not even the water boy.


In today’s America, only the politically powerful and the very rich or otherwise important people, such as celebrities, enjoy protection. Ask an Enron employee about protection from scams, or ask a Hanford downwinder about protection of his or her health. Ask farmers who were sued by producers of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds when pollen from GMO crops drifted across fences onto the farmers land and resulted in genetic modification of the farmers’ crops. (These suits stood up in U.S. courts and farmers were forced to pay dearly.) Ask the hostages taken in Iran near the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Candidate Reagan made a deal with the ayatollah so that the hostages stayed until after the election. Ask the nuns raped and shot in Central America by paramilitary forces trained in U.S. military camps. Ask victims of crime and kidnapping in foreign countries, or for that matter in their own neighborhood. The very powerful and rich are protected anywhere they may venture, not only by our own forces but also by the ruling classes of other countries. The rest of us may feel protected, but that protection extends only so far as political and economic expedience. You want to walk the nighttime streets of Oopopidoo, go ahead, but pay up your insurance first.


Many still think they influence the government, but this is a grand illusion: with rigged voting machines deciding elections and a fraudulently elected president currently in office, such belief amounts more to fantasy than to fact. And the illusion grows thin. More and more Americans realize that even IF by some convoluted explanation individual voters can be construed as effecting U.S. government (despite the crooked voting machines, despite the election officials that prevent minority voting, and despite the mysterious discrepancies between exit polls and “official” counts) we still must acknowledge corporate media’s control of the information (e.g. Fox News) upon which voting decisions are reached: Because so many decently paying jobs have been exported by corporations, the day of single income households is mostly vanished, and far too many American households now must hold two or more poverty-wage jobs, even with husband and wife both working. Some families have mom and dad and the kids all working and the dog looking for a job. It’s hard times, and folks no longer have time and energy to inform themselves. They just watch the (corporate-sponsored) news.

Earning a living and raising kids in our corporate-biased economy leaves people too busy and too fatigued for thoughtful analysis of political decisions. TV news, which is of course bought and paid for with corporate money delivers pre-packaged analysis of politics along with plenty of entertainment. Folks who depend on the evening news for their world view usually know what bank got robbed, whose house burned and which movies are hot — not much more. Their political information is filtered by the very people who have stuff to hide. It’s like depending on the fox to tell you what’s going on in the henhouse. “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens, boss.”

And when corporate media is unable to create the desired election results, corporate lobbyists step in to pressure whichever elected officials defeated their candidate. Heavy money exerts such a crushing force that even many wellintentioned politicians soon become whores for corporate dollars, giving yea or nay to suit lobbyists. For ruling-class high-rollers, buying public officials a very good investment. Occasionally an American looks around and wonders how we got into this hand-basket and why it’s going downhill so fast. But who has time to ponder such a question with a mortgage to pay?

Admittedly, a common person may obtain local office in the U.S. However at the level of real national influence, the ruling class is in charge and will do whatever is necessary to remain in charge. Outsiders (commoners) rarely gain entrance and when they do “get in,” they either stay in line or they’re quickly back out. If they become too strong, or too knowledgeable… well, think of Hoffa or Kenneth Lay. (Yeah, sure, a heart attack.) Meanwhile the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful. An individual voter wields little more influence on national government than stray cats might.

So American “citizens” are loyal to the country, and protected insofar as political or economic interests are served. But without influence on their government, they are subjects, not citizens. The constitution, of course, sets down rules for government. It is generally assumed that political leaders follow the laws, and that we have constitutional rights and protections. These assumptions, however, are questionable in practice and have always been, starting with that second paragraph in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….”

OK, check out the corporate CEOs who “earn” millions and millions yearly: only ONE million for a fifty-week year comes down to $500 per hour for a forty hour week — never mind that none of these folks actually work, let alone for a forty hour week. They are paid for political connections and ability to lie with a straight face. And then look at the amazing line cook who produced your breakfast, and meals for maybe a dozen others, in minutes during his highly-skilled, daylong dance, balancing physical prowess, patter with the wait-staff, mental inventory of kitchen supplies and a broad knowledge of foods — for maybe ten bucks an hour with no benefits. Or look at the teachers to whom you entrust your children, and who work wonders with roomfuls of ill-behaved little sugar-hyped scoundrels. They often earn barely enough to get by — sometimes less. Now what was that about being created equal?

And inalienable rights? Attend a peaceful political protest: when the cops tape-over their nametags for anonimity, and then come after you with pepper-spray and billy clubs, tell them about your rights. Ouch! You will quickly find out those “certain inalienable rights” are for citizens, not necessarily for subjects. And the fact is, citizenship in the U.S. is limited to the ruling class: powerful politicians, heads of large corporations, the rich and famous, and a few unseen heavyweights. Together, they run the country. From the start, a ruling class has controlled the U.S. Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, explains it clearly. His rigorously documented chapter titled, “Tyranny is Tyranny” references letters, documents and speeches by our founding fathers to demonstrate the political reality behind our revolutionary war against England. He notes, “Indeed, 69 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England.” These aristocrats needed the general population to help defeat the British, but they took care to prevent the “rabble” from disturbing the distribution of wealth and power. Same old ruling class, enit?

Working folks have always been responsive to fiery rhetoric from folks like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine — leaving home and family to go get shot at for the rich folks’ profit. Every time, the fighting ends and it’s back to the same old deal, working for the man. Settlers who later swept across the continent may have felt and expressed loyalty to the nation, and they perhaps voted, but they exerted no real control, nor did they enjoy any real protection except as a pretext for military operations against the indigenous tribes in order to take more land. Rather, actual U.S. citizenship has with perhaps a few exceptions always been limited to established families and those approved by such families.

Our passports call us citizens. Our politicians call us citizens. We maybe call ourselves citizens. However, that doesn’t make it so. For Americans to insist they are citizens despite lack of influence on the government, constantly shrinking administrative interpretations of the Bill of Rights and burgeoning governmental infringements on privacy is a bit like the crowing rooster who calls himself king of the barnyard. In fact, he’s just another chicken subsisting on chickenfeed. In fact, we are subjects. We may vote to elect our leaders, but we may not see the software inside those Diebold (republican-produced) voting machines. We may write letters to the editor, but our ideas pale beside corporate sponsored PR campaigns. But hey, we can say whatever we want, as long as we don’t converse about getting rid of the bushies and neocons. After all, that might be conspiracy.

So, lacking actual influence on government, most U.S. “citizens” are actually subjects, and many verge on being slaves. We subjects may look around us at the fine house and car, the huge television, the riding mower, the speedboat and all our possessions, and we may ask, “How can I be called a slave with all these wonderful things I own?” Just miss a few payments and see what happens. You say your credit will cover you? Quit your job and then check your credit.

Living in America requires adherence to a rather narrow set of generally unwritten rules. We must contribute to the economy by working, if not directly for a corporation then in an individual capacity that ultimately profits the government or the corporate community in general. And we must travel only on ordained roads or trails: most public lands (even parks) are restrictive as to which areas are open to ordinary individuals. If we pretend to own real property we must maintain it in accordance with codes and laws, and we must pay taxes in whatever amount they are assessed, or it can be confiscated and sold. If we do everything the law requires, our land can still be taken if those in charge deem it for the “public good.” We are continually subject to searches and surveillance, not to mention seizure of our property, and strictly governed as to what we may grow on “our” land. We must honor the flag and never even joke about harming public officials. And if we wish for financial and social success, most of us must at least pay lip service to some kind of organized religion.

Regardless what Frances Scott Key said about the “…land of the free,” this all resembles something other than freedom.

Of course there exists as always a sizable number of U.S. subjects who actually believe they are free. Even when their “freedoms” are severely reigned in by the government (or a corporation under contract to the government) they may complain loudly, but they remain believers. One is reminded of children who make mud pies, then try to eat them. They cry and wail in disappointment at the taste of dirt, but repeat the exercise next day.

Truth be known, freedom belongs to the outsiders, the ones just passing through, those living in the moment with no expectations, like animals in the wild. And in light of the continuing destruction of wild habitat to provide room for expansion of “the American way,” prospects dim for outsiders and wild animals. Just as the indigenous tribes of this continent were decimated as much by encroachment upon and destruction of their habitat as by U.S. military forces, any creatures currently outside the web of U.S. commerce feel the threats of encroachment, and destruction by pollution.

Bears, owls, eagles, badgers, coyotes, wolves and other majestic wild creatures seem doomed to replacement by cattle, poultry and factory farming. And truly free humans — outsiders — are all but disappeared, given to living beneath bridges and napping in doorways. Small wonder they often appear demented. So much for freedom, huh?

The rest of us are either subjects or slaves, and today sees most U.S. subjects sliding inexorably toward slavery. A subject lives under the rule of others, owing them allegiance, with no control over the rulers’ actions. A slave belongs to another (or others) and must be loyal to the owner. Slavery is supposedly prohibited by U.S. law. Yes, but election fraud and non-adjudicated killing is also prohibited by U.S. law.

If he were still around, Frances Scott Key probably wouldn’t mind the current situation, as a privileged child of that old ruling class. He came from an “established family” in Maryland, graduated St. John’s College at age seventeen, pleaded cases before the supreme court by the age of thirty, served briefly as a military officer and by accounts was a “very religious man.” Today he would likely be in the Bush adminstration. However, except for such privileged few like Frances, who are born (or adopted like lapdogs) into America’s ruling class, we subjects all march toward slavery. HiHo!


One Response to “Citizen, Subject, Slave”

  1. Tarra Blackwolf Sabin Says:

    I can’t remember the last time I truly felt like a “citizen” of the country I was born in. For a long time now, it’s felt more like “being an American” was just an accident of birth, nothing more.
    I live in another country now, and I’ve become so disillusioned with America and everything considered “American” that when my neighbors ask me if I’m American, I respond, “Well… I was born there.”
    As for loyalty, there is a distinct difference between “pledged loyalty” and loyalty truly felt and given. The latter must be earned, not demanded. I haven’t seen anything in decades that might earn mine. So I guess that makes me a “disloyal American”. That’s okay… I’d rather be a loyal native of the Americas – which I am – anyway.

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