On this, the Fourth of July, 2006, I propose that we, as a nation, change our outdated definition of independence. It has taken me spending my Independence Day on the streets of the third world to understand how flawed we are when we think of independence in the way we do. On the fourth of July we celebrate our declaration of our political sovereignty, that day two hundred and thirty years ago on which we demanded self-rule and started the process that would, over the next decade and a half, result in a government that was meant to allow the people maximum personal liberty and assure their collective security.
I want to fast-forward to the modern era, a time in which the words freedom and independence are much discussed. We, as Americans, take great pride in comparing ourselves to people from other nations and boasting about how pure our freedom is by comparison. Human rights in China, women’s rights in Afghanistan, political rights in Venezuela. These are examples, we like to say, of how we really are, by comparison, a shining beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.
But I ask you to reevaluate this perception of freedom because seeing life as it exists in Cairo has taught me that economics is the best indicator of freedom and independence. And using economics as a measuring tool, it is clear that the United States has a long way to go.
I have done a little investigating in the last couple days to resolve a discrepancy that arose several weeks ago. My father was quizzing the family on the populations of the world’s biggest cities. I told him that Cairo’s population was eighteen million, as I had read in a guide book, but he told me that his list had Cairo marked down around eleven million. I figured that this was a normal discrepancy derived from a difference of method on where to draw the city lines. Surely, one source was giving the population of Cairo proper and the other of Cairo and surrounding areas. But then a conversation with an educated businessman from Holland brought the issue into frightening perspective. Eleven million, he told me, was the official population of the city. Eighteen million was the actual size when accounting for the masses that eat and drink and breathe in the squalor of the back alleys and gutters of Cairo’s vast slums. Think of it: a city in which as many as seven million are so destitute that they do not even make it onto the government registry.
Yesterday, I saw two legs sticking out of a grimy dumpster in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. Moments later I saw that it was a little boy, likely homeless, digging through the dumpster for any food he could find. When he reappeared from the garbage, he had trash plastered all over his face and tattered clothes, and in his hand he held a banana peel. As I turned around the corner, the last I saw of him was as he scraped his teeth again and again over the peel, hoping to get a morsel or two for his efforts.
I believe that any one of these seven million anonymous faces is far less free and independent than any woman in Saudi Arabia or political dissident in Venezuela. In Cairo, I pass women everyday wearing the traditional robes, exposing only their eyes. But, as a veiled woman told me at my school, these kinds of dress are often a comfortable expression of who they are, and woman are treated with more respect in Egypt than in anyplace I’ve been. I do not want to get into a discussion about women in the Middle East as it deserves a post unto itself, but I do want to make the point that merely the ability to debate dress code in the Middle East, the time to fight for self-expression in China, the means to fight for free press in Russia, these are all “luxuries” that assume a level of economic adequacy in which mere survival is not the everyday focus.
Let me turn this argument a little and bring it back to the United States, whose independence we today celebrate. In our country, millions live in the indefensible gap between the minimum wage and the livable wage. A person making minimum wage without family in the United States is unable to maintain a decent one bedroom apartment, eat three meals a day, and supply for themselves other basic necessities that would fall under the designation survival. Let’s not even begin talking about the minimum wage earner who has to provide for a family. We need to remember that this gap is state sponsored; that is to say that the government has, with all the research out there on livable wage, endorsed a wage that insures a continuing cycle of poverty. The minimum wage earner in the United States is a prisoner in much the same way as the boy in the dumpster. Both must dedicate their whole existence to survival without time to pursue social, political, and economic advancement.
As this day draws to a close for me in Cairo, I think that I will never look at the Fourth in the same way again. Just as many around the world live without freedom, so too do the poorest of our country. And this is not just a lament; we have the tools and the means to solve this problem. This is not a problem as difficult and overwhelming as AIDS in Africa or global warming; it is more immediately fixable. And just as the poorest among us live in chains, so too should we, the more well-to-do, consider ourselves bound by the chains of duty and human decency that require us to take action against this injustice. Today we should celebrate not what freedom we have but what freedom we might one day have. And we can achieve it with a little sweat, a little integrity, and, of course, a little sacrifice.