What Freedom Means to Me—From a Man Who Wrote the Book on Fanaticism
America is still an ideal country for people who want to realize their capacities and talents... A chance to grow, to be a human being first, and to see my fellow men as my equals.
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For the common man, America is still the best country, where he feels most at home. It is the last chance and the last stop. If he can’t make it here, he won’t make it anywhere.
I have been poor most of my life, and in my years as a migratory worker I was often but a step ahead of hunger. Yet it never occurred to me that there could be a country where I would be more at ease, more at home.
This certitude was not implanted in me by family or school. I never attended school, because I fell off a flight of stairs at the age of five, and two years later lost my eyesight. I remained blind until the age of 15. When my father died in 1920, I was 18. I had $300 and a train ticket to Los Angeles. I was convinced that California was God’s gift to the poor: warm enough for a person to sleep outside, oranges everywhere for the hungry. My money did not last long, and I soon found myself on skid row. In a sense, I entered America through the portals of that skid row.
For more than 20 years, until I landed on the San Francisco waterfront in the early 1940s, I lived a life of hardships, of self-education, and of teaching myself to write. I wanted to be left alone to do what I was doing. That is what the millions of immigrants who came to this country also looked for: a chance to do what they wanted to do. Many failed, but there were more chances here than anywhere else.
Though I lived on the edge of subsistence, I did not feel poor, and did not see myself as a member of a particular class. I was a human being first. This is what freedom means: to be able to be a human being first. The rich, the learned and the powerful did not seem to me a superior breed. We all spoke the same language, and there were so many topics on which all of us could talk with equal expertise. I can still savor the joy I used to derive from the fact that while doing dull, repetitive work I could talk with my partner and compose sentences in the back of my mind at the same time. Life seemed glorious.
This, then, is what America meant to me: a chance to grow, to be a human being first and to see my fellow men as my equals.
Now there is no doubt that America changed considerably during the 1960s. Yet it is startling how many vital things have not changed. One can still cut oneself off from the pervasive conformity, vulgarity, obscenity, hysterical clamor and other corrupting influences around us. There is plenty of elbow room for people who want to be left alone.
America is still an ideal country for people who want to realize their capacities and talents. Had I entered the mainstream of American life in the 1970s instead of the 1920s, I would still be able to educate myself, learn to write, and have books published. The public libraries are as good as they were, and publishers as hospitable to a manuscript of merit.
Certain things have improved. The camaraderie of the young from all walks of life and their readiness to share what they have are beautiful to behold. It is also true that enterprise and character will take a young person farther now than in the past. Alertness and willingness are quickly noticed and appreciated.
And we have grown wiser. We know now that the adult’s failure of nerve is more critical than the young’s impulse toward anarchy; that righting wrongs is a perilous undertaking which needs a tightening of discipline; that a sense of usefulness is more vital to the quality of life than abundance.