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Addicted to Choice

In a time of plenty, many Americans seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that.

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Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance. Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of making choices in order to cope with their habit.

Of course Madison Avenue, a great facilitator in this shop-'til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted "choice" as utter bliss — "These wonderful widgets come in five, I say five! spectacular colors."

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a human being having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society's collective will. Of course, those calling for "choice" in this case see the individual's right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society, by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, is called "choice" by its advocates. While this argument appears to be standing on a brutal logic as one of its underpinnings, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word "choice" has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In "One-Dimensional Man," German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: "Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear." Marcuse's keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another.

Marcuse's hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. But his view of how language is predictably used by some of us to manipulate the rest of us is still as valuable as ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord's (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered, "Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts." British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: "Speech was given to man to prevent thought."

OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. The point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

For example, can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. After all, in order to be able to surf 200 channels, as opposed to only 100, customers gladly pay extra, although many of them never watch a program in its entirety.

Television's most popular programming also feeds its audience a steady flow of information about a class of people who happily act as if they have genuine clout — rich celebrities who cavort about carrying enough bread to buy anything. Then, quite conveniently, every few minutes, commercials interrupt to offer the viewer a chance to soothe his jittering jones.

Choices! Anytime your options are limited to what's on a menu put together by someone else, by choosing from that prepared list you are surrendering some control to the list-maker.

So the mountain of disposable widgets grows, as choice addicts continue to cast off yesterday's choices to pursue relief for their new cravings — just to get through the night. S

F.T. Rea is a writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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