4.1.08

The Deception of Choice

"Every American has the sense to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest." – Alex de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

“…many Iowans are still considering their options.” – Renee Montagne, NPR, Morning Edition

Loud cheers, much jubilant yelling, and these words, “This sounded like a room full of hard core supports, but Cathleen Monborg [sp?] says she’s still thinking about who to caucus for. She said it will be a game-time decision. ‘And I’ve changed three times. I started with O’bama. I went to Hillary. I went then back…wait… to Edwards and now I’m…I don’t know where I’m at but I think John Edwards is going to surprise people tomorrow. I really do.’” (NPR, Morning Edition, Jan 3, 2008)

Choice is fast becoming the great equity of the American system. It has long been a staple of our form of semi-democratic freedom. There is an individualistic pride, a vanity, about the ability to choose—a fact all the more evident in this season of politicking. And yet the value of the freedom seems lost on many.

There is no noble quality in the “game time decision”, as though last-minute procrastination produces sounder actions. The wisdom of choice lies in the art of integration—experience, knowledge, and history. But we herald choice as whimsy—as though it is better to remain undecided as long as possible. Far from decision being reasonable, well-founded, and proved, it becomes much more about feeing: What have you done for me…lately?

We are the child who year round desires this or that one object, only in the last weeks before Christmas to be swayed by the glitter of something else. After all, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” But in the words of Lewis, we are too easily satisfied—and the promise of “biggerbetterfaster” is the siren that leads down many foolish paths.

Choice is a false sense of power—as though by delaying choice we retain some secret power. NPR has interviewed dozens of people about their candidate of choice; the majority of them hold to “undecided” and “independent.” Choice withheld delays the inevitable—so long as I’m not committed they will cater to me. Somehow, I remain important until I decide. Before then, I have possibility. Afterwards, I become irrelevant—the after-Christmas disease that settles upon the not-so-satisfying gifts of the season. Choice retained is a gift unopened.

And it hides a deep insecurity. It is much easier to remain undecided and wish and wash in vacillation, than to choose early and have to defend the position—to look people in the eye and, seeing their disagreement, face their rational (or irrational, as is often the case) challenges to our decision. Those who have decided are called “closed minded,” “bigoted,” “unenlightened,” and “un-teachable.” (But at least they do not hide behind the veiled possibility that one word or smile from this candidate or that in the next day or week will be the seal that commits them. Better to remain uncommitted than risk conflict and contradiction.) And it is precisely the fear of contradiction that proves the unreasonableness of our choices deferred.

Look at Cathleen (first paragraph). She changes, and changes, and in the end doesn’t say, “I think John Edwards is going to surprise me,” but that he is going to surprise “people”—those nameless, faceless, undecided masses who too have chosen the easy out of hiding behind indecision than face the ridicule of someone more knowledgeable. Cathleen isn’t unique—the next indecision lies as close as the nearest mirror.

Though far from our recollection, there remain consequences for being the last to decide. If rushing in is the art of fools, reticence is the art of the lazy. I remember the events in CS Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where, nearing the end of the journey, there is nearly a mutiny. When the situation is changed, by Prince Caspian, from that of right to one of privilege the mutinous men are forced to reconsider their position and—far from wanting to stay—feared being left out. Lewis writes, “Very shortly after…there was only one left. And in the end he began to be afraid of being left behind all on his own and changed his mind. At the end of the half-hour they all cam trooping back to Aslan’s Table and stood at one end while Drinian and Rhince went and sat down with Caspian and made their report; and Caspian accepted all the men but that last one who had changed his mind at the last moment. His name was Pittencream and he stay on the Island of the Star all the time the others were away looking for the World’s End, and he very much wished he had gone with them” (187).

What unknown consequences do we bear because we are slow to decide?

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