Devo was right. Freedom of choice is what we want; freedom from choice is what we got.
As Americans, we don't have a lot of real choices, but we have the illusion of choices instead. For example:
If I don't bring my lunch to work, I have to go out and buy it. Fair enough. But the closest places to eat are all fast-food ones. And my case is not unusual. We can choose between formed ground beef or some option of chicken (usually breaded), double handfuls of deep-fried starch in whatever deployment you wish, quarts of fizzy sugar water in a panopoly of flavors. All of it available quickly, easily, and conveniently.
But, what if I don't want deep-fried starch and thrice-processed meat? What if I want a quiet and slow dinner, eating something that a chef prepares according to a personal recipe rather than a master blueprint from corporate headquarters? Yes, smaller and independent restaurants exist, but they are often lost under the barrage of national chain eateries in every town across the nation.
Perhaps this example is not so outstanding. After all, you can always cook for yourself. Very well, but what shall we drive to the store in? We can choose between Big Boxy Family Van, Big Boxy SUV, or Big Pickup Truck. And, if you prefer, you can get any of these three models with a high-end entertainment system installed in the backseat so your kids don't have to get bored by the world outside the vehicle or strain their arms lugging a clumsy book into the back seat. So what if you can't fill the tank on any of them for anything less than $40--the van is good for the kids! The SUV looks cool and rugged, and the people at the shopping plaza will totally think you drive straight up mountains regularly! The pickup truck has a hemi in it-- so what if you live in the middle of town and don't have anything to haul in the first place! Hemi!!
But what if you'd rather drive a car that's smaller, more modest, cheaper to operate and maintain? Something that gets more than 20 miles to the gallon? What if you'd rather /not/ drive to begin with? What if you'd rather walk the half-mile to the store, or take your bike without having to worry that you'll get flattened by the guy who's having a bad day and wants the other cars on the road to know it? Choices like that, too, are increasingly rare-- there aren't many bike trails being built in new developments (or at least bike trails as a valid means of transportation instead of recreation). Light rail is a way around freeway gridlock, but in smaller urban areas, it doesn't really exist.
As another example, let's say we want to go see a movie. At our local twenty-screen multiplex, we have a choice between Action Movie with Du Jour Celebrity and Many Explosions, Romance Movie with Du Jour Celebrity and Happy Inspiring End, Lowest Common Denominator Comedy with Du Jour Celebrity and Hot Catchphrase, Sentimental Drama with Du Jour Celebrity and Disease That Makes You Noble And/Or Beautiful, or Urban versions of any of the previous (with Du Jour Ethnic Celebrity and hip-hop soundtrack).
But, again, what if we want something different? What if we want a movie that has a plot we haven't seen before a score of times? A movie where we walk out at the end animated and excited and talking about it for days? Something experimental, something risky, something with the lead role played by someone we don't know who doesn't get over a million dollars for it? Something shown in a theater that's not overrun with screaming children and surly teenagers? A theater where you don't have to pay $10 to sit through a half-hour of commercials before even the previews start? Yes, there are independent films being produced every day, with funky art houses to show them in, but they are few, difficult to find, and sometimes difficult to get to.
Driving home from the movie, we may want to listen to some music on the radio. Again, we have the illusory choice between Top 40 Station, Modern Rock Station, Oldies Station (in 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's varieties), Country Station, and Rap Station, each of which have their set repertoire of no more than one hundred songs in constant rotation. Or, if we don't want music, we have a choice of News, Sports, or Shrill And Uninformed Sociopolitical Debate.
But what if we wanted something we hadn't already heard? Something that wasn't the same damn popular songs that are constantly crammed into our ears? To hear the same songs over and over again, you might as well use the CD or tape player in the car--what if you wanted more chance to hear songs, artists, and even genres that you didn't even know existed? What if we wanted to hear songs that didn't conform to a specific genre?
Come election time, we have the choices appropriate to a free and democratic society like ours. We can vote for the Democrat who supports our troops and loves this country and hates terrorism and is tough on crime and is a kind decent churchgoing family man and receives a ton of money from various lobbyists, or we can vote for the Republican who supports our troops and loves this country and hates terrorism and is tough on crime and is a kind decent churchgoing family man and receives a ton of money from various lobbyists.
I'm sure you all get the idea by now, and I'm sure you can provide a few more examples of your own without even trying very hard. But my point is that things in the United States today are becoming more homogenized at the same time that they are becoming bigger, more powerful, and more expensive. Modern American life offers a scale of democratized luxury that was undreamed of even as little as a generation ago. But fewer and fewer people are able to buy into it fully these days--and what's more worrisome, the alternatives to this consumption-driven life are becoming fewer and more difficult to find. As we define our success in life more and more in purely material terms, the idea of settling for less becomes more and more unthinkable. After all, why wouldn't you want to aspire to buying the latest model of SUV? Why wouldn't you want to buy your kids the trendiest fashions? Why wouldn't you want everyone to think that You Belong in the affluent world?
Growing up, I always heard that the free market was superior to anything that even remotely resembled socialism, because it offered lots of free choices and affordable luxuries. Now I'm starting to think that unfettered consumer desire is working to make more and more things fundamentally similar. We may not ride upon The People's Bus to our jobs in large smoky factories every day as we read in the state-run newspaper the text of Dear Leader's newest speech about how we will ultimately triumph over the decadent West... but more and more of us are driving in big powerful cars that look remarkably similar to most everyone else on the road, going to cubicle jobs in big glassy corporate parks, listening on the corporate-run talk radio to clips from the President's latest speech about how we will ultimately triumph over the immoral and bloodthirsty terrorists.