When 'choice' is phony

Stan Lichtenstein

January 15, 1991|By Stan Lichtenstein

TODAY I choose to write about "choice" -- no, not "choice" as in pro-choice vs. pro-life, but choice as the basic principle that should govern the most significant aspects of living free in a free society. You may ignore what I have to say, if you choose.

My preachments on this subject are prompted by various political phenomena apart from the abortion rights controversy, and especially by the current "anti-incumbency" fever manifested in moves to limit terms of office so that no one will be re-elected "too many" times.

A generation back, Archibald MacLeish, the distinguished poet who rose to become librarian of Congress, wrote "Freedom Is the Right to Choose," a book which dealt mainly with choice as a spiritual thing, essential to freedom of religion. It is time now to re-visit the whole broad subject, from every angle.

Freedom is, indeed, the right to choose. This right cannot be fulfilled if we limit ourselves to true/false choices, or even to multiple choice where there is no box to check off for "none of the above." Freedom is negated by the compulsory voting laws existing in a few countries abroad whose "model" some Americans recommend that we emulate.

To say that voting is a civic duty is too glib; compulsion closes the door on the ultimate non-violent protest -- staying away from the polls in droves. There are times when political boycott may be preferable to phony voting "participation."

It seems equally clear to me that arbitrarily limiting the re-election of incumbents to X number of terms involves a paradox. In taking such a step, the political system says to the voters: "You are too dense, or brainwashed by lavishly financed 60-second TV commercials rendering you incapable of throwing the bums out. Therefore, the system will do it for you."

I, for one, resent that. We voters may be dumb, but we're not stupid. (Or are we?) If we can't re-elect a candidate for the nth time, our freedom of choice is being limited.

I'm looking at this moment at a leading commentator's argument in favor of term limitation. "The special interests," he asserts, "give only to incumbents." That's simply not true. Well-heeled, big-time interest groups, including large corporations, often contribute to both parties and to the campaign coffers of rival candidates for the same office. In gambling circles, that's known as hedging your bets. Bribery and lobbying are truly nonpartisan activities.

Many well-intentioned people -- such as those who say the "civic duty" of voting should be supported by legal compulsion -- stand on ill-considered, treacherous ground, it seems to me. Distorted notions of "duty," "community" and "faith," operating far beyond the political sphere, are all too prevalent. For example, Anne Frank -- who, in her hideout from the Nazis was probably the world's most eloquent young diarist -- tried to exert peer pressure on her atheistic friend, Peter. She exhorted him to believe in something, couching her appeal in words like these:

"Oh, I don't mean you have to be Orthodox. I just mean you should have some kind of religion." The soon-to-be martyred girl was brilliant and brave, but she was, after all, an adolescent, and her understanding of the idea of free and conscientious commitment was less than mature.

Much older, but with a similar limitation in his vision, is Ronald Reagan, who as president took much the same tack in his handling of questions of choice. "Freedom of religion," he was fond of saying, "does not mean freedom from religion." That's a typically slick, Reaganesque (and adolescent) line of thought, and it is thoroughly nonsensical. Freedom to accept a given doctrine or set of doctrines must necessarily carry with it the freedom to reject them. Freedom always involves the right to choose, to personally cast a real or metaphorical "vote" for or against.

Coincident with the movement for compulsory throw-the-bums-out legislation is another calling for a "national service" system, in which people -- and especially youngsters -- would be required to participate in "voluntary" do-gooder activities. I hear pundit Bill Buckley has a new book out advocating something of the sort, and in various school districts authorities have stipulated a number of hours of "student service" as a requirement for graduation. Almost any respectable old charitable endeavor may be selected by students to fulfill their "obligation," but they can't say, "None of the above."

Mandatory voluntariness! Now, there's a concept for you! It is, of course, being challenged in court. I hope the challengers win.

Stan Lichtenstein writes from Bethesda.

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