Victimhood and 'Choice'
Choice is one of those issues that never leave the headlines for very long. The latest brouhaha began when Hilary Rosen, a Democratic Party advisor, claimed that Mitt Romney's wife, mother of five, grandmother to 16, "never worked a day in her life." What Rosen meant was that stay-at-home moms don't contribute to the world of commerce as a plumber or a lobbyist might. Put aside for a moment things like tact or facts and consider why an advisor or strategist would sneer at the rigors of motherhood on national television, in an election year -- just a few weeks before Mother's Day! The controversy echoes Hillary Clinton's wild shot at women who bake at home.
As is often the case in these matters, the follow-on apologetics made a poor choice worse. Ms. Rosen quickly took to the airwaves to change the subject, claiming that, unlike Ann Romney, most women couldn't choose between mothering and the workplace -- asserting that wives are compelled to work outside the home. Rosen's claim was quickly endorsed by President Obama, who insisted, on the one hand, that political spouses should be off limits...and then, with the other hand, dragged his wife, Michelle, into the fray, claiming that even the distaff half of a breeding pair of lawyers, with a mid-six-figure income, had to work outside the home to make ends meet. The president argued, like Rosen, that wives don't have choices, implying that they are victims of economic circumstance. Never mind that claiming that mothers (compared to fathers?) are not free to choose is at once condescending and patronizing. Indeed, the very phrase "working mothers" is at best a pleonasm.
Two of the four principals in this controversy are lawyers. You might think that litigators would have a better grip on facts, rhetoric, and precedent -- but the real agenda here may be political, not economic or moral. The Rosen/Obama trope casts women working outside the home as victims, not free agents. Or perhaps Rosen and the president merely confused no choice with poor choice.
Clearly, circumstances might mitigate a choice, but by tradition and common law, circumstances do not determine, control, or preordain. Unless the defense of poor choice is insanity, mothers are as liable for their selections as anybody. Custom and legal praxis do not support the Rosen/Obama twist on compulsion, on choice, on free will -- or on any related notions.
Arguments about free will and choice have an antique lineage. The decisive moment for Western culture came in the 16th century, when two Augustinian monks, Desiderious Erasmus and Martin Luther, squared off in the middle of the Reformation. Luther landed the first blow by claiming that free will does not exist. Fra Martin argued that an omnipotent God knows and predestines the fate of all men; some are saved, and others are destined to burn. No amount of good works could lead to salvation. Luther's argument is similar to what you might hear from empiricists today; just substitute biology, illness, or natural forces for God's omniscience -- or the devil's grip.
(Flip Wilson, an American comedian with a finger on the pulse of modern absurdities, used to justify his comedic antics with "The devil made me do it!" Using the devil as an excuse for human frailties was given more than a little traction at the beginning of the modern era by Martin Luther.)
Back at the Reformation, Fra Erasmus replied to Luther that knowledge of good and evil is not destiny, just as a scholar's knowledge of planetary movements does not influence those motions. He further claimed that free will is a gift to humanity -- the capacity to choose between good and evil and suffer the consequences: rewards or punishment. Erasmus also argued that there would be no need for God's commandments (or man's law) if men and women were not responsible for choices or behavior.
Keep in mind that these arguments were made in a day when morality was a serious issue in the public square, not the quaint historical artifact it has become. Nonetheless, over time, the views of Erasmus prevailed even in the secular world. Today, all notions of individual accountability, law, and democracy itself are based on an accepted understanding of free will. Indeed, the act of voting in a democracy is free men and women, freely choosing -- and living peacefully with the consequences. Voting is true choice.
Political assaults on free will today, like those of Rosen and Obama, are not as convincing as they are selective. The contemporary understanding of "choice" is an example. Choice will usually be invoked when one or more options are inconvenient, burdensome, or selfish. Marriage, children, birth control, abortion, sexual proclivities, and even racial identity are examples.
Conversely, politicized notions of choice, or options, are seldom invoked when it comes to matters like substance abuse, welfare, minimum wages, union membership, quotas, hiring, immigration, grade inflation, graduation standards, criminality, and now spouses in the marketplace, it seems. In these cases, choice is often denied. A drunk, an addict, a dropout, or now a woman with two jobs is thought to be impaired, like a disabled veteran, as if choice had nothing to do with personal or even national destinies.
Indeed, many traditional cultures in the European Union, stimulated by generous welfare, labor, and immigration policies, are being displaced by primitive avatars. The no-go zones of France and northern Europe are egregious symptoms. Liberal immigration policies can be a value added, but when immigration morphs into colonization, the effects are far from salutary. Again, voting is choosing. Choice in Brussels may be excising the adjective "European" from the noun "Union."
Personal choices too, in concert, have enormous consequences. The correlation between selective notions of free will and poor choice has not gone unnoticed by science.
Take the cumulative impact of no marriage, late marriage, birth control, abortion, and same-sex unions among citizens of the free world. As Dr. Charles Murray points out, such choices are not the conceits of a selfish elite or an oppressed underclass anymore; these choices in America are now made by largely white middle and blue-collar classes. Individually, each of the above options might be defended as a progressive choice, but collectively they amount to a kind of biological or cultural nihilism, if not national suicide. The worst collective choices are often made with innocuous personal motives. Free will does not warranty good choices.
As Erasmus might have said, individuals and nations are responsible for their choices, good or bad, nonetheless. Free will is destiny; consequence is the price of choice.
In spite of what empiricists, lobbyists, or presidents might claim, we are not controlled or compelled by gods, devils, natural forces, or economic circumstances. And we are free not because we reside in a place called democracy. We are free only if we believe in free will -- not moral evasions or selfish notions of "choice."
G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about politics and national security.