Ed Driscoll

'The Tyranny of Choice'; the Boredom of Academia's Summer Reruns

“We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good,” Hillary Clinton infamously said in 2004, offering the world a brief glimpse of her inner liberal fascist.

Nearly a decade later, another leftist is ranting on about “tyranny of choice.”

In socialist Europe, where the EU regulates everything down to the shape of bananas.

“Renata Salecl is a neo-Lacanian psychoanalyst and philosopher who is interested in the subject of choice, specifically the social nature of choices,” John Sexton writes at the Breitbart.com “Conversation” group blog. “Salecl has spoken of the ‘tyranny of choice’ to indicate that she believes choice presents a problem especially in modern capitalist societies.” Which presumably leaves out the EU, but no matter.

In his blog post, Sexton quotes this passage from Salecl’s interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Salecl, at the fast food chain Subway we have to make half a dozen decisions before we can finally enjoy our sandwich. Is that what you mean when you speak in your lectures about the “tyranny of choice?”

Salecl: I try to avoid places like Subway, and if I end up there I always order the same thing. When I speak about the “tyranny of choice,” I mean an ideology that originates in the era of post-industrial capitalism. It began with the American Dream — the idea of the self-made man, who works his way up from rags to riches. By and by, this career concept developed into a universal life philosophy. Today we believe we should be able to choose everything: the way we live, the way we look, even when it comes to the coffee we buy, we constantly need to weigh our decision. That is extremely unhealthy.


Salecl: Because we constantly feel stressed, overwhelmed and guilty. Because, according to this ideology, it’s our own fault if we’re unhappy. It means we made a bad decision.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And if we make the right choice?

Salecl: In that case, we constantly feel that there’s something even better hiding behind the next corner. So we are never truly content and are reluctant to settle on anything.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: “Don’t let the common man decide. He’s not smart enough.” That argument has been used by autocrats for centuries. Do you mean to say they are right?

Salecl: No. I don’t criticize political or electoral freedom, but capitalism’s perversion of the concept: the illusion that I hold the power over my own life.

I don’t think the professor needs to worry all that much about that last notion; it goes out of vogue throughout the Continent, particularly during one of their occasional “European Civil Wars,” as the EU has Orwellianly taken to calling the region’s sporadic internecine scrums.

But in any case, somebody’s been channeling her Marcuse, about whom Daniel Henninger wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in February:

Back in 1965, when American politics watched the emergence of the New Left movement—rebranded today as “progressives”—a famous movement philosopher said the political left should be “liberated” from tolerating the opinions of the opposition:”Liberating tolerance would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”

That efficient strategy was the work of Herbert Marcuse, the political theorist whose ideas are generally credited with creating the basis for campus speech codes. Marcuse said, “Certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed.” Marcuse created political correctness.

To help set the stage for the era in which Marcuse worked to poison the well, here’s a fun passage from Tom Wolfe’s 1976 essay, “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide To America,” which is reprinted in his Purple Decades anthology:

For the next fifty years, from that time to this, with ever-increasing skill, the American intellectual would perform this difficult feat, which might be described as the Adjectival Catch Up. The European intellectuals have a real wasteland? Well, we have a psychological wasteland. They have real fascism? Well, we have social fascism (a favorite phrase of the 1930’s, amended to “liberal fascism” in the 1960’s). They have real poverty? Well, we have relative poverty (Michael Harrington’s great Adjectival Catch Up of 1963). They have real genocide? Well, we have cultural genocide (i.e., what universities were guilty of in the late 1960’s if they didn’t have open-admissions policies for minority groups).

* * * * * *

By 1967 Lyndon Johnson may have been the very generalissimo of American imperialism in Southeast Asia—but back here in the U.S. the citizens were enjoying freedom of expression and freedom of dissent to a rather astonishing degree. For example, the only major Western country that allowed public showings of MacBird—a play that had Lyndon Johnson murdering John F. Kennedy in order to become President—was the United States (Lyndon Johnson, President). The citizens of this fascist bastion, the United States, unaccountably had, and exercised, the most extraordinary political freedom and civil rights in all history. In fact, the government, under the same Johnson, had begun the novel experiment of sending organizers into the slums—in the Community Action phase of the poverty program—to mobilize minority groups to rise up against the government and demand a bigger slice of the pie. (They obliged.) Colored peoples were much farther along the road to equality—whether in the area of rights, jobs, income, or social acceptance—in the United States than were the North Africans, Portuguese, Senegalese, Pakistanis, and Jamaicans of Europe. In 1966 England congratulated herself over the appointment of her first colored policeman (a Pakistani in Coventry). Meanwhile, young people in the U.S.—in the form of the Psychedelic or Flower Generation—were helping themselves to wild times that were the envy of children all over the world.

In short, freedom was in the air like a flock of birds. Just how fascist could it be? This problem led to perhaps the greatest Adjectival Catch Up of all times: Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance.” Other countries had real repression? Well, we had the obverse, repressive tolerance. This was an insidious system through which the government granted meaningless personal freedoms in order to narcotize the pain of class repression, which only socialism could cure. Beautiful! Well-nigh flawless!

Since it’s summer, obviously that means it’s rerun season. And I’ve seen this sitcom before, as the Frankfurt School has become the Nick at Nite of academia: its endless reruns of decades-old ideas ironically dubbed “Progressivism” can never be switched off.

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