A Real Choice - Finally, a Horse of a Different Color, Mr. Hobson? by William Benz
Have you ever woken up and found yourself in somebody else’s body? Well, I haven’t. Though I have woken up and found myself making choices I would not naturally make, if given a choice. Or more precisely, if given options that constituted real choice. But the fact is, I wasn’t. And neither were you. And it’s shocking to realize for how long and in how many ways this has been true.
Now, I don’t mean choices as to whether to try out for the band, become a monk, or major in forensic science. Or whether to become a doctor, a lawyer or a Bear Stearns executive making a personal fortune off the suffering of many.
The choices I’m talking about are a bit more primary. Primary, in the sense of being inalienable, in the same way Thomas Jefferson used the term in our Declaration of Independence when referring to the self-evident truth that people have Rights endowed by their Creator. Rights, inalienable by being intrinsic to the very nature of a person.
I always wondered why John Adams, an attorney, and one given to the precise use of terms, changed this word to unalienable at the time of the Declaration’s printing. He probably assumed that Jefferson had meant to use the legal term taken from English common law to distinguish rights that could only be inherited through fixed rules of the Realm in contrast to alienable rights that could be granted or sold.
But Jefferson was referring to something that preceded law and spoke to the deeper inalienable right of people to have liberty in their private judgment. And how, in order to have such liberty, people must have access to both real choices and real information to make an informed judgment. Two things that are in very short supply today.
In fact, in Jefferson’s original manuscript, he writes, “… endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights….” The word inherent further emphasizing rights intrinsic to the very essence of a free person at birth. This was very radical thinking at a time when most believed rights could only to be granted by the King, the Church, or one’s Landlord.[An interesting side note is that Thomas Jefferson in making this distinction in 1776 was influenced by the work of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), an Irishman associated with the Scottish Enlightenment in Glasgow whose definition of inalienable was influenced by the concept of Natural Rights in the work of John Locke (1632-1704), an Englishman, who was definitely influenced by the writings of his mentor, Edward Pococke (1604-1691), an Oxford scholar of Arabic who first encountered the concept of inalienable in ancient Islamic texts on Jurisprudence. I find it heartening that the American concept of inalienable rights was elucidated by Islam’s admonishing Commanders-in-Chief to respect the inalienable rights of their subjects. For they believed these Rights, being given by Allah, could not be taken away by the whims of an earthly politician. Imagine that! It’s a very small world for those who have the courage to examine things in depth and see how much we have in common instead of emphasizing what sets us apart.]
We can learn a lot from examining the distinct sentiments at play in those forging the documents that birthed our Nation. Their personal disputations were based on far more than what somebody’s minister said from the pulpit.
One can only imagine what type of Constitution we would have if its creators got up and left every time someone said something they didn’t approve of. Instead, being confident in their own astuteness, they were able to endure the controversial speech of others without feeling a need to censor it or disassociate themselves from the speakers. That’s how we got our First Amendment.
Can you imagine a minister saying, “Go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor!” and the person next to you jumping up and saying, “That’s it, I’m leaving this Church for good! I’m not going to sit here and be told to give away my hard earned Federal Reserve bailout so some poor family can stay in a home I tricked them into thinking they could afford! ‘Read the fine print, Dummy!’ ”
But there are leaders today saying exactly that! Every time your minister says something controversial you should leave that sucker in an instant and go find another who will only bathe your ears with joyful tidings– “And Jesus said unto the poor, ‘Diversify your portfolios lest ye cause a short-term liquidity crisis and prevent greedy Hedge-fund Managers from storing up Treasure in the Cayman Islands.’” Now, that’s the type of sermon I’m sure politicians with lots of experience in Washington can get a handle on. Especially those experienced at grabbing gobs of money being passed out by PACs.
Another quality cherished by those who wrote our Constitution was a deep belief that words do matter. Words, not chosen based on results from focus groups so campaign speeches can be customized to tell the people of Texas one thing while telling the people of Pennsylvania another. But words as representatives of our spirit and the aspirations we hold in hope that they will “secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity.”
In the 1770’s, when Colonists said, “the essence of the inalienable is imprescriptible” they knew what they meant and could safely assume most of their neighbors understood as well. Whereas in today’s political arena, it’s become strategic to keep your words simple by emphasizing everything as being either black or white so as not to confuse the electorate or say anything substantive that could lose a few votes. For most, it’s all about winning, whatever the cost.
Is it any wonder we have an administration in office that has brought us both monetarily and morally to the brink of bankruptcy? And does anyone believe we can get out of this predicament by electing a new president who thinks the way to universal health care coverage is by forcing the poor to buy medical insurance they can’t afford? Why not first get rid of the middleman? Why should the poor be forced to pay higher premiums to medical insurance corporations whose top paid CEOs make close to a half a billion dollars in annual compensation? How about eliminating the for-profit healthcare industry altogether? Do we really want to be a country where only the wealthy can afford medical treatment? Or where corporate bean counters make our medical decisions?
We’ve been told there is no other choice. Well, that is, except Hobson’s choice. Which is defined as a choice where one is forced to either take what’s offered or take nothing at all. For many of us in the United States, a take it or leave it choice is all we’re ever given. Strange, considering we’re constantly told we live in the Land of Choices.
This phrase first appeared in England towards the end of the 16th century. It referred to a livery stable owner named Thomas Hobson who obstinately gave his customers the choice of taking whatever horse was in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all. Thus, Hobson’s choice functionally gives the customer no choice.
Today, for those of us seeking affordable health care, good education, a well-paying job, adequate housing, an end to foreign wars initiated for the profit of the few and a presidential candidate worth voting for, we all know what it’s like to be given only Hobson’s choice.
Some use the phrase to mean being forced to choose between two undesirable choices. This was certainly true if the horse in the stall was obviously in poor condition. For having a horse that could barely walk wasn’t any better than having no horse at all. After repeatedly hearing horror stories from others, a customer given a nearly adequate horse may go away thinking, “Well, it’s not great, but at least it can walk.” Unfortunately, such willing acceptance only encourages a Mr. Hobson to offer even less over time.
Now, there are those who say, “Just let our free market sort this out. When enough people become dissatisfied with Mr. Hobson’s substandard horses they’ll go to other livery stables and he’ll have to change his policy or be put out of business.” But that assumes there are stables left that haven’t embraced Mr. Hobson’s lucrative arrangement. Word gets around fast. You don’t need a congressional investigation to understand why and how corporations work together to artificially drive prices higher.
“But that constitutes collusion in forming a Cartel to defraud the public and it would then be the duty of political leaders and the courts to intervene to protect the general welfare.” Well, yes, if the Cartel wasn’t selectively applying other policies, such as always reserving the very best horses for politicians and judges while making generous contributions to their re-election campaigns. Cartels also find it beneficial to fund key research institutions and spend enough advertising dollars so corporate-owned media knows where their daily bread is buttered. And they often tithe to Churches whose ministers preach nothing but sweet platitudes from their pulpits. And all the Cartel ever asks in return for their generosity is “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” They call this a Win-Win arrangement.
Before you know it, we have politicians saying how we should be grateful for any horse offered because in some countries people have to walk. And Judges insisting they only administer the law as written, for going after a Cartel directly would constitute judicial activism. Not to be outdone, sympathetic institutions release studies showing “a poor horse” should be seen as an opportunity for exercise that can significantly lower the risks of coronary heart disease. While similar sentiments are echoed by corporate-owned media in editorials praising those who turn adversity into triumph. And, like clockwork every Sunday, agreeable ministers admonish their flocks, “Do not worry about Treasures here on Earth, but ready your bridles for the Celestial Mounts the meek receive as their reward in Heaven.” Given all the tax breaks, subsidies, and corporate bailouts, it’s been a long, long time since our free market was free. In fact, with enough cash, there’s not much of our free market that can’t be purchased outright. Just like politicians on the take.
So, upon deeper inspection, the problem isn’t just a lack of individual choice, but the whole arrangement that allows a Mr. Hobson to reap huge profits at the expense of the rest of us. Notice how similar this is to what our health care providers, unregulated mortgage lenders, credit card companies and oil consortiums do. And notice how it couldn’t be done without the support of all the bought politicians in their back pockets. How long are we going to accept being given nothing but Hobson’s choice on these issues that so negatively affect our everyday lives? We need a real choice. We need a real change.
As James Madison, the principal author of our Constitution, warned, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” His use of the word popular back then meant something closer to what we would call, current or timely. It also implied information in the interest of the people, not politicians or the special interests that control them. Madison called these special interests, factions– a resurrection of aristocracies and thus, enemies of the popular or public welfare.
In politics, to have real choice requires having access to real information. Popular information in the interests of the people. But today, corporate-owned media is more concerned about ratings than offering responsible journalism. Apparently, ABC was more concerned about topping NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” than helping our nation make one of the most important decisions. You would think after watching ninety minutes of a National Debate in prime time you would know what the candidates stood for. But what did we get? Questions about lapel pins and false memories of sniper fire! Did they actually believe 10 million people tuned in to hear their moderator express fears about his capital gains tax being raised? We were looking for popular information on how the candidates planned on getting us out of Iraq and saving us from losing our jobs, our homes, and medical coverage.
We need a journalism that reveals where candidates stand on issues, not one complaisant with giving opportunities to assassinate the character of an opponent, so their own policies never come under popular scrutiny.
I personally wish to thank Rev. Jeremiah Wright for exposing the duplicity, fragility and insipidness of our political process. As I’m not running for office, I’m not afraid of a minister who passionately expresses his heart and mind. What terrifies me is a desperate politician quoting others out of context in order to fan the fires of racial hatred to gain political advantage. That’s messing with my choice.
I’m a white retiree who was going to be a Baptist minister until I dropped out of College in 1966, my junior year, to take a job as a civil rights organizer in Cincinnati. I started out taking my inspiration from Billy Graham. Then wandered through the works of Tillich and Buber and Camus. I was trying to reconcile my Christian faith, then any faith, with the realities of the world around me. I had nearly given up when I was shown another social, religious and political reality by James Baldwin, Dr. James Hal Cone, and Dr. M. L. King.
Why did I take my inspiration from Black ministers? Because I was tired of white ministers saying how much they loved all God’s children, they just didn’t want to live next to some of them. Did that mean I hated my own race? No. But it did open my eyes to a problem that wasn’t going to go away by sweeping it under the rug of make-believe. At the time, I wasn’t trying to prove who was guilty as much as who needed to open their eyes.
As James Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Experienced politicians know the truth of this and unfortunately use it often to get elected. By sowing divisive fears among Blacks, Hispanics and Blue-collar workers, attention is diverted from the few making fortunes by demanding higher prices for less and less. For those on the bottom, the one thing politicians don’t want you to do is look up.
For those of you who have never heard of Dr. James Hal Cone, he was a theologian in the late sixties who defined what a Black Theology of Liberation should mean. And in doing so, helped many to understand that a socially involved theology was valid irrespective of race or gender. As Dr. Cone wrote, “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”
In the corporate-owned media of today, he’s depicted only as someone advocating Black Power and instrumental in shaping Rev. Wright’s thinking. The fact that Dr. Cone is also a Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary is usually glossed over to portray him as one in a long line of white-hating firebrands.
Anyone taking the time to read Dr. Cone’s books and listen to Rev. Wright’s sermons in their entirety would know they’re not black racists, but Black Christians using fervent words to inspire their congregations to a deeper understanding of their social responsibility and the role they must play in healing the disunity that plagues our Country. Just because people can derive benefit from the controversial speech of another, doesn’t mean they become advocates of all the other beliefs that person holds. To have a real choice requires being exposed to competing ideas. That used to be the American way. When George Washington said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter,” he meant it.
What we need now is a President that works to bridge the gap between the races and genders, not one who opens old wounds to fan those divisions in order to get elected, whatever the cost. By encouraging only slanderous disinformation, we’re all being set up for another Hobson’s choice. As John F. Kennedy pointed out, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
We can’t allow fear to rule us. When a candidate ceases to be someone with differing views on important issues and becomes portrayed as a black wolf in sheep’s clothing with possible ties to Al-Qaeda, we all lose our choice. When an opportunity to vigorously debate the issues shifts attention to guilt by association, we all lose our choice. We’ll only solve the grave issues we face by having courage to seek an open and productive dialogue with those who do not share our views. That’s how we get a real choice.
Let me illustrate. A few years back, eight to be precise, when the Highest Court in the Land declared it was okay for a Governor to conduct a sloppy election that insured his brother became President, I thought, “Well hell, they just flushed our choice down the drain!” “But wait!” I said to myself, “Relax, we’re not going to stand for such a travesty of justice, this is America!” But before I could join everyone in the streets, the candidate from whom the Presidency was stolen took the poor horse offered and hobbled off as if a Mr. Hobson had declared “Either my way or the highway!” Mr. Gore dutifully chose to head down the pike. Well, yes, it didn’t happen that fast, it took a month of wrangling in the courts. As there were so many irregularities, tens of thousands of ballets were thrown out, predominantly in precincts with Democratic majorities. Where was our choice then? If a past Vice President of the United States who had just won the popular election didn’t have a choice, what makes us think we ever had one?
Now I think, why was I so surprised? Thomas Jefferson explained this all in the Declaration of Independence, “… experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Apparently, as a Nation, we had grown so accustomed to having no choice we hobbled off in resignation and hoped the feeble horse we were given would get us to the next election. Which, I guess, it did. And then our choice was stolen again, this time maybe with a little help from Diebold, in Ohio. As a Nation, we have such a short attention span.
Even for those of you who have no stomach for accusations of fraud or conspiracy, the sloppiness and bald-faced incompetence of these elections should be suspiciously disturbing.
Of course, now, eight years hence, I’m sure there are many who wish their conclusions in 2000 had been a bit more drastic and backed up with a revolutionary declaration, “Enough is enough!” Which should have been seen as not only a choice, but also a duty. As Jefferson explained, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object [to deny meaningful choice] evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
To prove his point, Jefferson then lists 27 examples of tyranny by King George III that justified the Colonies’ decision to take matters into their own hands and form a new Nation. Do yourself a favor and read them (maybe for the first time?) and see if they don’t sound like a laundry list of usurpations by our present day Neocons!
However, as much as I disapprove of the Shrub, he’s small potatoes when it comes to identifying that which denies our access to real choice. For President Bush, however obstinate, is not Mr. Hobson. For, obviously, our Mr. Hobson is not a single person but the whole array of institutionalized greed supported by a dysfunctional media with the combination being used by politicians willing to do anything to get elected, whatever the costs to we, the people.
Now, with most of us preoccupied with rising costs of gas at the pump, groceries in the aisles and jobs on the line, I’m not expecting rioting in the streets for an upgrade to the Republic. Just like, I’m not expecting that a change in the politician party that runs this country will be the end to all of the problems. This election really isn’t about the candidates, whatever the party, whomever the nominees. It’s about our coming of age to the true meaning of democracy and freeing it, and thus ourselves, from the tyranny of special interests.
The great thing about Hard Times is that they facilitate our meeting with the evitable. So in spite of what the fear mongers, mudslingers and naysayers say, we are at an exciting juncture in our history where we can literally transform our lives, for the better. And all it requires is enough of us demanding a real choice while realizing that getting better does not necessarily mean getting more. I think learning to live with a whole lot less is going to be our key to a brighter future.
What type of horse will you be riding?
William P. Benz is an Artist, Writer, and Poet living in Southeast Portland. His interests include Alchemy, Herbalism, Electromagnetic Healing, Culture Jamming and finding New Ways to eventually bring Democracy to our Homeland. “This not even the New Wine, this Creation!” http://www.serpentcoil.com Or send email: [email protected]