Netflix and Good Ol’ American Despair

If freedom is an exploding horizon of possible options and a friendly butt-tap of encouragement to “go, choose one,” I’ll take some mild form of oppression — thanks. The eternal possibility of “another option” isn’t a space to stretch my arms and sing the national anthem — it is the paralysis of the human person into grotesque inaction. This is best shown by Netflix.

To sit down and choose “any movie” out of the massive expanse of options Netflix offers is nearly impossible. Every choice is plagued by the immediate availability and advertised possibility of a better choice lurking in the scroll-down. The law, I think, is this: The longer it takes a group of friends to choose a single movie from the options available to them, the less appealing each possible choice looks. Every apprehended option speaks of better unapprehended options. We become saturated with possibility, thick with it, to the point that the prospect of actually choosing something becomes a point of anxiety.

The idea that existential freedom blossoms from a mere diversity of choice and the constancy of “another option” becomes supremely suspect some ten minutes into movie-searching, as we begin to employ methods to protect ourselves from the yawn of choice — narrowing ourselves to 5 choices, employing a democratic voting system, setting ourselves a time limit (if we haven’t picked something by 11:30, we’re going with Sharktopus), or forcing ourselves to remain in a genre (can we all just agree on an emotionally-repressed BBC romantic period-piece?). In short, we initiate processes of restriction and law-making. We begin our Netflix-search as free-and-easy hipsters of the Untied, Choose-Whatever Generation — we end as fascists. And even with our self-restrictions, we usually end in frustration, saying “Let’s just do this one,” with an air of absurdism in which any option is better than a continued wallowing in the paralysis of possible options.

But this paralysis is not cured by our eventual choice. Finally watching the movie is not characterized by relief, but by skepticism. We do not rest in our choice. “If it’s really bad, we can still choose another one.” We watch our movie through the lens of another possibility which floats over our vision like a specter and makes the movie we watch the object of intense judgment — we are utterly ready to abandon ship (at least until the movie sells itself to us).

But it’s not that bad — is it? After all, this is an unusual situation. Usually you approach Netflix with some idea of what you want to watch, and this frame restricts your choice and saves you from paralysis. True — and that’s quite the point — but this isn’t really about Netflix.

Our culture is plagued (which only ever means that I am plagued and I believe it of others) with an aversion to the given, the decisive — those people, places and things that are given to us and we to them, annihilating the possibility of another person, another place, and another thing. Wendell Berry describes this aversion as our constant, wistful expectation of a “better place” — an attitude destroying American agriculture and community. I want to riff on his melody.

Our American conception of freedom has its primary referent in the freedom of the consumer to “take his business elsewhere,” in the freedom of the shopper to buy this instead of that, in the freedom of the individual as an economic unit to — in the event of not liking one thing — choose another. Choice is not a way to value — the way in which we attain something good — no, it is a value. Choice is a good, quite apart fr0m what we choose.

The logic of the marvelous people who support abortion is not some bizarre misdirection — it is a proper blossoming of a capitalistic misconception of freedom, that the virtue of freedom is not in making the right choice, but in the mere fact that we are floating in a myriad of possibilities, in the possibility of choice itself which is the supposed “power” of the consumer and his promise of satisfaction. And so we are “pro-choice.” The possibility of “another option” to pregnancy is a value in itself — even when that other option involves killing a child.

We indulge the same illusion that a Netflix-party indulges — that more possibilities will make us a happy, increasing our chances of making the right choice and ending up satisfied. But as with Netflix, choice as an open-ended category paralyzes from ever really doing anything. And do lurch out into action, the possibility of another option — and worse, the advertisement of another option — haunts our decisions and transforms them into non-decisions, akin to trying on a shoe. We never really annihilate ourselves from the primordial soup of possibility.

Marriage — legally and culturally speaking — is no longer a self-restriction of existence, by which I promise (promise!) myself to another and thereby rip myself from the possibility of doing otherwise. The very possibility of no-fault divorce and pre-nuptial agreements keeps the door open to another possibility — a “better” way. Is it a surprise that my generation is moronic about the idea of marriage, and more than moronic, deathly frightened 0f ever choosing it, preferring the dialect of trying-it-out to till-death-do-us-part in our doomed but way-fun adventures in cohabitation? How difficult it is to choose an unfragmented, holistic life, how difficult it is to promise ourselves to something, how difficult it is to maintain that purity of heart which wills one thing (Kierkegaard) when the very air we breath exalts the freedom of choice! The myth is that we will be enabled to choose what we really want in this atmosphere. The reality is that we are terrified from choosing anything at all, and worse, that even in choosing we don’t choose — we try. What to call a marriage open to the possibility of divorce? If it works, did it really work? If I die un-divorced, did I stay faithful to my vows — or did I try marriage out, right up to the point of death?

But no matter, the awful is everywhere. It is in the way we work — my generation is expected to work several jobs, to move often, and be ready to drop whatever it is that we are doing at the whiff of a better option and a little more money. It is in the way we approach our bodies — gender is described as an open-ended possibility of virtually infinite choice, and we are encouraged at an early age to self-identify with a particular sexuality, gender and orientation. Far and fading is the terrifying given of a body that must be reckoned with, creeping closer is the ocean of of choice, the panic of which which usually ends in a non-decision — a regular taking up of different sexualities, a constant toying with identity — or that paralysis by which we settle into the non-descriptiveness of being nothing at all. It is in the way we treat our communities — as inherently leavable for another option. It is in having children — abortion allows us to try it over doing it. This, this is the millennial farce — we are tourists of our hometowns, dilettantes of our work, taste-testers of our relationships and brief visitors of the geography of our own bodies, all permanence and givenness haunted and negated by the siren-song of somewhere, someone, something else. Now then:

Adventure — a thing I would roughly define as a knock on your door that makes you get off your ass to do something that provides some justification to your drinking habits — is a synthesis of freedom and necessity — a free, creative dealing with what is given. It involves reckoning with what you do not choose. We would do well to make use of G.K. Chesterton’s formula here, that an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience — given as an annihilation of other possibilities — like being born into a particular family, being a particular body, having a home in a particular place, a vocation to this particular woman, or a project of work no one else can do — these things resist being haunted by the possibility of another choice for the very reason that they are restrictions. We cannot do otherwise. We promise not to do otherwise. We are made terribly responsible by them.

Adventure is a mode fundamentally opposed to the paralysis of our culture. Against the vagueness of being able to do anything at all, against the absurdity of placing value in the mere ability to choose something else, adventure is an acceptance of what is given in all its thorniness, tragedy and splendor. To be on an adventure is to reduce, to limit, to burn the bridges that that no one else can burn at the terrible expense of any “other choice” or “better place” — but in this is our profound, existential experience of freedom.

Freedom chooses its necessities. Paradoxically, we are most certain that we are free when we freely determine ourselves — when we take care of the land we belong to, and destroy in ourselves the possibility of moving, when we make a vow and keep it, give ourselves a moral law and obey it, admit that we, without our choosing, have been given to a family and to a community, and give ourselves to them. Freedom is felt when we destroy “the other option,” knowing that we did not have to, but doing so anyways –for this is freedom used.

A life made sharp by the vow, the promise, the firm decision and the whittling of that glut of possibility into the narrow point of actualityI want it. I want to cease coddling an extended not-doing and non-choosing, to stop indulging that constant potency which, for the mere fact of its ending in death, we call a “life.” Who is free, finally? The man who knows that no “action” of his ever annihilates the possibility to do otherwise, or the monk who vows poverty, chastity, and obedience? It’s easy enough to find out — ask each if they are happy.

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  • Hershey Scholar

    Dear Marc,

    My name is Grace, and I host a radio show at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Would you be willing to give an interview for my show? You can let me know at gewagler@email.msmary.edu. Thanks.

  • JethroElfman

    Ah, the regret for the road not taken. It isn’t even dissatisfaction with what you have, it’s fear that you are missing out on what was on the other path. The uncertainty is what leads you to better decisions. The confidence of righteousness is a problem, not an advantage. It lulls you with the sweet music of the garden. We are not meant for paradise, but to be out in the wild world, tilling the soil with our own hands, struggling for our very lives. That’s when we grow, when we become better people. It’s when you doubt, when you are unsure of yourself, when you ask, “Yea hath God said” that you will put all of your ability into examining what you are doing. For all of your choices need to be examined, tested, worried over. Only by that means will you learn to make better ones.

    How sad for you to accept what you are told is the only choice. …to take “Thou Shalt” at its face value and agree, “yes I shall”. That too is a choice. Even the monk, living in his poverty and chastity, has opted to be there. Is he happy there? Perhaps. That’s his business. Yours is to decide if you would be happy there. You see, people are different. The Myers-Briggs chart with its four corners of personality types falls short of showing appreciation of the myriad differences between everyone.

    I run these long distance races that leave me exhausted and in pain. I don’t recommend to anyone that they do the same. It’s something that I like to do, but you need to decide for yourself if it’s your path. If you do, great! If you don’t, great! …so long as you find out what it is that helps you to be happy with who you are.

    Whether I make the wrong choice, I want the freedom to choose. I need to figure it out for myself, to mess up and carry on. Mankind wasn’t kicked out of the garden. We elected to leave. We will not be told, “this is good”, “that is evil”. We will eat the fruit and discover how to decide these things for ourselves. That is the freedom which we have taken upon ourselves. With that freedom we shoulder the responsibility of suffering the consequences. Let us take up that burden rather than following the contentment-filled road of blind obedience.

    • Santiago

      Woah 😛
      You can take up that ‘burden’ if you choose.
      Others, choose to take up the burden of the cross.
      Is there a life inside of you?

    • smf

      Did you understand anything at all about this article?

      Out of curiosity what do you think of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Nietzche’s ubermench theory? I wonder if perhaps you would find some resonance between your thinking and theirs.

  • Nathaniel

    If you’re going to engage in argument, be honest about it. Abortion no more kills a child than eating an acorn chops down an oak tree.

    • ninjaandy

      And if *you* are going to engage in argument, perhaps you should think your *own* point through, rather than relying on a Planned Parenthood/NARAL talking point which pro-life people have heard again and again over the decades.

      An acorn is essentially an oak tree in “fetal” form. It’s not in “tree” form, but it contains all the essential elements to make an oak if placed in the proper environment.

      The difference is that an acorn is not, by nature, always placed in a proper environment to grow into its “tiny tree” stage, whereas a baby *is* always placed in the proper environment: its mother’s womb.

      When you imply that a human zygote is genetically different from a human baby or a human adult, you are going against what nature clearly demonstrates, and what science clearly establishes.

      Arguing otherwise is essentially basing your entire position on the semantic argument of the human use of the word “tree”. If in another culture they referred to acorns as “baby trees”, your argument wouldn’t work. Therefore it is an argument based on word choice, and not on reasoning from the observable data and conclusions.

      Beyond that, people are not trees, and so your “acorn=fetus” argument is not as apt as you’d like it to be. But that’s another argument altogether.

      • Nathaniel

        Do I need a logging permit to eat an acorn? If not, then my point stands. Seeing how its quite possible for the law to treat different stages of development differently.

        And hell, by your logic might as well call abortions the “killing of an unborn adult.” It would be just as accurate on a semantic and biological level.

        • ninjaandy

          Again, you’re making false analogies. Logging refers to “logs”, which are the dead bodies of adult trees grown to a certain height and girth. Not all young trees, nor all full-grown trees, are logs.

          So you wouldn’t need logging rights to cut down a sapling, either. That doesn’t mean a sapling isn’t genetically a tree.

          The law can make any distinctions it wants, but that doesn’t mean the law is good, just, or right. American law used to make a distinction between owning one type of person vs. another. Could I therefore appeal to the law’s ability to make distinctions as the reason that slavery is OK? That’s what you just did by applying your logging analogy to abortion.

          As for your last paragraph: abortion is the killing of an unborn human being. You’re defining your argument here by attaching it to a distinction of degree (adulthood vs. childhood), rather than kind (human vs. non-human). I’m not arguing that an acorn is the same in degree as a oak, or that a human zygote is the same in degree as an adult. But they are the same kind.

          To draw a clearer distinction: a 5-year-old is also different in degree from an adult. That doesn’t mean that I can kill 5-year-olds just because the law might say it’s alright to do so.

          • Nathaniel

            All I’m asking is that people use accurate terms. A embryo is not a blastocyst, which is not a fetus, which is not a child, which is not an adult. And the continued attempts to conflate these different terms are a transparent attempt to load the argument.

            Besides, if you’re arguments are really as strong as you think, than using accurate words shouldn’t hurt you at all.

          • ninjaandy

            I’m not arguing against using accurate words; in fact on that point, we agree.

            What I’m arguing against is you seeming to base your arguments on mere differences in terminology, rather than on differences in substance.

            So let me state the argument against abortion another way: abortion takes a human life. “Human life” is not an ambiguous term, as we all know even at the earliest, tiniest stage of single-cell development, that thing in there is alive according to all scientific classification.

            And if you want to argue it’s not human, then you have to base your argument on the fact that being human means being a certain shape (two arms, two legs, and a certain size), or being a certain age (6 months out rather than 1 month and still in), or having certain basic skill sets, or a combination of those factors, which are the only differences between unborn babies and you and me.

            And all of those arguments are based on non-essential, insubstantial differences. If they were essential differences, then we could easily declassify a huge number of being as “non-human” if we don’t want our definition of that term to include them. Governments do it all the time.

            You say words have meaning, and you’re right. But the meaning of a term used in a discussion is only significant if everyone agrees on what that word means, and doesn’t change terminology in an attempt to fool others into adopting their position.

            I’m not saying you’re attempting to fool anyone here, but I *am* saying that changing the definition of terms like “human” and “life” and “murder” and “choice” have been the basic modus operandi of Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry since 1973 or thereabouts. They operate almost entirely based on slogans and emotional manipulation; *they* are the ones who don’t want to stick with the accurate definitions.

          • paizlea

            In the interest of using properly defined words, would you concede that a fetus is violating the bodily autonomy of the woman who is carrying it?

          • ninjaandy

            No I would not, because it is not a violation. The child did not choose to be there. It might be helpful if you read the common definitions of the term “violate”, and describe how the apply to an unborn child which has taken no action:

            http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/violate?s=t

          • paizlea

            So a woman has no choice but to accept that another “person” has rights that supersede hers, even when she’s being caused harm?

          • ninjaandy

            Well first of all, a baby isn’t “harm”. It’s not a parasite, or an invader, or any of those other buzzwords Planned Parenthood likes to use. Pregnancy isn’t harmful; it’s a natural condition which evolution shows us the female human body was built for.

            As to your question of rights: if a poor person moves into my basement while I’m away
            on vacation, can I poison him to get him to leave? Can I hack him up
            with a knife and then vacuum his parts out? Can I pull him halfway down
            the driveway, then shove a pair of scissors into his brain stem and
            bump his body in the trash?

            He shouldn’t be there, but that doesn’t mean I can just kill him to get him to go. And in that case the poor person is there by choice, and is breaking the law. Babies don’t have a choice, and break no laws.

            So yes, sometimes two legitimate rights clash up against one another, at which point we have to choose the greatest good. And which right is greater: the mother’s right to control her body for nine months, or the baby’s right to live?

            Both important, but not both equal.

          • paizlea

            You seem to be saying that a woman loses her right to control her own health once she’s pregnant. Pregnancy is responsible for a host of medical problems, up to and including death of the pregnant woman. Your conflation of “natural” with “good” is ridiculous – a clue that you don’t consider a woman’s well-being for a moment in your arguments against abortion. You’re claiming that a fetus, which hasn’t taken a single breath, has the right to do damage and potentially kill, and that a woman has no recourse but to endure it, even if she became pregnant against her will. If someone or something threatens a woman’s health and welfare, she has every right to defend herself.

          • ninjaandy

            I never said a woman loses the right to control her own health once she’s pregnant. What I *am* saying, is that she has to consider that her body is now home to another human being. Again, a baby is not a threat. And, if it is a living human being, then it has as much right to life as the mother. You have yet to establish that a baby isn’t living, or that it isn’t human.

            What you *have* done, is equate not having taken a breath, with not being alive. I don’t see any scientific qualifications for such a statement.

            As for conflating what is natural with what is good, I never made that across-the-board argument. But to address the specifics, let me ask you this: do you consider the ability to become pregnant, which is natural, as something that is not a good? I’m not talking about forced pregnancies, unexpected pregnancies, etc. I’m talking about the ability to do so, all things being equal. Is it a natural good, or a natural evil? Once you remove the circumstances of individual cases, it has to be one or the other.

          • paizlea

            If her pregnancy is causing a woman harm (which happens a good deal, even with today’s medical advances), how is it not a threat?

            And since the only time the Bible states that the soul enters the body is with the first breath, I think it’s a fair standard to use. Most Jews still hold this as true. Did Jesus change that teaching? Or do you disagree with the Bible on this issue?

  • KarenJo12

    So, who gets to decide what the good decision is? This article is nothing more that an exhortation to stay in ins place, no matter how unbearable that place may be. Don’t improve yourself; you don’t deserve any better. How very convenient for those in power.

    • Nathaniel

      The Catholic Church hierarchy of course you silly billy. Everyone would just be so much happier if we just listened to our priestly betters and gave up on any silly notions of “choice” or “freedom.” As any right thinking historian will tell you, the best times and places on Earth was Europe under the kindly and benevolent rule of the Pope.

      • ninjaandy

        Wow, you know a lot about the Church. Could you find me documentation to support your assertion that the Catholic Church teaches the things you say it does?

        Specifically: that priests are better than non-priests as far as morality and wisdom are concerned, that choice and freedom are silly notions, or that the best times on earth were under temporal papal rule.

        Official teachings, mind you — doctrines and dogmatic teachings. Not merely the ramblings of some misguided internet Catholic or the scribblings of some priest from the middle ages.

        • Nathaniel

          The comment you just read above was made in context of the above post. Given the jabs the post made the notion of choice, I felt quite fine jabbing right back.

          And if you care to read up a bit on the history of the Church, you’ll find that whatever tune it may sing now, even as recently as 150 years ago the Church officially bemoaned the ideas of democracy and religious freedom. Or as the Church would have referred to it, “the freedom of error.”

          • ninjaandy

            I know quite a bit about the history of the Church. Again, though, where are the official teachings you refer to? Or was that simply the opinion of some bishops, or the pope? Not everything the pope says or writes is considered doctrine, you know. Not everything a Catholic official does, is officially Catholic.

            Of course there have been Catholics not in favor of religious freedom. There still are today. Catholics have been in favor of all kinds of falsity over the years, but not because the Church taught them to. Certainly many church officials have provided bad examples, and many more are guilty of not properly passing on the faith. That doesn’t mean those things have the force of doctrinal law or dogmatic teaching.

            Now on a personal level: can you look at the things American politicians do these days, and not bemoan some of the weaknesses of democracy? And yet you wouldn’t decry democracy entirely. That’s how well-informed Catholics view the darker times in our Church’s own history. But bad behavior doesn’t prove the idea false, or the teachings inaccurate or worthless.

          • Nathaniel

            3. “As a result of the altogether false idea of the regime of society, they do not fear to promote that erroneous
            opinion….called insanity by our Predecessor Gregory XVI, namely, ‘that liberty of conscience and of worship is a proper right of each man, which ought to be proclaimed by law and asserted in every rightly constituted society, and [it should be proclaimed] that the citizens have liberty of all sorts ,which should be restrained by no authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil, in virtue of which they are able to privately and publicly manifest and declare all ideas whatsoever, orally or in print.'”

            Pius IX, 1864.

            And from this must putrid font of indifferentism
            flows that absurd and erroneous view or rather insanity,
            that liberty of conscience should be asserted and
            claimed for just anyone.”

            Gregory XIV, 1832

          • ninjaandy

            To which I respond:

            https://www.ewtn.com/library/DOCTRINE/RELLIB.TXT

            But again, the simple response is that you are taking *all* words of popes as infallible, which is not what the Church teaches.

            But read the whole thing.

  • Divvy2012

    Good Lord, Marc. That hurt. Right in the truth.

  • Paula

    Great insight, Marc.

  • montanajack1948

    Barry Schwartz’s excellent book, The Paradox of Choice, presents some of these same arguments, though perhaps with a different agenda.