[OPE] Choices

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Mon Jun 08 2009 - 15:47:41 EDT

President Obama, solemnly addressing the veterans commemorating D-Day,
remarked interestingly:

"For you remind us that in the end, human destiny is not determined by
forces beyond our control. You remind us that our future is not shaped by
mere chance or circumstance. Our history has always been the sum total of
the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman. It
has always been up to us." http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/D-Day/

I have to respect Mr Obama in lots of ways, even if I obviously don't agree
with him about particular things. His comment here is certainly in the
humanistic tradition of the enlightenment, of human history-making,
emphasizing the real power of human agency, the capacity to act and fight
resolutely against oppressive forces and win. But actually, war includes
plenty chaos and accidents, and obviously soldiers could hardly fight a war,
if they simply "followed their own choices", rather than obey and follow
army discipline on pain of punishment or death. When you have chaos, it
becomes impossible to know what the options are and what the consequences of
opting for one of them will be. You face forces beyond your control.

I know all this for a fact, because e.g. towards the end of the second world
war, some time after my mother (then a teenager) narrowly escaped assault by
a German soldier, the house of her family in Amsterdam was accidentally
bombed by a British airforce squadron, wiping out half of it. It occurred
during a daring precision bombardment of the German barracks nearby, where a
lot of the top brass were supposed to be assembled. Some of the bombs
drifted a bit in the wind, and unintentionally landed on the houses of
civilians. Miraculously, all the family survived, although some other
residents perished or were injured. My mother could easily have been killed,
in which case I would never even have been born. These were "chance
occurrences" and "forces beyond people's control".

A more dialectical view would be, that there are some things we have control
over and can change, and others that we don't have control over and cannot
change; our choices are made within many parameters which we did not make or
chose ourselves, but nevertheless we do have choices, and there is always
something we can do. It is important not to forget that, and to do what can
be done, rather than resign fatalistically to a perceived historical
inevitability which may not even exist. The other thing obviously missing in
Mr Obama's brief philosophical formula is that the co-existence of many
"choosing individuals" creates a community which transcends their individual
choices, and influences them in making their choices.


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