Saturday, October 22, 2011

School Plays and the Free Will Paradox

In the midst of writing last week's post about Bill Clinton, I was struck by one particular quote, but since it was tangential to my main point, I chose to set it aside. Now, after a week of consideration, I'd like to take it up again. Here is what the 42nd President recently said about his golf game: "Haiti just about ruined my golf game. My best year as a golfer was the first year I got out of the White House. I got down to a 10 handicap. But I'm not close to that now. I just don't play enough.

Last week's post documented how busy he has been with charitable initiatives. But apparently that wasn't the case for the first year or so that he was out of office. In fact, this quote reminded me of a news story that I saw years ago. It took me about five minutes of Googling to uncover what I was looking for, but I eventually located a USA Today article from March 2001. The article explores Clinton's difficulties in transitioning from the presidency to private life, and it starts with an account of him attending an elementary school play in Bedford, New York, the kind of event that is generally only attended by those related to the student actors. When asked why he was at the play Clinton said he had been invited by the school and that he "had the morning free."

What intrigues me about Clinton's activity is that it is arguably an exercise of complete and total freedom, and also arguably evidence of complete constriction and lack of agency. And it exposes a paradox regarding freedom, control, and autonomy.

On one hand, the ability to attend a random community function indicates unfettered individual mobility. Most of us attend functions out of obligation. Even when we give our time of our own free will to a cause or organization or to the interest of a loved one, the exact nature of our time commitment is prescribed for us. Dates and times for our presence are affixed, and though we could often still choose to back out without substantial penalty, doing so still means that we lose some privilege or social capital that we desire. And this is how it needs to be, since any organizing structure that relies on members to show up if they happen to have a morning free is doomed to failure. The students and teachers and even the parents needed to show up that day for the play to exist, for the former president to have an option to attend. But for the free agent, in this case Bill Clinton, the ability to take advantage of the cohesion of others, the ability to flutter in and out at the behest of personal whims rather than dictates, indicates a special kind of freedom outside of social structure.

But the USA Today article does not present Clinton's attendance in this light. It is not the upbeat story of a man freed from constraints, who has given his mandated service to the world and now is able to happily coast along from one random, original, and invigorating experience to the next. It is a story of a man lacking purpose and meaning. The quote "I had the morning free" is code for "I had nothing better to do." And this resonates as especially pathetic given that mere months prior to that, there was no more important man in the world, no person whose decisions were more impactful on the world. The extent of his impact now is to accept invitations that nobody likely expected him to accept. Rather than the school play being one of an infinite number of activities he may have chosen that morning, in this sense it was the only alternative to the golf course, and because it allowed him to make an impact, however meagre, he was more or less forced into this action

Yet for one who is not used to making an impact, no such dilemma asserts itself. For one who doesn't wish to contribute to the advancement of any group, organization, board, or society in general, there is no need to surrender any autonomy. But can such a person, if he or she even exists, be said to have had any autonomy to begin with?

And one may wonder if it is possible for a former president to find some resolution amidst this paradox. As Clinton's golf game has gotten worse, his ability to impact the world through the work of his foundation has increased, and presumably he doesn't have as many mornings free. But last year he did manage to drop in unannounced at a pancake breakfast for firefighters.


Post a Comment

<< Home