In 1980, the convenience store chain 7-11 broadened its appeal to all Americans — by offering both CocaCola and PepsiCola in their soda fountain machines. Their advertising slogan for this new innovation was “Freedom of Choice.”
Forgive me: I loved the slogan! Because here in the USA, freedoms are serious, complicated business. We have free market economics. First Amendment freedoms of expression. Freedom to attend school, advance economically and transcend barriers of social class. But here at 7-11, freedom was whimsical and simple. To access it, you only had to touch the drink dispenser.
Was the slogan silly? Freedoms matter greatly, but cola matters less. Cola is a luxury; almost no one relies on it for survival. Even at 7-11, you can hydrate with water, caffeine up with coffee, and get a sugar fix with almost everything else sold at the store.
Or was the slogan cynical? Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are huge corporations. Their power makes clear tensions between different kinds of freedom. Under free market economics, large established corporations can crowd out small businesses, curtailing freedom of opportunity. Large political donations from corporate magnates can secure them access to lawmakers, skewing opportunities to exercise first amendment rights to speak truth to power. Perhaps the slogan flips the bird to the masses, declaring “Let them drink cola!” and “Let them believe in freedom!”
Access to luxury cola is not at stake today; but access to health care and other lifesaving goods are. We’ve heard proposals to shut down medical clinics for veterans so they can have more “freedom of choice” of physicians. And to repeal and replace ACA so people can have “freedom of choice” in health care decisions. Tensions between types of freedom are high: free-market health care drives up cost for consumers, limiting access to care, and undercutting opportunities for poorer and newer Americans to flourish. Poorly checked corporate power limits practitioners’ opportunities for private practice and integrative modalities, curtailing professional self-determination and scientific development.
Where I see tensions at work, Jason Stanley, author of How Propaganda Works, sees deliberate deception. Business decisions, he says, are supposed to follow the value of “efficiency.” A small executive group should assess financial profit vs. loss to a handful of stakeholders, and implement a plan to increase their profits. Civic decisions, however, are supposed to follow the value of “democracy.” A facilitative leader should consult widely, consider various social goods, and make a plan helpful to the greatest possible number of stakeholders.
Too often, Stanley says, political decisions made for efficiency are presented in the language of democracy. The actual goal may have been to increase profit for a few — but you, random citizen, left out of the process, don’t know that. You have only heard that the decision increases “freedom” and “equality.” Democracy empowers the people, you think, and what is good for democracy is good for you. So you accept the decision, because it feels great to hear the slogan. But, over time, the reality of what is lost reveals itself.
My close friends and family know that I can’t drink cola. One can of soda leaves me sick for days. Short-term pleasure in the sweet, smoky taste is no longer beguiling for me. So you can imagine my bewilderment when I overheard a surgeon tell a patient to avoid Coke Zero. “I can’t,” said the patient, even though his gastro-intestinal symptoms were severe. “It makes me feel so good in the morning.”
Well, I’m writing to tell you that you can — even if it hurts in the short term. You can decide to give up cola, and you can learn to see through propaganda. It’s called “freedom of thought.” Use it!
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