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Bacon or fakon?  Paper or plastic?  Drive or bike?  Donate or volunteer?  Protest or boycott?  Low fat or low carbs (and which ones are the bad carbs, again)?

When did trying to be good start feeling so bad?

People used to assume that an abundance of choice would bring them happiness.  But the 2004 book, Paradox of Choice:  Why Less is More by Barry Schwartz, debunked that myth, proving that too much choice was actually making people unhappy and stressed out.  Schwartz was referring to consumerism, but it looks like the same theory applies to do-gooderism.

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The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Barry Schwartz

(HarperCollins; US: Jan 2005)

Let’s start with environmental awareness.  Want to calculate your carbon footprint?  Who doesn’t?  Go to the Nature Conservancy website and take their survey.  If you want a result you can feel proud of, one you can send to your mom so she’ll post it on her ENERGY STAR refrigerator, this is what you must do: heat and cool your home efficiently, install efficient lighting, use ENERGY STAR appliances and electronics and unplug them when not in use, reduce energy used for hot water, drive as little as possible, check your car’s air filter and tire pressure monthly, fly infrequently (and only on short trips), reduce meat consumption, eat organic, recycle, and compost food scraps and yard trimmings. 

And then get hold of some Prozac; you’ll need it when you’re sitting in a dark, dank room in stained clothes (no hot water cycle for you!), chomping on a rotten organic apple (forgot to plug in the fridge again after unplugging it!), wishing for a return to your childhood when the only footprints you cared about were the ones you made on the non-polluted, non-eroded beach you’d go to with your family.

Now, don’t get me wrong—of course I believe in saving the planet (at least until scientists determine if there are other inhabitable planets with better mobile phone service). However, a cause that’s even nearer and dearer to my heart is saving literature.  With changes in technology and the publishing industry threatening the very existence of books, I want to be sure to do the right thing.

If only the right thing were clear to me!

It used to be that the only choice involved in reading was deciding which book to take out of the library:  Anna Karenina, let’s say, or…anything by Danielle Steele.  But today, simply deciding where to get a book—and in what format—means stepping into an ethical minefield:  Library or bookstore?  Bookstore or online bookstore?  Chain store or indie shop?  Expensive hard cover or cheaper paperback?  Print book or e-book? 

When Borders recently announced they’re closing shop in Boston, I didn’t know whether to feel happy (yeah, let’s stick it to the Man!) or sad (oh, no—bookstores are the best place to get coffee, er, I mean books).  When I “admit” to book-loving friends and students that I was given a Kindle as a gift and I kinda sorta like it, they look at me like I’m a book murderer!

Needless to say, reading is rife with ethical dilemmas.

Surely, choosing which entertainment to watch or listen should be easy.  Wrong!  You have to ask yourself, should entertainers’ private lives influence whether or not I watch their television shows or go to their movies or download their music?  My gut instinct is to say no.  After all, the number of badly behaved entertainers and artists in history probably outnumbers the well-behaved ones by a margin of a thousand to one.  And what would the world be like without their works of art?

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Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney

Paul Johnson

(HarperPerenniel; US: May 2007)

Think of Picasso, perhaps the most prolific artist of all time.  He was also known to be one of the biggest brutes of all time.  According to the book Creators:  From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney, by Paul Johnson, “Picasso benefited from a sort of moral blindness.”  Just looking at some of his statements gives you a sense of the man.  Here are a few of the most startling:  “He said that, for him, women were divided into ‘goddesses and doormats,’ and that his object was to turn the goddess into the doormat.”  “He was overheard saying to himself, over and over: ‘I am God, I am God.’”  And, “when he realized that his sexual potency had gone, he said bitterly to his son Claude: ‘I am old and you are young.  I wish you were dead.’” 

As for his behavior, especially towards women?  Here’s just one example of physical abuse, among many:  “Dora Maar, probably his most beautiful and gifted mistress, was beaten and left unconscious on the floor.” 

Picasso’s long gone, and I have to admit that if even if he were still alive, I’d probably compromise my ethics for the sake of witnessing artistic genius.  But why should I support today’s entertainers who are physically abusive towards their partners?  Problem is, if I follow that line of thinking, I’ll have to boycott entertainment by Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Chris Brown, and Richard Hatch, to name a few.

You know what?  That turned out to be an easy decision!

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.

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