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“Hi! You can sit anywhere you like!”

The bartender was cheerful. The couple smiled and nodded, looked around, then at each other, back at the bartender, then back at the empty tables and booths. The man staggered toward the four-top nearest them, only to spy a booth that looked better, perhaps. I think the woman finally started walking to yet another table where they eventually, finally came to a rest. I heard them exhale as they took their seats.

Obviously, a harrowing experience — this table-selection thing. Hard to face such radical freedom. Too much choice can overwhelm.

I asked the bartender: Did most people react that way when a hostess wasn’t around to choose a table and lead them there?

“All the time. It flummoxes them.” She shook her head, still marveling at it.

This got me thinking, of course.

For the last fifty years or so in most of the United States, our experience of public life has been shaped by one institution: The shopping mall.

Let’s think about malls for a bit: A predetermined variety of stores laid out in a predictable arrangement. Most sell recognized national brands packaged in expected ways. There’s a code of conduct that goes with shopping in a mall — behavior deemed acceptable. Even if it’s not posted, most of us know what’s expected. Thus, we don’t run and scream or dance. We don’t smoke or try to peddle our own home-made snacks. There are rules. Break them and get thrown out. We also assume that the mall’s stores meet certain standards. A store with a violent staff or one that consistently cheated customers would probably lose its lease. The mall owner would intervene. It’s a sort of social contract: The mall stores act like good, uniformly-behaved retailers, and we respond by acting like good, uniformly behaved consumers.

It’s true that humans shape their environment. We are also shaped by it — in unexpected ways. Now, sixty years or so after the first regional malls sprouted from former cornfields, we find our own expectations for public life have been formed by mall-culture. A mall where there were few rules wouldn’t seem right to us. For all the complaints of boredom, if a mall offered a vast array of real choices served up in unpredictable ways by oddly-behaved people, we’d probably not see it as a good thing.

We’d be as flummoxed as the couple in the bar — dismayed by real choice. Threatened by potential consequences.

I have a feeling if we had to confront retail life as it was before the suburban shopping mall, we’d throw a fit. We’d run back and hide in our houses. The typical shopping street of the 1930’s would send us into a spiral of doubt and anxiety. “What do you mean I shouldn’t have bought those shoes from that store? They’re the same as any other place!” “Some guy on the streetcorner was selling honey in jars. Wonder if it’s good.” “Look at this stain on my white pants! That driver in the Buick deliberately splashed me as he drove by!” “That guy in that alley was running some sort of card game. He looked dangerous.”

So, this is what I’m thinking: Just as malls have determined our thinking about retail — our most common experience of public life these days — the same mall-culture has also shaped our politics.

We want everything to be as simple as shopping at the mall. Real choice is real scary. We expect to be offered a delimited array of alternatives. Without choices narrowed down to a manageable few, we waddle and stagger around like that couple in the bar that day.

Of course, it’s not really democracy if our choices are winnowed down to a few that meet most common expectations. Someone — some virtual mall-owner — is making choices for us. In return for being nicely-behaved shoppers, we get all potential solutions to our social problems narrowed down to two or three alternatives that don’t differ much.

Maybe we like it this way.