From §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:
‘I have no idea what we do. As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away citizens’ freedom to cede their autonomy we’re now taking away their autonomy. It’s a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think—of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster—depression, hyperinflation—and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome—conqueror of its own people.’
(This is the second paragraph; read the first here (or, like, buy the book)).
I want to write about this chapter against the backdrop of America’s current political/social/cultural climate—the so-called “debate” about government’s role, individual responsibility, our corporate welfare state, etc. What I want to write I am having a hard time writing. For one, the issue seems so big, so slippery, so oily, so recent, so indigestible. For another, I feel like Wallace’s chapter is so smart and engaging on its own that I shouldn’t be messing with it when I really don’t have anything smart or engaging to say about it.
I guess what I really want is for people to read it, or at least parts of it, so I’ll be posting bits of it over the next week or two, with occasional comments.
If I can’t be analytic about §19 of The Pale King, perhaps I can at least offer a rough description:
The chapter is one of the longer ones in the novel at 20 pages, although it’s hardly the longest.
The chapter is probably set in early 1980 (or possible late 1979).
The chapter is probably set in a stuck elevator, probably as the result of a power failure, as the lights seem to be off.
The chapter is written entirely as a dialogue, mainly (solely?) between three IRS agents: Glendenning, DeWitt, and someone referred to as ‘X.’
The chapter references The Excorist, which might have been intended to be (or maybe is?) a motif in The Pale King.
The chapter discusses the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and early ’70s, and links this upheaval to the dawning conservatism of the Reagan years (which obviously have not yet happened in terms of the chapter’s timeline, but which one of the interlocutors nevertheless perspicaciously anticipates).
The dialogue (Socratic, if I’m feeling analytic) traces the tension between individual freedom, individual liberty, and the role of the government as an arbiter of civic life.
I’ll end with the somewhat generic definition of “civics” the chapter offers—
‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens.’
And there we go—that conflict between rights and duties.