“It’s No Accident that Civics Isn’t Taught Anymore” — More from §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

(Help yourself to some context (or not)).

Let’s look at some more of  §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Our interlocutors, all IRS agents, stuck in an elevator (methinks), direct their attention toward the decline of civics education (“‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens,’” we learn) in America and link this decline to the 1960s—

‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.’

‘We’ve gotten soft, you’re saying.’

‘I’m saying that the sixties—which God love them did a lot for raising people’s consciousness in a whole lot of areas, such as racism and feminism—‘

‘Not to mention Vietnam.’

‘No, mention it, because here was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to.’

‘In other words that their highest actual duty was to themselves.’

And down a bit—

‘The sixties were America’s starting to decline into decadence and selfish individualism—the Me generation.’

‘There was more decadence in the twenties than there was in the sixties though.’

‘You know what I think? I think the Constitution and Federalist Papers of this country were an incredible moral and imaginative achievement. For really the first time in a modern nation, those in power set up a system where the citizens’ power over their own government was to be a matter of substance and not mere symbolism. It was utterly priceless, and will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for over two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and I’m speaking of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, the real church Fathers—what raised the American experiment beyond great imagination and made it very nearly work was not just these men’s intelligence but their profound moral enlightenment—their sense of civics. The fact is that they cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. They could have just set America up as an oligarchy where powerful eastern industrialists and southern landowners controlled all the power and ruled with an iron hand in a glove of liberal rhetoric. Need I say Robespierre, or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollah? These Founding Fathers were geniuses of civic virtue. They were heroes. Most of their effort went into restraining the power of the government.’

‘Checks and balances.’

‘Power to the people.’

‘They knew the tendency of power to corrupt—’

As I said in some earlier posts about  §19, I don’t really have any great thesis to share about it: I really just want folks to read it. I think it’s a thoughtful and sometimes funny discussion that seems especially relevant against the backdrop of current American politics, which seem to be infected by a terrible case of the reactionaries, a very vocal contingent that does not seem to believe in civic duty.

Most reviewers have remarked (rightly) upon Wallace’s grand theme of boredom in The Pale King, but I don’t know how much attention has been paid to the way the book tries to measure the costs of existence (namely, death and taxes). Wallace squares boredom as both symptom and affect of a postindustrial existence, a post-democratic existence, an existence that has the leisure, or at least the means and the common vocabulary, to hash out the finnicky sinews between rights and duties—or, in turn, the leisure and means (and entertainments) to psychologically deflect or otherwise ignore those costs. His characters in The Pale King—and not just these guys stuck in the elevator, but, hey, their colloquy is especially instructive—his characters are in many ways are trying to find meaning, a sense of duty, against terrible, soul-crushing boredom, a boredom that capitalist culture fosters and with one hand and then assuages with the other, like a heroin dealer stringing along a junkie for all he’s worth. (There’s an intersection here with Infinite Jest, of course).

It seems that “civics” is a dirty word now, or even worse, a word unattached to any real concept in the American hivemind. It’s pretty much a given (and “given” in the sense of, like, “submission”) that our politicians are wholly corrupted by power, part and parcel of a corporatocracy that thrives on manufactured desire, on the promotion of “lack,” constantly feeding into the basest instincts of a populace easily motivated by xenophobia, paranoia, and the sense that a creeping dark “other” is destabilizing America’s “natural” progress to some great grand glowing telos in the sky. The great lie of the past few decades has been to perpetuate the ideal of a cost-free existence, a metaphysical out, an endless deflection of our rapid consumption. We live in a world where the leading Republican candidates for the 2012 election race are basically cartoons. We live in a world where headlines from The Onion seem more the work of prescient prescription than outright satire. We live in a world where an honest assessment of who-pays-what-taxes can only come from a comedy show.

Perhaps I’m ranting; perhaps this post is too hyperbolic. Sorry. I’ll return to Wallace’s language and that opening line: “‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.'” Americans are being told that they have no duty to other Americans, that they should not have to have any relationship with other Americans, that, essentially, there is no civic duty to one’s country, to one’s fellow Americans—there is only a duty to one’s ruggedly individual self, only a duty to one’s bootstraps, which you must always pull up by yourself. The corporate-advertising-entertainment-industrial complex perpetuates the illusion of rugged individualism and politicians reinforce it with their empty rhetoric, blasting at any element of a public, civic corpus that isn’t part of the American war machine (which remains of course untouchable; perhaps the greatest signal of cognitive dissonance I regularly see on my commute to and from work are the cars in front of me that somehow bear anti-tax bumper stickers right next to calls to “Support Our Troops”).

Wallace perhaps rightly links the genesis of this cognitive dissonance when it comes to civic rights and civic duties to the 1960s, when the baby boomers, finding power in sheer numbers, were able to assert a generational agency unseen in this country’s history. His elevator talkers here are at the precipice of the Reagan ’80s, post-Watergate disenchantment, but also post-Carter malaise, a time when the boomers are oiled and primed for the complete ideological failure that should forever mark their generation.

There’s more rant in me, of course, but I’ll save it for more excerpts from  §19.

17 thoughts on ““It’s No Accident that Civics Isn’t Taught Anymore” — More from §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King”

  1. ” We live in a world where the leading Republican candidates for the 2012 election race are basically cartoons. ”

    Hey, we live in a world where the current resident of 1600 is a walking talking cartoon as well along with his entire cohort. So what else you got? Decolonize your mind.


    1. Another brilliant insight from Prof Wagstaff…seriously guy, I don’t know why you show up here all the time. I guess I should be happy that the site’s gotten a troll though.


  2. Again, decolonize you mind so you can see you are standing on the outside of the atmosphere. The statement is so obviously one sided and sucked in from the water you swim in that one would think you could see it. But then again fish don’t know they’re in water, do they?

    Happy the sites gotten “a troll”? You should be happy the site has gotten a comment.


    1. Wagstaff, the site does fine without you. Your “comments” are always negative and usually ignorant or nonsensical, like this business about “decolonizing” my mind. I have no idea what you mean. Must be because I’m a fish in water. Or hang on, atmosphere. I’m standing on the atmosphere. On the *outside* of the atmosphere. I can’t see the truth because of a “one sided” statement (not sure what that means). Your comment is a vague collection of mishmashed mixed metaphors with no real clear referent. (Or maybe you’re cleverly alluding to Wallace’s Kenyon speech; I dunno). In any case, you’ve not referred to Wallace’s writing or anything in my post other than one sentence that (correctly) measures the leading Republican candidates as the clownish cartoons that they are; telling me that I don’t know how to think because I do not think the way that you do is not a convincing argument.

      Your earlier comment brings up Obama perhaps on account of some perceived slight, some notion that I should give equal time to looking at the ways that Obama has manipulated consumer/voter/citizen desire/fear . . .

      But that’s not what I was doing here. I was suggesting that the Repub candidates — Bachmann and Perry in particular, and to a lesser degree Romney — are cartoon figures, lacking nuance, lacking any measure of the subtlety that it might take to navigate the tension between civic rights and civic duties. I loathe these people and everything that they purport to stand for.

      I have no interest in letting someone air support of them on my site, nor do I have any impetus to continue arguing with a troll about details largely external to the contents of the post. (And why would you argue with a colonized-minded fish brain like me, unless you actually care about me?—do you care about me, Wagstaff, will you teach me how to think, how to free my mind? Will you give me a course in postcolonial studies? — These questions are rhetorical, btw).

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Or as I’ve heard the “rugged individualism” worldview brilliantly summed: “Got Mine, Fuck You.”

    Being a scion of the 80s, it is beyond depressing to see the seeds of our Boomer parents blossoming like this. There is something solipsistic about us.

    @Wagstaff: “decolonize your mind” sounds very sci-fi. Get those nanobots out!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris Hedges, Auguist 29, 2011, “The Election March of the Trolls”:

    The trolls dominate or have neutralized every major institution in the country on behalf of their corporate paymasters. The press, education, Wall Street, labor and our political parties are managed by trolls or have been destroyed by them. Sometimes these trolls speak like liberals. Sometimes they speak like conservatives. Sometimes they are secular. Sometimes they are Christians. But the language they use is a cover for the relentless march toward a totalitarian capitalism and a kingdom where the trolls, if not the rest of us, live happily ever after. Rick Perry and John Boehner overtly make war on Social Security. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi say they would like to save Social Security but are sadly powerless before the decisions of a congressional super committee they helped form. The result, of course, is the same. We get to choose the rhetoric and manner in which we are deceived and disempowered. Nothing more. …

    They are destroying all legal impediments to corporate exploitation and profit, as well as dismantling the regulatory agencies that once protected the citizen. They defend torture, offshore penal colonies, black sites and kidnapping (they call it “extraordinary rendition”) of state enemies. They protect and abet financial fraud. They wage pre-emptive war. They refuse to restore habeas corpus. Without warrants, they monitor, eavesdrop on and wiretap tens of millions of citizens. They order the assassination of U.S. citizens. They deny due process. They give corporations the status of persons. They ignore the suffering of the unemployed and the poor, slashing basic social service programs while doling out hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds to corporations. On these key issues, the only ones that really matter, there is no disagreement among trolls from either the self-identified left or the self-identified right. All their public disputes in the election cycle are a carnival act.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, I wanted to let you know that I’m facilitating a discussion of excerpts from §19 based on this post at the Occupy Austin Reading Group tomorrow. I wanted to say thanks for always being a fascinating source of books and lit criticism. I’m excited to share and explore this material with more people as well as think about some of your insights into the themes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have been reading Pale King and just finished Chapter 19. I just found your site after a Google search of: Pale King Civics and Corporations.

    I think DFW’s writing regarding the decline of civics and the increased power of corporations are really relevant now. I particularly liked the dialog regarding a corporations prime motivation is to create profits not to have any civic responsibility. Americans who believe that the corporate spending in the current election cycle is based on civic responsibility should be required to read chapter 19.

    The New york Times ran a piece a few months ago that interviewed people who receive benefits from the federal safety net programs but who profess that government is too big. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/us/even-critics-of-safety-net-increasingly-depend-on-it.html?_r=2
    This intellectual disconnect fits with DFW’s description of a post civics America.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As it is written, “All men are created equal.” Should we rethink this self-evident truth, if not because the 2016 American presidential election has given proof that truth is anything but self-evident as well as ample reason to fear that certain rights are anything but unalienable, if not because four in five white Evangelical voters that elected Trump as president and their man Pence as vice-president, claim not only the Endower of those rights to be on their side, and their side only, but also the Truth?

    Clearly, free thinking men and women not only lost the presidency but also the argument.


  8. I think the idea the Boomers were able, in the 60s, to assert a “generational agency” unheard of in American history is largely a myth. Agency to accomplish what exactly? The Vietnam protests, as theatrical as they were, accomplished nothing of any practical value. They did not, in any real way, stop or even slow down the war. For God’s sake, NIXON was elected in 68!


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