“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.