As I mentioned recently on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve started reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. It’s terrific, as expected. A Virginia Tech librarian described it as “the book that should have been called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” (After reading the Wikipedia page, though, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is now on my list, too.)
But I thought the following was neat—this first paragraph would have been perfect for an Independence Day post. It’s from a conversation between several (3?) IRS agents who are, I think, stuck in an elevator and having a conversation about civics, corporations, death, taxes, philosophy, and so on.
Apologies in advance for any typos.
‘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 it will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and now that 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 since 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 government.’
And continuing a couple of pages later, think of this in light of the appalling 2010 Citizens United decision:
‘It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?’ ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ ‘Corporations make the pie. They make it and we eat it.’ ‘It’s probably part of my naïveté that I don’t want to put the issue in political terms when it’s probably irreducibly political. Something has happened where we’ve decided on a personal level that it’s all right to abdicate our individual responsibility to the common good and let government worry about the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites.’ ‘You can blame some of it on corporations and advertising surely.’ ‘I don’t think of corporations as citizens, though. Corporations are machines for producing profit; that’s what they’re ingeniously designed to do. It’s ridiculous to ascribe civic obligations or moral responsibilities to corporations.’ ‘But the whole dark genius of corporations is that they allow for individual reward without individual obligation. The workers’ obligations are to the executives, and the executives’ obligations are to the CEO, and the CEO’s obligation is to the Board of Directors, and the Board’s obligation is to the stockholders, who are also the same customers the corporation will screw over at the very earliest opportunity in the name of profit, which profits are distributed to the very stockholders-slash-customers they’ve been f[–]ing over in their own name. It’s like a fugue of evaded responsibility.’
I’m already looking for opportunities to use that last sentence in a meeting. It’s like a fugue of evaded responsibility.