Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Lovely Society

Update: Thanks for the shout-out, Drifty! (And to anybody here who hasn't already been there, go there.)

Sweet parfaits of emotions, photo via Woman's Day.
Shorter David Brooks, "Trump, Taxes and Citizenship", New York Times, October 4 2016:
See, the reason Trump doesn't pay any taxes is that he thinks of himself as a taxpayer rather than a citizen. This is just logical. And in a way isn't that true of all of us? We could be living in a Lovely Society, in a web of giving and getting and trust and sweet, sweet, sweet inspiration, and instead we're suspicious, defensive, and competitive, alone at 3 A.M. tweeting out at our enemies. Nous sommes tous Trump!
Just a few things.

1. There's a long paragraph quoted from David Foster Wallace:
Years ago, David Foster Wallace put it gently: “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.”
Brooks doesn't know this—that fact that he doesn't identify the source or offer a link shows that he or his assistant picked the passage out of the Goodreads Quotes about Citizenship page, where it's no. 61 out of 68, or some other equally eighth-grade technique—but it's not strictly David Foster Wallace speaking there but a fictional character, DeWitt Glendenning, Jr., Director of the IRS Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, in a novel on which Wallace was working not necessarily "years ago" but at the time of his suicide in 2008, leaving a very long fragment of a draft that was cut and edited by Michael Pietsch and published as The Pale King in 2011.

So his political thinking may be similar to Wallace's, but he's coming at it from a different direction, a senior civil servant and Republican who is disappointed in the Reagan revolution (the story is set in 1985-86) and the corporatizaion of his beloved agency.

And Glendenning's beef, as far as I can tell tooling around the Internet (especially from the essay in Marshall Boswell's essay "Trickle-Down Citizenship: Taxes and Civic Responsibility in The Pale King", in the collection David Foster Wallace and "The Long Thing", 2014) isn't that Americans regard themselves as taxpayers, but that they don't regard themselves as taxpayers. To him, being a taxpayer and being a citizen are one and the same thing, paying taxes being an quasi-religious act of sacrifice in which we consecrate ourselves as full members of the larger small-r republican thing.

The real opposite to identifying ourselves as citizens is identifying ourselves as consumers: because, as Glendenning goes on to say in the passage,
"We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie rather than as 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."
That last is not Glendenning, who wouldn't accept such a reductive and politicized answer, but a third speaker. Nevertheless the whole thing is clear. Wallace's hero, though he may "sound reactionary", isn't condemning people who "take" from the government, "beneficiaries" and people aware of their political and legal rights, for what they do is part of citizenship, but Reagan-era conservatives, who are simply detached from government as a kind of annoying presence, interfering with their full time activity of getting and spending. People are to recognize themselves, if only through their April connection through the IRS, as of the government, which is in turn by, of, and for them.

2. There's something about Brooks's sentimental-communitarianism, that weepy attachment to the polity-that-isn't-the-government, that is actually quite cold and utilitarian, that I'm always seeing out of the corner of my eye when he's doing this garbage but never quite putting my finger on; he thinks we all ought to love each other with a Brooksian love in our webs of getting and giving because we can profit from it: to be "happy over the long term"
The problem with the taxpayer mentality is that you end up serving your individual interest short term but soiling the nest you need to be happy in over the long term.
and enjoy enriching learning experiences
Citizens aren’t just sacrificing out of the nobility of their heart. They serve the common good for their own enrichment, too. If they practice politics they can learn prudence; if they serve in the military they can learn courage. Public citizenship is the path to personal growth.
and avoid saddening side effects
That mentality is entirely divorced from the mentality of commonality and citizenship. That mentality has side effects. They may lead toward riches, but they lead away from happiness.
He thinks he's unhappy because he's so detached from his community, which is no doubt true in part, but he also thinks he could make a deal and buy happiness for himself with civic engagement—and with taxes, as we'll see below, which are for him not a sacrifice but a purchase, to satisfy a desire that "competes" with his other desires. Which is kind of sick, and describes a sickness that is a significant source of his unhappiness in its own right.

3. Sometimes bad writing becomes so extreme that it slips into another, sweeter universe:

In Order to Form a More Parfait Union
a poem
by David Brooks
The older citizenship mentality
is a different mentality.
It starts with the warm glow
of love of country.

It continues with a sense of sweet
gratitude that the founders of the country,
for all their flaws, were able
to craft a structure of government
that is suppler and more lasting
than anything we seem to be able
to craft today. The citizen enjoys
a sweet reverence for all the gifts
that have been handed down over time,
and a generous piety about country
that is the opposite of arrogance.

Out of this sweet parfait of emotions
comes a sense of a common beauty
that transcends individual beauty.
There’s a sense of how a lovely society
is supposed to be. This means
that the economic desire to save
money on taxes competes with a larger
desire to be part of a lovely world.
You'll awake with a tummy ache.

Palate cleanser. 

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