David Foster Wallace's "American Idea"
I never knew much about David Foster Wallace, and ignorantly wrote off his work as pretentious as only the most pretentious people I knew had read his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. So I guess I stupidly considered him pretentious by association--which that impressive tome itself may in fact be--however, after his death on Sunday (a suicide by hanging), I found some of his essays online and do believe that, slowly, I am becoming enamored. Perhaps his novels won't move me, but his essays and rhetorical ideas are enough to give me great pause.
Here's an essay he wrote for the Atlantic, which can be found on their site along with several other great minds on the topic of "The American Idea." Other writers include Senator Biden, Joyce Carol Oates, Cornel West and John Updike.
Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?
In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let's just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency ... the whole democratic roil.
2. (This phrase is Lincoln's, more or less)
I love that he explores the concept of sacrifice in the context of patriotism. If we had leaders that were actual, respectable statesmen, we'd be having myriad public talks of shared sacrifice and acting upon them for the sake of our collective future. As opposed to having evil madmen sacrificing our security and very livelihoods in private.
All of his Harper's articles can be found here. And an article he wrote about John McCain for Rolling Stone in 2000 can be read here.