Tuesday, October 18, 2011

David Foster Wallace on Civics

We hear a lot about taxes these days because we have a budget crisis in this country, a ballooning Federal deficit that will soon top $15 trillion. The government can choose to either raise taxes or cut spending, or do some combination thereof. Republicans appear united in their opposition to tax increases, while the Democrat-backed plan floated by President Obama calls for them.

A central plot feature of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished IRS novel, The Pale King, takes a similar situation – a budget shortfall in the early 1980s brought on by President Reagan’s successful bid to lower taxes – and posits a fictional remedy. An obscure IRS memo, the Spackman Initiative, is rediscovered and its theory is implemented, solving the budget crisis and changing the basic operational approach of the IRS. Because a massive gap exists between the taxes that Americans owe the federal government and what the IRS is able to collect, the adoption of more stringent compliance standards (essentially more aggressive auditing practices) have increased tax revenue without any change to the tax code. What this means in the context of the book is that the IRS has recently seen its budget expanded, its regional offices deregulated, and its staff of rote examiners increased. In the process, the Service has moved away from its bureaucratic underpinnings, adopting a corporate philosophy in which profit is the only guiding principle. The changes at the IRS are a reflection of changes that have taken place in America, where corporate values are on the rise and civic responsibility is in decline.

It is on the subject of civics that we get the author’s most direct commentary in this protean, technocratic, occasionally stirring work. Wallace’s discussion of civics resonates in the context of today’s fractious national debate, where taxes are the touchstone. He uses an extended conversation in a stalled elevator between an examiner named Stuart Nichols and Regional Director DeWitt Glendenning to tease out the main point, that civics is dead. Modern-day Americans, emboldened by the anti-establishment zeal of the 60s, have (ironically) chosen to cede moral responsibility to the government in order to pursue a version of citizenship defined by individualism and personal freedom, ideals that have become little more than consumerist expressions and are marketed to the public by corporations, the American Dream meted out widget by widget. As Nichols notes ruefully, “‘Government’s only cultural role will be as the tyrannical parent we both hate and need.’”

Glendenning sees the IRS as executor of the ultimate civic responsibility. Accordingly, he resists the internal shift to a corporate approach to tax collection brought on by the Spackman Initiative. Wallace highlights this conflict in the book’s collection of notes and asides, painting Glendenning as “ineffectual – lost in a mist of civic idealism.” His resistance is futile, but Glendenning’s is still a voice of conscience:

None of this matters. And I’m not even really talking about what we do here except in the sense that it puts us in a position to see civic attitudes close up, since there’s nothing more concrete than tax payment, which after all is your money, whereas the obligations and projected returns on the payments are abstract, at the abstract level the whole nation and its government and the commonweal, so attitudes about paying taxes seem like one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms.

These words, though ostensibly uttered in the historical bubble of a nation on the cusp of Reaganomics, target the troubled state of American government in the 21st century. We can’t agree on taxes because we are at war with ourselves. Government has indeed become the tyrannical parent that we both hate and need. We hate pouring money down that bottomless maw, money for waste, money for pork, money for ineffectual wars and bloated bureaucracy, money for corporate bailouts and welfare handouts. Yet our expectations of government have never been higher. Unemployment is at its highest point in twenty years, and it is up to the government to create the jobs that will get us back on our feet, just as it’s the government’s responsibility to see to it that we can always be cared for when we’re sick, educated when we’re young, looked after when we’re old, protected when we’re threatened, pandered to when we feel like spending money, and coddled by the mantra that we remain “The Greatest Country On Earth.”

Everyone should know that a solution to our debt crisis that doesn’t involve tax increases and spending cuts - some Spackman-like miracle - is a pie in the sky. If we abdicate our civic responsibility in favor of some commodified ersatz of personal freedom, the vaunted American dream will be as well.

Friday, December 04, 2009

View of the rift valley from the escarpment

Monday, July 06, 2009

In Defence of Roddick

In the waning hours of July 4th weekend, amidst some ancillary sports news that briefly commanded my attention – the Yankees continuing their roll against the Blue Jays (and I would appreciate it if a credentialed ornithologist would set the record straight for me about whether those oddly aggressive birds favor nectar north or south of the Canadian border), and the tragic death of great NFL QB Steve McNair, one story stood out in stark relief in my mind.

No, it wasn’t Roger Federer winning his record-setting 15th major title at Wimbledon, his sixth in seven years, though that’s a great story. I do love the Rog. As a fan of tennis, I marvel at, and take a fan’s pride in, the Rog’s incredible ability.

Simply put, though, American Andy Roddick’s play inspired me. He was not perfect, as Federer has occasionally, and at times rightly, been accused of being. Hogwash. Roddick was not Nadalish – which is to say he did not possess a tennis amalgam of Kobe Bryant and an extremely motivated and possibly rabid border collie. Again, reader, allow me to introduce you to Today. I feel you two will get along famously.

No, Roddick’s Sunday at Wimbledon was start-to-finish a simple case of a guy going out and getting it done playing beautiful tennis. What I loved – loved – was how amazingly composed he was throughout the match. What it made me think, and I’m just some Yank watching the thing on TV from 5,000 miles away – was that my guy, the American – a guy who I’ve seen wilt on the big stage before, pressed the sublime Swiss to the very limit of anything I’ve seen on a tennis court. It made me feel proud. And nervous. That fifth set went longer than a Yankees-Sox game with no Buckie Dent or Aaron Boone on the bench. And yes, I do acknowledge the fact that these guys are more-or-less freaks. They are loveable freaks. They can power a tennis ball to ridiculous velocities with freakish precision.

On Sunday, June 5, 2009, Andy Roddick assaulted Roger Federer with a combination of 130+ mph serves, go-for-broke-ground strokes, and calculated net play that was effective. I’ll go on record saying he should have gone to the net more. Roddick played brilliantly, beautifully.

Federer won the match. It was 16-14 in the final set. Frankly, I’ve never seen anyone serve better than Federer with so much on the line. But for me, the story was Roddick playing the match of his life. Roddick played by far the best tennis that he has ever has played. I don’t think I need to have observed him as like a junior player or teenaged amateur to know that for a fact. I’ve seen Roddick plenty, in big matches with stuff on the line. Singles tennis, being basically a battle between two determined opponents, can’t always be evaluated according to ranking and prize money. Skill and pride is another story.

On numerous occasions playing Federer, Roddick had failed. He had lost 18 out of 20 matches to Federer going into Sunday’s Wimbledon final. But Roddick won the first set, and had a great opportunity to take the second in a tie-break with Federer down 6-2. The Rog battled back, relying on a serve that, given its smooth, unassuming delivery, doesn’t attract nearly enough attention. Federer ended the match with more than fifty aces. His serve was unequivocally the difference. Roddick, despite breaking him in each of the first two sets, could simply not get the best of Roger’s serve down the stretch.

The greatest players in the game’s history were spectators: Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, and the man whose record Federer was looking to surpass for major titles in a career – Pete Sampras. Sampras was non-committal at the post-match press conference. But one had to guess that his reluctance to pronounce Federer the greatest of all time was to some degree a function of having witnessed his countryman, Andy Roddick, push Federer to the limit. Roddick was brilliant. As with no other match in his career, with the knowledge, of course, that he was facing the world’s best – maybe the best ever – he went for winners, and his balls were consistently true. But Federer is a savant, and held serve like a dynastic Ottoman Janissary holding a scepter in one hand, and a razor-sharp sword in the other. He could not be bested.

In the end it was the amazing and surprising pluck and execution of Andy Roddick that made this match. It was a battle of a good and dedicated player, one who has worked extremely hard on his game in the past 12 months, versus the world’s best, a cold-eyed assassin, in an instant classic. I have never seen Roddick perform like he did Sunday, providing the true grit that comprised the backbone of what could be called the greatest match ever played at the All-England Tennis and Croquet Club. Going forward, this match could be the foundation stone for a Yankee run at the U.S. Open Championship, and bragging rights that a lot of lusty American tennis fans crave. The man from Austin looked lithe, powerful, and at times he did something I’ve seen few tennis players do: He ran a personal favorite, Rogeay Fedray, all around the court.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cristobal Huet, Brilliance of

The Frenchman had what I consider to be the best game played by a Capitals' goalie since Bob Mason in that legendary 4 OT playoff game versus the Islanders in 1987. If you need to brush up on that bit of obscure hockey lore, I encourage you to do so:
Like Mason, Huet lost this game, played one day shy of exactly 21 years later, when the Flyers scored about 5 minutes into the 2nd OT period. But I kindly direct you to this link, and submit this save as one of the best that I have ever seen:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Collage I

Chit Chat
I counted the words, seventeen of them.
I counted on being able
to make seventeen words make sense.
My mouth felt like a mealy mess of dry cake
And no milk.
"...nothing left in the tank," I sputtered
and those were the last five.
The All-Clear sounded:
It was a car horn--
The light was green.
By the time your boots were on
my shoes were off.
But by the time you'd walked the dog
I'd taken off.
You never asked me where I went

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ludlow Warriors Game 1