The Pale King – Chapter 19


Dear Dave,

I remember it well: I had recently received my invitation to present my paper at the ‘Work in Process’ Conference in Antwerp, and I was spending every spare moment reading and annotating my copy of The Pale King.[1]  I took the book everywhere; on this particular day it was to the beach near Ventura Harbor.  We were meeting some friends there to let our kids play in the sand and water while we parents talked and enjoyed the beautiful weather.

After lunch, as the kids were hauling buckets of muddy sand up from the water’s edge to their sand castle spot, and as we watched seagulls dive-bomb unattended picnic baskets, I took a seat in my beach chair to continue plowing through the thicker-than-my-Bible unfinished novel.

And while sitting there, I turned the page to begin reading § 19.  Now, I typically stay out of political conversations and I guess I have just grown to be jaded and cynical like the rest of my generation.  But I do appreciate common sense, and I love to listen to those who just tell it like it is.  So my pen was going crazy as I kicked into speed-reading mode, devouring the words on the page.

As I revisited the chapter this week, I quickly realized there was nothing really to say that you haven’t already said better.  So instead of writing about and responding to the section, I thought it would be best to simply copy some of my favorite quotes and let them speak for themselves.

So here it goes:

‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area’ (130).

‘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?’ (136).

‘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’ (136).

‘What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK’ (137).

‘I think the syndrome is more the not-voting one, the I’m-so-small-and-the-mass-of-everyone-else-is-so-big-what-possible-difference-does-what-I-do-make, so they stay home and watch Charlie’s Angels instead of going to vote’ (139).

‘This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers’ (141).

‘De Tocqueville’s thrust is that it’s in the democratic citizen’s nature to be like a leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s part of.’

‘What’s interesting in a depressing way is that tacit hypocrisy—I, the citizen, will keep buying big gas-guzzlers that kill trees and tickets for The Exorcist until the government passes a law, but then when the government does pass a law I’ll bitch about Big Brother and getting the government off our back.’ ‘See for instance the cheat-rate and the appeals percentage after audit’ (141).

‘It probably does start with Rousseau and the Magna Carta and the French Revolution. This emphasis on man as the individual and on the rights and entitlements of the individual instead of the responsibilities of the individual. But corporations and marketing and PR and the creation of desire and need to feed all the manic production, the way modern advertising and marketing seduce the individual by flattering all the little psychic delusions with which we deflect the horror of personal smallness and transience, enabling the delusion that the individual is the center of the universe, the most important thing—I mean the individual individual, the little guy watching TV or listening to the radio or leafing through a shiny magazine or looking at a billboard or any of the million different daily ways this guy comes into contact with Burson-Marsteller’s or Saachi & Saachi’s big lie, that he is the tree, that his first responsibility is to his own happiness, that everyone else is the great gray abstract mass which his life depends on standing apart from, being an individual, being happy’ (144).

‘I don’t think the American nation today is infantile so much as adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony’ (147).

‘You can see where it’s going. The extraordinary political apathy that followed Watergate and Vietnam and the institutionalization of grass-roots rebellion among minorities will only deepen. Politics is about consensus, and the advertising legacy of the sixties is that consensus is repression. Voting’ll be unhip: Americans now vote with their wallets. Government’s only cultural role will be as the tyrannical parent we both hate and need. Look for us to elect someone who can cast himself as a Rebel, maybe even a cowboy, but who deep down we’ll know is a bureaucratic creature who’ll operate inside the government mechanism instead of naively bang his head against it the way we’ve watched poor Jimmy do for four years’ (147).

‘The way adolescents make a big deal of rebelling against parental authority while they borrow the keys to Daddy’s car and use Daddy’s credit card to fill it with gas. The new leader won’t lie to the people; he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves’ (149).

We’ll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit. A rule of image, which because it’s so empty makes everyone terrified—they’re small and going to die, after all—’

‘Christ, the death thing again.’

‘—and whose terror of not really ever even existing makes them that much more susceptible to the ontological siren song of the corporate buy-to-stand-out-and-so-exist gestalt’ (149).

Well said, my friend.  Well said.


[1] To be completely honest, I had written my proposal purely on conjecture.  I had not yet read TPK, but I had read enough about it to have a general idea of its plot* and characters and themes.  I put together some ideas that touched on those themes and made connections to some of your other works I had read, enough to write an intelligent-sounding 500-word proposal.  For at least the first half of the book, I have a sometimes overwhelming sense of dread that I would finish the book and realize that the thesis in my abstract would not actually be defendable.  Somewhere around the “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle chapter, I began to breathe a little easier.

*I would argue, as I have before, that the novel really has no definitive plot.  It has a lot of back stories and character development.  But plot, not so much.

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