Wednesday, December 31, 2008

John McCain’s 2008 Campaign Drove David Foster Wallace to Suicide

Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe the title of this post. It’s merely meant to tantalize the existing readership, and maybe even attract that elusive third reader. However, it’s not like this title is completely nonsensical. See, the other day I read an essay Dave wrote about McCain’s 2000 campaign for president, “Up Simba”. Rolling Stone had asked Dave to cover the primary campaign after McCain’s New Hampshire upset victory over what’s-his-face. What Dave ended up writing is too layered for me to try and explain, or for anyone to fully appreciate, unless they actually read the piece. But I will do my best anyways, since I’ve already written this tantalizing title and all. So what Dave tries to do is move beyond the simple explanations of how this old-guy-underdog beat the candidate the Republican Party brass and establishment had backed. As everybody surely remembers, McCain’s success was because he was perceived as the anti-politician – an honest and forthright guy who told it like it was, a guy who wouldn’t stoop to the same tired political tricks his competitors employed, you know, a Maverick. But Dave was skeptical. Dave worried that McCain had understood that voters were so tired of politicians lying to them, that they were so tired of the negative campaigning and of the tricks that played to the worst aspects of us that we might be tricked into believing a guy was an anti-politician when he really was just like the rest of the tried and true poll-conscious, safe-word-choosing, will-lie-to-serve-their-own-needs politicians anyways. (There’s probably an analogy to the courtship of females in here.) However, Dave wanted to believe. He hoped that not all who seek the highest and most powerful position in the free world are so nakedly ambitious that they are willing to do and say anything to get the job. And Dave thought if any man could be sincere, if any man was a true patriot who wanted to be elected not because of naked personal ambition but because of service to a cause greater than himself, then it would be John McCain, a man who suffered beyond what any of us would likely endure in a POW camp, a man who could have been released early to avoid the extensive torture but refused to do so because of his belief in a code of military conduct that forbid soldiers to leave ahead of those who were captured before them. So in this piece Dave was essentially begging, hoping against his better judgment that there was a man better than the rest. He’s hoping that this person actually possesses qualities that can inspire the rest of us to be better human beings. And so “Up Simba” is filled with this tension. Is this guy different than every single other politician of Dave’s life, politicians that have in the end always disappointed?

Dave never settles this uncertainty in “Up Simba”. McCain’s campaign ended before Dave could get a true measure of the man. But, I mean, the whole time I’m reading the essay I’m thinking I should stop, since I know how this turns out. McCain’s 2008 campaign demonstrated that this had been a false hope (although we now have a guy who now inspires a new hope). We all saw McCain 2008 employ the people and methods that McCain 2000 had chastised. Here was McCain 2008 push polling, robocalling, accusing Obama of teaching kindergarteners sex ed, and having his running mate, Sarah Palin, appeal to the worst in us by playing to those artificial distinctions such as a “real Virginia” and a “real America”. (And that decision to choose Palin as a running mate was probably the most cynical of all the moves McCain 2008 made, for this was a person who was obviously under qualified to serve and whose only attributes were her appeal to the Evangelicals in the Republican base and the disaffected females that were upset Hillary didn’t get the Democratic nomination.)

So on to the main points of this post, which are two-fold. (1) Dave Wallace wrote amazing essays and everyone should read Consider the Lobster and anything else Dave wrote so that we can talk about his stuff. (2) From reading Dave’s works one can see how troubled the man was and to a certain extent why he was troubled. And this brings up, for me at least, the relationship between genius and happiness. There is very little question that Dave was a genius. The man had such a breadth of knowledge, and depth to that knowledge, that I feel I wouldn’t do it any justice to try and describe how he demonstrated this genius in his writings. You really just have to read his stuff for yourself. So why was he troubled enough to kill himself? Was it because he was such a genius? I’ve heard people make this argument and it troubles me. I’ve heard people say that geniuses are unhappy because they’re so smart. And perhaps in the same way Dave didn’t want to believe that all politicians were so nakedly ambitious, I don’t want to believe that genius and unhappiness go hand-in-hand.

My main problem with this argument is that it strikes me as arrogant. Essentially the argument is, “Intelligent people are sad because they see how fucked up the world is and their intelligence doesn’t let them to trick themselves into ignoring it or finding some other way to gloss over it by finding Jesus or Muhammad or a Monk marathon on the USA Network.” And the reason this is an arrogant argument is that the people I hear make it are usually imagining themselves as the tortured genius, and to me this is a conceited way to not deal with what’s really causing the unhappiness: “Oh, I’m unhappy because I’m so smart.” But if you were so smart, then you’d figure out how to be happy. That is, finding happiness is in some ways a matter of intelligence. It takes a certain amount of adjusting one’s world views, and thinking and rethinking and reflecting and studying and sitting in silence and trying out new approaches and generally working hard at it before discovering the path that leads to happiness. Take the Dalai Lama for example. That guy walks around with that smug sense of peace even though he’s an exiled leader of a country that couldn’t defend itself from the 1950s version of the Chinese Army. So even though the guy has to suffer the public humiliation of leading an occupied country, he’s figured out how to come to terms with it, and that’s not easy. Of course, though, the problem with the view that it takes intelligence to be happy is that it runs into problems when you come across troubled geniuses like Dave. But I don’t know…I mean, I think Dave was probably pretty disappointed in what McCain had become. I think Dave – and if you read this piece on McCain you can see it, you can see Dave sincerely hoping with all his heart that there exists a man out there who is somehow above it all, who somehow places his own ambitions below a higher purpose, a purpose that serves the greater good – just couldn’t come to terms with the darker aspects of human nature that we all possess. None of us is Jesus, and at a certain point we’ll put our own interests above others. And in most circumstances we’ll probably put our own interests above the greater good. I just think a lot of people aren’t honest with themselves about what they would do if they were in the same positions as the politicians are. Yes every once in a while the greater good gets sacrificed for an individual’s political survival or self-interests and yes that’s pretty disappointing but would we really do any different? I mean, who doesn't fudge a bit in their own job interviews, and that's what these guys are doing. Anyways, that’s getting pretty abstract. I guess the point of this post is that the only thing I can say, without meaning any disrespect to this man who has written some of the best stuff I’ve ever read, is he really wasn’t smart enough, otherwise he would have found a way to be at peace with himself and this world. Now I’m going out to spend some time with friends and people I don’t know really well, or at all, to welcome in a new year. I hope you all enjoy your night.


rananda said...

I've seen one Monk episode, guest starring Willie Nelson. I actually really enjoyed it. No idea why I instinctively change the channel immediately when I see that it's on (which from 2003-2006 was basically every other time I turned on TBS). Really makes you think.

I cant imagine DWF would anything redeeming in Presidential politics. I will get around to reading that essay one day.

Sir Fantastic said...

I've probably seen 20 Monks. It's a guilty pleasure. After a while, though, it gets pretty tired. Same jokes, not that many twists.

And I was surprised DFW was so ready to believe in presidential politics. I think it was sincere, but perhaps it was just a rhetorical strategy. You'll have to let me know how you interpret the piece.

There was another thing I didn't know how to work into my post. He has an essay about grammar, which also brings up some interesting ideas about happiness. Cause here DFW is talking about the social costs and alienation that goes hand-in-hand with a love of grammar, and it made me wish he'd stopped reading dictionaries and tried harder to relate to the other kids.