David Foster Wallace, “McCain’s Promise”

1. $4 bought me a small book by David Foster Wallace about the Republican Presidential primaries in 2000. At one point, McCain was incensed that the Bush campaign did push polling (“Would you vote for McCain if you knew he…”) and stood with some kook accusing McCain of treating his fellow veterans like dirt post-Vietnam. So his team responded with a stunning bit of manufactured drama. A woman stood up during a town hall meeting with McCain and talked about how her son was turned off of politics and didn’t believe in heroes anymore. But then he and his parents noticed that McCain, an actual war hero, was running. The son got excited but then the evil Bush campaign called and said mean things while push polling and now the son was in crisis. McCain teared up a bit and called off the town hall meeting early. The woman made headlines.

DFW, for his part, was incredulous. My thought, with a lot I suppose he’d agree with: Politicians and the media treat people like sheep, and it works. Maybe it works because many of us are too cynical to believe politics is anything other than this crap. The diehards, for their part, are looking for anything to say their man is boss.

DFW goes a different direction. Here you have a war hero, someone who refused to be let out of the Hanoi Hilton because he didn’t want to violate a Code. Here’s a guy whose whole appeal is that he was willing to die for a principle. Standing up for something so boldly is being as good as your word; it’s an honesty that dictates courage. And here’s the same guy engaging in a petty bit of spin in order to win a few votes.

DFW doesn’t put it this way, but here’s what we’re working with: Heroism can’t be sold. It’s funny to say that, given the conventional character of heroism. Aristotle points this out early in the Ethics, in his discussion of Achilles being courageous. Achilles can only think of himself as brave in regards to the expectations of the city. Even self-sacrifice has to be cast in terms of how one could be remembered. One can say that heroism is nothing but selling out of a sort – the only issue is to which cause.

2. Let’s try this again. McCain’s problem, McCain’s promise, for DFW: he is an actual hero. But he wants to be more of a political leader, and thus has to sell that heroism given our current environment. This gets complicated, as leaders are not just believed, as a salesman might be. They are believed in.

There’s something about heroism and leadership that cannot be reduced to gain. DFW talks about the inspiration a leader provides: “A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.”

He’s exactly correct in making such an impassioned statement. For our part, we have been talking so far about the power of conventional expectation. There may be a courage when you don’t know exactly where you stand. The inspiration a leader provides might reflect a more natural phenomenon, one accounted for an entirely different way.

Of course, to talk about the natural is to talk on the one hand about philosophy, on the other about how life is actually lived. On that note, I’ve spent the last few months being whiny, saying dumb things to people, feeling like I’ve been taken for granted, not doing anything to prove I shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s just as natural as philosophy. Man is the rational animal, and it is surprising we forget what is describing what in that formulation.

3. I forget exactly how this came about, but I was thinking recently of Socrates and Alcibiades. Alcibiades was one of the most ambitious and talented people the world has ever known. His goal was to have Athens defeat Syracuse and perhaps Carthage, becoming masters of the Mediterranean. Thucydides relates how he put a coalition together that nearly destroyed Sparta at little or no cost to Athens itself. His hubris was his downfall. During the campaign to capture Syracuse, he was falsely accused of a specific impious deed – in effect, a death sentence. He defected to Sparta, sleeping with the Spartan king’s wife while showing Sparta how to beat Athens. He eventually had to leave there, too. Xenophon depicts Alcibiades using Socratic rhetoric to show Pericles, no slouch as a leader himself, that he knows nothing.

In at least two dialogues, the Symposium and the Alcibiades, Plato shows Socrates trying to moderate Alcibiades. Alcibiades is young and handsome, though, and that subtext is not terribly quiet in the Symposium. He expresses his pain at his playing hard-to-get: Socrates won’t teach him everything he knows despite his advances, and as a consequence, he hasn’t become the person he wants to be yet. Nowadays, I think the question of Socrates teaching nobility reflects on Socrates himself. The question of loving him or learning from him turns into the question of Socrates simply. For Alcibiades, no matter how much he thinks he has a grasp on who Socrates is, there’s another person in there he hasn’t found.

Philosophic eros isn’t only a lust for knowledge. It also involves the philosopher being hard-to-get, seemingly composed of many beings. Golden statues of gods reside within an ugly exterior, Alcibiades says. For all practical purposes, though, the philosopher might as well be mutable. Philosophy is this strange combination of knowledge and self-knowledge where what one learns should better one from the inside out. Not external gain, but an attempted building of the self.

Still, the philosopher finds himself defined more by questions than answers. Exactly how stable a form he has – well, that’s a problem. At best, he’s like a container more than anything else. I don’t know this means that someone who pursues wisdom is unlovable, despite Socrates’ expressed hope in the Lysis for a friend. I do think it means that only the philosopher can appreciate where he stands at a given moment. There is a radical independence at play. The inability of Alcibiades to woo Socrates is Alcibiades’ inability to love Socrates.

4. Going back to heroes and leaders, I’m thinking this. We do live in a world where the best are continually taken for granted, where the most superficial of images draws people by the millions and institutions and even commitments. When DFW worries about authenticity, he is specific about the problem. To have your attention constantly competed for by what is worthless will lead to your not paying attention.

To not take things for granted, to be attentive to one’s life in the deepest sense, is to be open to one’s own mistakes, disappointments, and pain. Young Socrates learned the hard way about his conception of the forms. More importantly, Alcibiades was a pupil that got himself and his teacher in trouble. Athens’ ultimate response to philosophy was an attempt to exterminate it completely. Just as we could describe a philosopher as carefree and happy with his own pursuits, we could also find him drowning in problems.

In a similar fashion, I think the logic with which we started reflecting on heroism and leadership incomplete. We said they inspire because of a certain honesty, their dedicating themselves to a principle beyond themselves. That’s not really what makes them heroes. What makes heroes amazing is that they do what they do in spite of everyone else. We expect them to break, we do neglect them when they don’t. Heroes only inspire some, not all. This isn’t to celebrate hard-headed intransigence. It is to explain why we put our leaders in a position where they must sell themselves to us. We stopped believing not just because of a culture of spin, but because we’re in deep denial about how much things actually cost.