And It Was Written, Our Blame

And It Was Written, Our Blame

By Rod Dreher - September 28, 2008

Novelist David Foster Wallace, who recently committed suicide at age 46, once told an interviewer that his generation had been morally "gutted" by a pseudo-sophistication that sneered at boring everyday truths. He explained that privilege had caused so many of his contemporaries to forget that plain-spoken wisdom - the sort of truisms that supposedly only children and suckers believe - is actually, you know, valid.

"The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting - which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff - can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important," he said. "That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."

Mr. Wallace had his epiphany attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as research for his groundbreaking 1996 novel Infinite Jest.

The novelist saw that drunks who had hit rock bottom came to see self-help aphorisms as ladders out of hell. This was a new thing for him. In the light of suffering and intense human need, principles that many of us have come to disdain as sentimental clich├ęs appeared as saving truths.

Mr. Wallace's observation came to mind the other day as I watched a beleaguered Wall Street executive on MSNBC try to obfuscate his company's key role in helping cause the crisis, the near-apocalypse that has delivered the U.S. financial system to the far end of the valley of the shadow of debt, to the edge of Armageddon. The poor man gassed on for 10 minutes, using every possible verbal maneuver to avoid answering direct questions put to him by journalists.

Who can blame him? We have become used to this sort of thing. We've come to prefer comforting lies to hard truths born of observation and experience, thinking that in our brilliance we had somehow escaped the iron law of necessity. Rudyard Kipling satirized this arrogance nearly a century ago in his poem, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" (a copybook was a primer in which British schoolchildren learned handwriting by copying familiar proverbs).

Here's a verse rather relevant to the current moment:

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,

And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true

That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four -

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more

As it turns out, the moralistic platitudes you learned at your grandfather's knee - What goes up must come down; you can't get something for nothing - hold up better than the obscure incantations of Wall Street's pinstriped deities, those Masters of the Universe who have flattered their genius on the financial pages during our latter-day Gilded Age.

Why, it was thought by both Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s and beyond, the Great Greenspan, with his gnomic utterances, had put us on the path to permanent wealth. American market capitalism had triumphed. It was a magical idea that captivated everybody.

Though the left wishes to believe that the current crisis is a conservative invention, in the heady Bill Clinton years, even liberals heard the prosperity gospel and believed. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, who headed Mr. Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, said deregulation mania and Wall Street lobbying caused Washington to throw prudence to the wind during the Clinton years and beyond.

Mr. Stiglitz made those remarks six years ago, predicting that the Enron scandal would finally arouse lawmakers and the public to the fundamental dangers of deregulation. We see today how well that worked out.

Complex financial instruments come and go, but the hearts of men remain the same. Greed, vanity and hubris we always have with us, as well as a weakness for the soft sophisticated lie over the hard plain truth. About human nature, tradition - the accumulated wisdom of mankind - is never wrong. True conservatives - as opposed to those who confuse mammon-worship with moral and intellectual principle - know that a tolerable order can only exist when most people live by the moral laws articulated in time-worn banalities.

So, send the tumbrels into the streets to carry off the heads of sophisticates who believed that we had repealed the laws of economics and human nature by our cleverness. The Gods of the Copybook Headings demand propitiation. We shall offer them scapegoats and try to forget our own complicity in the coming catastrophe.

After all, these scoundrels did not elect themselves, nor was there an outcry heard in the land against Wall Street rapacity and recklessness when our 401(k)s were rising, and all but the lowliest plebeian was moving into his very own McMansion.

Along those lines, there's one proverb that we will all become painfully acquainted with in the years to come: You reap what you sow.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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