The S.M. Critique Part II: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Choose
Please recall: c. p. 100 Wallace treated us to a double-barreled assault on contemporary U.S. values courtesy of Schtitt and Marathe. On p. 107 Marathe admonishes Steeply: “Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care… this, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance? Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple?” Now, on p. 317 Marathe is back to unpack this idea of choice that’s so central to his argument.
Now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to live, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving?
Marathe suggests that maybe the state should be playing a larger role in protecting people from themselves — “l’état protecteur.” Steeply counters:
Does this sound a little familiar, Remy? The National Socialist Neofascist State of Separate Quebec?… Totalitarity… Unfree… There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It’s not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us — those are just the hazards of being free.
The Marathe block-quote above makes is pretty clear that on one level, the Entertainment is an allegory for substance abuse — think of Erdedy and JvD and Poor Tony all feeding themselves this “death of pleasure with spoons” (note also that spoons are often used to cook up raw heroin to make it injectible, if I understand it correctly). Wallace also sees addiction as a fundamentally lonely pursuit — cf again Erdedy beating off until he’s chapped during his marijuana binges, Poor Tony holed up and isolated in the rest room stall, and the narrator’s commentary on JvD’s impending felo de se: “The truth is that the hours before a suicide are usually an interval of enormous conceit and self-involvement.”
Steeply’s response is to accuse Marathe of fascism. Fascism is pretty much always a Bad Word in the real U.S., but in the context of IJ it’s instructive to recall that Schtitt, with his “whiff of proto-fascist potential” (p. 82), delivers a fairly sensible critique of American self-interest. Also, in footnote 90 Geoffrey Day tells Don G. that sees something “totalitarian” and “un-American” about the internal logic of AA. If Wallace is pitting G. Day against the AA here, it’s pretty safe to say that Wallace is on the side of the latter.
Wallace seems to be developing a fascism-is-good* trope here which, judging from the ‘96 Bookworm review (which is just a treasure-trove of useful information), he’s torn about:
The guy who essentially runs the academy now is a fascist, and, whether it comes out or not, he’s really the only one there who to me is saying anything that’s even remotely non-horrifying, except it is horrifying because he’s a fascist… it seems to me that one of the scary things about sort of the nihilism of contemporary culture is that we’re really setting ourselves up for fascism. Because as we empty more and more kind of values, motivating principles, spiritual principles, almost, out of the culture, we’re creating a hunger that eventually is going to drive us to the sort of state where we may accept fascism just because.
Steeply of course isn’t having any of this, and like a good American he turns out to be something of a fundamentalist when it comes to the frequently-invoked but rarely-defined notion of “freedom.” But Marathe’s whole point is that when “freedom” is reduced to “the ability to do what I want, went I want it bcuz nobody is the boss of me,” you’re setting yourself up for the crazy reductio situation of an enslaving Entertainment that already, in real-life contemporary America, has a near-perfect analogy in drug abuse and other intensive forms of self-gratification. As someone who for the past 300-some-odd days has chosen almost exclusively to gratify himself with an enslaving Substance whenever the opportunity arose, to the detriment of literally All Other Things, the logic of this argument seems unassailable.
This exposes an interesting irony behind the slogan “freedom isn’t free.” It typically functions as a catchy simplification of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” — the notion that our beloved American value of freedom comes at a cost, that it must be guarded and protected, sometimes with our lives. But a cynic, a Schtitt or a Marathe, perhaps, might also interpret it by saying that “freedom,” the classic American freedom as invoked by Hugh Steeply and George W. Bush and on countless t-shirts and bumper stickers, “isn’t,” in fact, “free” at all — that this American “freedom” is not true freedom, but maybe something more complicated, more troubling, more sinister. That this “freedom,” when taken to its logical end, may really just be another form of enslavement. A Cage, if you will.
* I realize this is a gross oversimplification of an idea that would more correctly be expressed along the lines of “fascism probably isn’t good, but maybe in some very limited circumstances ideas that would be easy to assail as ‘fascist’ could actually provide a powerful corrective to the excesses of unbridled American self-interest-style capitalism.”