David Foster Wallace on Al Franken


Back in November 2003, The Believer conducted a series of interviews between Dave Eggers and Wallace on writing habits, life and politics. Within the 6,000 word interview is, in the words of Jon Stewart, a fascinating take on Al Franken. The full interview can be read here. For those concerned with the portion that comments on Franken, we plucked it out. It’s like jumping in the way-back machine to get a live take on the portion of Franken’s life that predates his full assent into the political ring.

In this section, about a thousand words in, Wallace, who wrote a jaw-numbing journalistic piece on John McCain during the 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, is asked this question: Should novelists be offering their opinions on national affairs, politics, our current and future wars?

His answer follows (bolds are mine):

DFW: The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

Nothing has really changed with Franken. His election with Coleman is total blood-sport. Matt Snyders detailed it in his piece, “Strike Anywhere.” And the latest saga of the campaign is a creepy little comic book against Franken. Maybe these dudes and their supporters need to remember that when things get tough, venom ain’t the only option. Most of the time it infects your own ass and ends up helping your opponent (see:Tinklenberg).