There is a scene in the novel “Catch-22” that grabbed my attention the first time I read it and continues to revisit my thoughts now, more than 40 years later.
This scene involves a conversation between a 107-year-old Italian man and a 19-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army who is stationed in Italy during World War II. The lieutenant, Nately, is still young and earnest enough to believe in the infallibility of the U.S. military and, by extension, the U.S. itself. The old man, on the other hand, has long since stopped believing that power is anything worth having. On the contrary, he believes that power is the surest sign of a nation’s impending doom. Here’s what he tells young Nately:
“You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German officers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.”
When Nately protests that “America is not going to be destroyed!”, the old man counters with this:
“Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so…. You put so much stock in winning wars. The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost.”
Catch-22 was published to great fanfare in 1961, at the height of the United States’ ascendance as the world’s greatest military and economic power. JFK had been elected president a year earlier on a platform of optimism, expansion and ambition that ventured beyond this mortal world to the heavens above. We would walk on the moon by the end of the decade (we did). We would become a beacon of hope and prosperity to all those nations suffering under the iron fist of communism or tyranny (sort of). We would ensure equal access to the American dream, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or economic background (well….).
I first read Catch-22 in 1978, during my freshman year of college. By that time, 17 years after publication, the USA had been laid low on numerous fronts: a futile and unpopular war, a series of protests and urban riots that divided the country, a culture war that deepened the divide, an energy crisis, a deep and lasting recession, a disgraced president, and a general sense of malaise and cynicism. Oh, and JFK had been shot dead 15 years earlier by a mysterious little man in Dallas.
It was pretty easy for me to latch onto the novel’s conversation between Nately and the old man and see it as an omen. You could certainly envision the U.S. collapsing under the weight of its own hubris and ambition.
But then the next couple of decades brought about the fall of the Soviet empire, the emergence of the U.S. as the world’s lone superpower, and a period of vast economic growth driven by the tech revolution. Things were relatively peaceful, at least by U.S. standards, and the American Dream had once again regained its polish and sheen.
Ah, but nothing lasts forever, does it? I could rehash the various shitstorms that have pummeled the U.S. over the past 20 years, to its present point of hanging by the barest thread in this bleakest of years, but why bother? We already know about them. They stretch from 9/11 and the ensuing wars through financial meltdowns, school shootings, cop killings, protests and bloodshed, all the way up to a 17-year-old militia wanna-be opening fire in Wisconsin because, because, oh who really knows? Because it’s America, and that’s what you do. You strap up and shoot people.
One of my oldest and best friends has a stock answer whenever the U.S. hits what appears to be a crisis point. He says it’s a resilient country, with a system of checks and balances that always put things right, no matter how bad they seem. I haven’t spoken with him about the nation’s current woes. But I imagine his answer is still the same: This too shall pass.
Maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right. But I’m much more cynical by nature. I see a nation teetering on the edge. People who have always been in power see that power slipping away amid a vast demographic shift, and they are desperate to cling to it by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the people who’ve always been on the outside looking in want more power on a grander stage – and they’re tired of being patient about it.
This is a pretty dangerous cocktail.
Now, there are probably ways to resolve these conflicts peacefully. It starts with one group understanding that sharing power is not a death sentence, and it’s probably going to happen whether you like it or not, anyway, so you might as well make the best of it.
But some don’t see it that way. Instead, they see a threat every time someone who looks different raises his or her voice above a whisper. The answer to this threat? Take up arms and rally around mantras like “Make America Great Again,” which offers the promise of returning to a very particular era with a very narrow set of rules. That era was sometime in the 1950s, those rules were set by white men, and everybody else was expected to smile and play along. There was precious little room for the young Hispanic woman who wanted to challenge the status quo, or the African American community that demanded more accountability from law enforcement.
But now, a rising tide of marginalized voices are demanding a bigger seat at a bigger table, and many Americans don’t like it. Instead of searching for deeper answers, they blame it on some murky, abstract shadow force like the Fake News media or Deep State government complex. It’s simply not possible for marginalized people to form their own thoughts and conclusions based on their own experiences. No, they must be puppets of something bigger – the Socialists, or the Deep State, or the Fake News.
Here’s the funny thing about the Deep State and Fake News: They are mainly demonized by white men, but they’re also dominated by white men. Consider:
- The president is a white male, and most of his cabinet is composed of white males
- Congress is 78% white and 76% male vs. 61% and 49% of the general population, respectively
- Of the 50 U.S. governors, 41 are white males
- The New York Times Company is chaired by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., a white male
- The Washington Post is controlled by Jeff Bezos, a white male
- CNN is owned by WarnerMedia, whose CEO is Jason Kilar, a white male
- CNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, whose CEO is Jeff Shell, a white male
- ABC News is owned by Walt Disney Television, which is owned by The Walt Disney Company, whose CEO is Bob Chapek, a white male
- CBS News is owned by ViacomCBS, whose CEO is Robert Bakish, a white male
- And Fox News, of course, is controlled by the very white and very male Murdoch family
So, there’s your Deep State. There’s your Fake News. There’s your existential threat to democracy, your raging, fire-breathing radicals poised at the gate, ready to snatch away your precious freedoms and liberties by inflaming the young, the disenfranchised, the Godless, the black- and brown-skinned haters of America. Pretty soon one of these martini-sipping, light-skinned Ivy Leaguers will hop out of his limo and destroy the very foundation upon which you stand.
People are plenty mad back home. They’re at each other’s throats. They’re shooting each other in the streets. The aging white guy in the MAGA hat warns that only he can stop the chaos that is happening on his watch, and you’re in for a world of hurt if you elect the other aging white guy, and if you don’t believe the MAGA hat then you must believe the lies perpetrated by the aging white guys who control the Deep State and Fake News.
Meanwhile, things are comparatively calm here in the UK, the little country that used to be the world’s greatest power but hasn’t had much global influence since, I don’t know, the Beatles.
A few countries further south, Italy is also still around. It hasn’t had any power to speak of in centuries, so it seems content to be a popular tourist attraction with good food and wine, some fine universities, a few successful corporations, a couple of excellent soccer clubs, a multitude of historic and cultural landmarks, many pretty views, and lots of very well dressed people.
I doubt the USA could ever be content with that. But it could do a lot worse, and probably is, right now.