Among the many elements of genius in Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22" was its recognition of the convolutions of logic that make bureaucracies so insufferable. The Catch-22 of the title refers to the bit of Army Air Corps logic that dictated that if you feared what was dangerous, that made you sane and thus a battle-rattled pilot ...
Among the many elements of genius in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" was its recognition of the convolutions of logic that make bureaucracies so insufferable. The Catch-22 of the title refers to the bit of Army Air Corps logic that dictated that if you feared what was dangerous, that made you sane and thus a battle-rattled pilot who sought to sit out a mission because his nerves were shot couldn't because his desire to sit out the mission proved he was sane enough to conduct it.
Among the many elements of genius in Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22" was its recognition of the convolutions of logic that make bureaucracies so insufferable. The Catch-22 of the title refers to the bit of Army Air Corps logic that dictated that if you feared what was dangerous, that made you sane and thus a battle-rattled pilot who sought to sit out a mission because his nerves were shot couldn’t because his desire to sit out the mission proved he was sane enough to conduct it.
Such insanity is not, of course, limited to either the Army Air Corps or comic novels. Twenty-first century Washington abounds with such loop-de-loops of reasoning. For example, just flipping through the papers in the past week or two reveals many:
- Senator Evan Bayh was assailed for quitting the Senate because it was too dysfunctional by those who argued that if it was so dysfunctional, he really should stay to fix it. In a twist that Heller’s hero Yossarian and his pals would have savored, Bayh’s recognition that he was trapped in a nuthouse meant that he was sane (even if he was being driven crazy) and thus shouldn’t be allowed to leave because who but sane people could help the cuckoos?
- Republicans who decried the president’s "lack of leadership" on the health care issue immediately assailed him for — finally — offering a plan, attacked the plan for not doing enough to solve the problems with our broken system which they in turn offered as a rationale for not doing anything at all and continued to simultaneously assail the Democrats for trying to make government programs bigger and at the same time for threatening to cut elements of Medicare, one of the biggest of those programs.
- At least one eminent and typically thoughtful foreign policy specialist, Fareed Zakaria, argued that because military regimes can be even more calculating than theocracies that we should be comforted by the idea of the revolutionary guard taking the helm in a nuclear Iran, even though A) militaries tend to be more comfortable using force than other segments of society; and B) in this particular case the problem isn’t so much who is running the government as what happens to the weapons when they leave the government’s control and fall into the hands of terrorist groups — of which the government of Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor.
- The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank suggested the main argument for keeping on the President’s chief advisor, Rahm Emmanuel, was based on the premise that the President didn’t actually take his advice (though Milbank thought he should have.) Milbank neglected to note that the President’s repeated failure to listen to Emmanuel suggested a somewhat bigger and more basic problem-albeit perhaps one that rested not with the advisor but the advisee. (Though Milbank was right about the flaws in the rest of the President’s inner circle.) It is a corollary to Washington loopiness that the first thing we do when someone in a position of responsibility stumbles is try to identify advisors to fire rather than having the person in the position of responsibility actually accept, well, responsibility.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Washington is a monument to democracy in which the choice the public is given is actually no choice at all. We live in a two-party system in which both parties seem dedicated to improving the prospects of none of the above. And indeed, that should hardly come as a surprise since the system is descended from a British system that is currently offering citizens of Britain the same kind of non-choice: between an ineffective (but apparently abusive) prime minister and the utterly empty suit who wants to replace him. What’s more, the whole very Washingtonian concept of democracy without choice is underscored by the fact that the Congress — which traditionally is not well-loved in the polls even if today’s subterranean approval ratings have seldom been "achieved" before — regularly gets re-elected at rates that, as Ronald Reagan once observed, exceed those of the legislatures of the totalitarian systems we opposed (like the Supreme Soviet of the old Soviet Union.)
Needless to say within each layer of contradiction is another and for the critical observer there is one ultimate paradox. It is the one that says that if you are conscious of the flaws of the system you must be shocked but that if you are conscious you also cannot be surprised. You can’t help but comment on how extraordinary things are but if you are smart enough to know they are extraordinary you can’t help but have noticed just how ordinary they are. In other words, you can’t help but complain if you are paying attention, but if you are paying attention nothing should seem so extraordinary as to be worthy of comment.
Call this Washington’s Kvetch-22. I don’t know the solution for it, and I can’t remember a time in my almost two decades in this city when it has reflected such an acute set of internal contradictions and frustrations — but at least it helps to know it has a name.
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