Sunday, October 26, 2008

Michigan J and all the peeps on the lilypad

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22 there's an exchange between the old man who reminds LT Nately of his own father because he is nothing like his father. They are arguing fiercely at who is winning and losing "the war" and why.

The old man, cackling uncontrollably with laughter, demands to learn from Nately if America, fighting on two fronts, will, for all of its weapons, young men, lofty ideals, glorious democracy and earnestness last as long as a …… frog.

Whenever the old man asks this, Nately becomes even more incoherent and inchoate in the defense of his nation and his service to it. He notes triumphantly to the old man, he's always been taught that it's more noble to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees and is sorely vexed and perplexed when the old man suggests he has it wrong- it is better to live on one's knees than to die on one's feet, concluding with the challenge 'it makes more sense my way.'

It's this assertion that confuses and confounds Nately and I think I know why. I wish Nately, real and in fiction, were right, but suspect (as a lookalike in the Old Man doppelganger contest), I, too, have realized that's a funeral in your mirror and it's stopping at your face. Nearly twenty years in Europe could have been like twenty minutes in terms of learning and knowing.

I was always struck as to how naive we, Americans, were perceived by world-weary and terminally cynical Europeans. Germans, French, Dutch and Brits (though the last with some sense of rueful apology) always assumed things would end horribly and thus, could only be surprised when they didn't. NATO has had such a difficult time in the two plus decades since we won the Cold War, because those mostly in charge of it, "old Europe" as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld injudiciously called it, never believed it would happen.

Heck, for all the political parties in (then) West Germany, it was an article of faith and an integral part of each party's election platform to 'work tirelessly for reunification'. No one ever thought it would come to pass, so no realistic plan to implement reunification was ever developed which is why Germany went into a political and economic tailspin for a decade AFTER it did.

Now we read headlines about Poland hosting critical components of a US missile shield that's pointed not at Lappland but a little farther South and East (the Russians, still washing their hands of Georgian blood, are angered at the actions of the Poles but powerless to prevent it, for now). And the rest of us (and the West of us) just let this wash over us as hundreds of billions of dollars of virtual money, investments, college funds, retirement nest eggs, all incinerate on Wall Street. Talk about the Abilene Paradox, ;-) (Yes, I know that link is a huge pdf; download and read it when you can. I'll say 'You are welcome' now because you'll want to thank me after you do.)

As recently as this summer, it seemed "the war" and all of its unintended consequences would be The Issue (in caps, no less!) for this November's Presidential Election. However, as Gomer Pyle, USMC, might say, "surprise, surprise, surprise!" Cecil B. Demille couldn't have done a better job of bringing plagues to the streets of America if he'd he'd shot Exodus in Cleveland and changed the title of his masterpiece to The Ten Suggestions, sponsored on PBS by AIG.

Of course, our chances are much better at this moment of finding a frog-free house, as suddenly it's a buyer's market. Too bad no one has any money.
-bill kenny

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