One of the best things about my job is that it allows me to revisit books I've read and enjoyed in the past. This is particularly true of my humanities class on banned books--there are plenty to choose from, so I can rotate new ones in every time I teach the class.
Last spring I decided I'd add Joseph Heller's classic war satire Catch-22. The title has of course become part of the American vocabulary. Even people who've never read the book or seen the movie know what it means: an illogical situation for which there is no solution.
But when I re-read it this summer, it was another scene in the book that seemed to capture this moment in American history. The ambitious Captain Black decides that the best means to a promotion is to show his unquestioned loyalty, which then leads him to require that everyone who comes to his intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. Inevitably, the "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade" escalates to the point where "[e]very time they turned around, there was another loyalty oath to sign." Eventually, signing a loyalty oath was required before eating in the mess hall.
Into this insanity steps Major ______ de Coverley (his forbidding manner kept anyone from asking his first name). Finding his path blocked by men waiting to sign the oath, he
paused in the doorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in a straight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right, he strode indomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority, said:"Gimme eat." ...For several terrible seconds there was not a sound. Then Milo nodded."Give him eat," he said.... "Give everybody eat!" ... and the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade came to an end.
Ever since reading that passage this summer, I've been waiting for someone of some stature to step up and say "Gimme eat."
During the anti-Muslim hysteria of the last month, I hoped former president George W. Bush, who had said all the right words in the aftermath of 9/11, would reiterate them now, when we desperately need someone with credibility on the right to say them. But he remained silently in line.
As self-labeled Tea Party candidates, many with no real qualification for office other than being "anti-establishment," knocked off more reasonable primary opponents, I waited for some significant figure in the Republican Party to say "Enough! Politics is serious business, and it needs serious, reasonable people."
And last week, when I heard Karl Rove describing the Republican nominee for senator from Delaware, Christine O'Donnell as someone with a "checkered background," I thought perhaps the moment had come. He went on to say: "It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that the voters are looking for.... There are a lot of nutty things she's been saying."
Here, I thought, was the de Coverley moment, and on Fox News, no less! Rove had broken Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." You could see the shock on Sean Hannity's face, and hear the amazement in his voice as he said that he disagreed with Rove. Disagreement among conservatives, live and on the air and on Fox, no less? "Gimme eat!"
But it didn't last. The next day, Rove furiously backtracked. What happened? In the meantime, he had had been chastened by the Tea Party's Captain Black, Sarah Palin, who told him: "It's time for unity." Being questioned about his comments, once again on his employer, Fox News, Rove said "I endorsed her the other night." While he reiterated that she had some questions to answer, there were no more aspersions on her character or references to the "nutty things" she's been saying.
And the Glorious Tea Party Loyalty Oath Crusade went on.