Josehph Heller’s great American novel, Catch-22 is erroneously hailed as one of the great novels to come out of World War II, along with James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. However, while the novel is set in the Italian theater during World War II, Heller always insisted that his bookl, which gave the world the catch-phrase “Catch-22” was about he Korean War and the post-World War II Red Scare that featured witch hunts and culminated with McCarthyism.
Heller’s burlesque was about the military-industrial-congressional complex that sprung up after the war, ostensibly to battle the Soviet Union and the threat of world communism. This was the very establishment that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who won the “Crusade in Europe” during the Second World War, warned America about in his farewell address. (Ike left out the term “congressional” from his axix of evil, but gave the English language the term “military industrial complex.”)
This was a time characterized by a crack down on free speech and dissent and assorted non-conformists who did not believe in war all the time, a perpetual “Cold War” against communism.
Eroding Free Speech
In that Catch-22 was an indictment of the Cold War mentality, the nearly 50 year-old book is a mirror of our times, with terrorism replacing communism as the chief bugaboo of the American state. (Terrorism resuscitated the military-industrial complex, which was wasting away after the collapse of the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The defense budget is now a deficit-widening $840 billion annually.)
Barack Obama, through his solicitor general Elena Kagan, has just won the greatest roll-back of First Amendment rights since the Dennis v. U.S. decision of the early ’50s (the time of Catch-22 spiritually, if not chronologically) put the Communist Party USA leadership in jail for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.
In a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court cut back on First Amendment rights in the cases Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (08-1498) and Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder (09-89).
Eric Holder, as the Attorney General of the United States, is listed as the concerned party in the cases, but it was Elena Kagan, as Solicitor General, who argue the cases before the High Court. Kagan is Obama’s choice to replace retiring Judge John Paul Stevens, who voted with the majority.
In a remarkable bit of sophistry, prosecutors in the anti-Communist Dennis v. U.S. case presented the trope of “Aesopian language” to convict the CPUSA leadership, as what they were teaching was Karl Marx. Marx advocated the overthrow of capitalism, not the U.S.A. Using the Aesopian paradigm, in which words mean something other than their literal expression, advocating the overthrow of capitalism was equated with overthrowing America.
Justice William O. Douglas, the great liberal and defender of Free Speech, criticized the decision as it attacked education, which is one of the centerpieces of the First Amendment. After the decision, books on Marx, the USSR and communism disappeared from libraries, and Russian language, culture and literature programs were disbanded in the U.S.
The same group of prosecutors and judge went on to judicially lynch Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, using perjured testimony from Ethel’s sister-in-law.
Humanitarian Law Project
In the two Humanitarian Law Project cases, the Obama administration supported the “material support” provision of anti-terrorism laws that bans American organizations from aiding foreign terrorist groups. Kagan successfully argued that this includes banning the provision of legal advice, which upon questioning by the High Court, she admitted that her opponent in the case could likely be jailed!
(The cases being argued had no actual legal consequences for the advocates, but the organizatio they represented was banned from helping groups on the federal government’s proscribed list. They vowed they would carry on, despite the legal consequences.)
Under the material aid rule, Chief Justice Roberts upheld the Obama administration’s point of view, reasoning that helping terrorist organizations to adopt peaceful means was actually promulgating terror, as the terrorists could be insincere and be biding their time while at a disadvantage, playing possum so to speak before they went back to launching terrorist acts. Thus, an American group trying to convert proscribed groups to adopt peaceful means is actually aiding and abetting terror.
This logic is straight out of Catch-22.
The catch-phrase “Catch-22” is defined by the Free Online Dictionary as1. A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions; 2. A situation or predicament characterized by absurdity or senselessness; 3. A contradictory or self-defeating course of action; and 4. A tricky or disadvantageous condition; a catch.
The catch-phrase remains in currency as the conditions of absurdity stemming from the illogical paradoxes used by the American establishment to justify its actions persist. It remains such a potent metaphor that political journalist Christopher Hitchens entitled his recent memoir Hitch-22.
Justice Stephen Breyer, wno voted with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sontamayor to uphold the Humanitarian Law Project’s free speech rights in the case of promoting peaceful conflict resolution, felt so strongly about his dissent that he read it publicly, which is unusual among the Supremes.
“Not even the ‘serious and deadly problem’ of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First Amendment rights,” told the courtroom.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the case, denounced the decision. The ACLU said, “The United States Supreme Court today upheld the broad application of a federal law that hinders the ability of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations to do their work by making it a crime to provide “material support” to designated “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTOs). The ruling thwarts the efforts of human rights organizations to persuade violent actors to renounce violence or cease their human rights abuses and jeopardizes the provision of aid and disaster relief in conflict zones controlled by designated groups….”
Steve Chapman, writing in the Chicago Tribune, believes that the Roberts decision actually will promote terrorism as it discourages efforts to wean political groups away from the use of terror. To show the absurdity of the ruling, he quotes Nobel Prize winning writer Anatole France:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Speaking ot the material support provisons of the PATRIOT Act, Chapman writes, “[You’ can’t give [give groups designated as terrorist organizations] pamphlets explaining why slaughtering innocents is immoral and ineffective. Such endeavors count as ‘expert advice or assistance,’ which is illegal even if the purpose is to prevent terrorism rather than promote it.”
According to Chapman, “That makes no sense, and it does nothing to foil terrorists.”
My reaction? Welcome to the newly reinvigorated world of Catch-22.
“There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22,” Heller wrote.
We should all genuflect to the majesty of the government’s position on though crimes, as Heller’s protagonist Yossarian, an Army Air Force navigator, did when informed of the meaning of Catch-22 by Doc Daneeka, the flight surgeon.
Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Finally, there is something in the 21st Century other than oil spills and political corruption that America excels at — again! Who says that we can’t turn back the clock? We are still in the throes of the Bush 43 Administration.
BLT: The Blog of the Legal Times, Supreme Court Upholds ‘Material Support’ Law
Chicago Tribune, How the ‘material support’ law promotes terrorism
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1961)
Yahoo! News, High court upholds anti-terror law prized by Obama