Diary not associated with any candidate, campaign, or literary critic.
My favorite novel is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. When I was looking for a DKos handle, I thought back to its final chapter, which contains a long conversation between Yossarian, the protagonist and anti-hero, and his friendly colleague Major Danby. Knowing where I stood on the twin spectrums of political ideology and political practice, I felt that Danby's role in that dialogue placed me within our community.
Danby, the Army Air Force squadron's Operations Officer, is an academic by profession. If people know him, it's usually due to the moment when a mercurial General orders that he be taken out and shot. The conversation at the end of the novel, however, belongs in a league with the greatest and most insightful sections of novels, such as Ivan Karamazov's "Grand Inquisitor" story. I'll discuss it at length, going well beyond three paragraphs, because I think it has so much to say to us as activists.
If you haven't read the novel, reading on will spoil it for you. You've been forewarned. I strongly suggest you read the novel before this diary.
I have a view of Catch-22 that, so far as I know, is completely idiosyncratic. I think that the story actually ends about halfway through the last chapter, just before the words "until footsteps exploded in the corridor," and that the rest is an "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" type fantasy. (Or at least I like to play with the idea, giving me two novels instead of one.) I'm not going to describe what happens after those words -- many people probably ignored the spoiler warning -- and I very much hope that commenters below will follow suit.
(By the way, there is a fair use copyright exception for criticism, so you can relax.)
The chapter begins with Yossarian lying in a hospital bed, having been attacked by the prostitute girlfriend of his deceased friend. For unexplained reasons, since the moment he informed her of his friend's untimely death, she has believed that he killed and has sought vengeance. (I've always thought this was a cautionary commentary on Yossarian's bad Italian. Seriously, you have to read the novel to get it.) Yossarian has agreed with his odious superiors, Col. Cathcart and Lt. Col. Korn, that he will be sent back to the U.S. with an honorable discharge as long as he publicly approves of their abusive and self-serving policy of making their airmen fly more missions than required. Danby has been dispatched to the hospital to tell him that the deal is on. Yossarian says he's changed his mind. The deal, he says, is odious. Danby reluctantly concedes the point.
‘But why did you make such a deal if you didn’t like it?’
‘I did it in a moment of weakness,’ Yossarian wisecracked with glum irony. ‘I was trying to save my life.’
‘Don’t you want to save your life now?’
‘That’s why I won’t let them make me fly more missions.’
‘Then let them send you home and you’ll be in no more danger.’
‘Let them send me home because I flew more than fifty missions,’ Yossarian said, ‘and not because I was stabbed by that girl, or because I’ve turned into such a stubborn son of a bitch.’
Major Danby shook his head emphatically in sincere and bespectacled vexation. ‘They’d have to send nearly every man home if they did that. Most of the men have more than fifty missions. Colonel Cathcart couldn’t possibly requisition so many inexperienced replacement crews at one time without causing an investigation. He’s caught in his own trap.’
‘That’s his problem.’
‘No, no, no, Yossarian,’ Major Danby disagreed solicitously. ‘It’s your problem. Because if you don’t go through with the deal, they’re going to institute court-martial proceedings as soon as you sign out of the hospital.’
So there's the conflict: Yossarian either accepts a separate deal for success at the cost of honor, or does what he knows is right and suffers the consequences.
Yossarian thinks that the attack has given him a way out of the dilemma, because the official report says that he was stabbed by a Nazi assassin trying to kill his superiors, making a court-marial preposterous. Danby explains:
‘There’s another official report that says you were stabbed by an innocent girl in the course of extensive black-market operations involving acts of sabotage and the sale of military secrets to the enemy.’
Yossarian was taken back severely with surprise and disappointment. ‘Another official report?’
‘Yossarian, they can prepare as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion. Didn’t you know that?’
Yossarian believed that he had won, within the rules. He had not realized that the other side can ignore the rules.
Danby continues trying to convince Yossarian to save his own skin by cooperating, pointing out that nobody will actually be helped by his sacrifice, because he'll just be court-martialed and tried for a long list of crimes. One "crime" was an act for which he received a medal, but Danby tells him that they'll get an unprincipled airman to testify that the report on Yossarian's behalf was perjury. Then it gets worse:
‘They will also find you guilty,’ Major Danby recited, ‘of rape, extensive black-market operations, acts of sabotage and the sale of military secrets to the enemy.’
‘How will they prove any of that? I never did a single one of those things.’
‘But they have witnesses who will swear you did. They can get all the witnesses they need simply by persuading them that destroying you is for the good of the country. And in a way, it would be for the good of the country.’
‘In what way?’ Yossarian demanded, rising up slowly on one elbow with bridling hostility.
Major Danby drew back a bit and began mopping his forehead again. ‘Well, Yossarian,’ he began with an apologetic stammer, ‘it would not help the war effort to bring Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn into disrepute now. Let’s face it, Yossarian—in spite of everything, the group does have a very good record. If you were court-martialed and found innocent, other men would probably refuse to fly missions, too. Colonel Cathcart would be in disgrace, and the military efficiency of the unit might be destroyed. So in that way it would be for the good of the country to have you found guilty and put in prison, even though you are innocent.’
Yossarian challenges Danby for his endorsing this. Danby claims only to be trying to help him.
Major Danby turned red and squirmed and squinted uneasily. ‘Please don’t blame me,’ he pleaded with a look of anxious integrity. ‘You know it’s not my fault. All I’m doing is trying to look at things objectively and arrive at a solution to a very difficult situation.’
‘I didn’t create the situation.’
‘But you can resolve it. And what else can you do? You don’t want to fly more missions.’
Yossarian says that he can desert. Danby argues that that wouldn't work and in any event is ignoble. Yossarian suggests that Danby is lying to him about trying to be helpful.
‘I’m a university professor with a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and I wouldn’t try to deceive you. I wouldn’t lie to anyone.’
‘What would you do if one of the men in the group asked you about this conversation?’
‘I would lie to him.’
They laugh, though Yossarian still views Danby with pity and contempt. The conversation turns to being abused by leaders.
Yossarian felt sorry for the gentle, moral, middle-aged idealist, as he felt sorry for so many people whose shortcomings were not large and whose troubles were light. With deliberate amiability he said, ‘Danby, how can you work along with people like Cathcart and Korn? Doesn’t it turn your stomach?’
Major Danby seemed surprised by Yossarian’s question. ‘I do it to help my country,’ he replied, as though the answer should have been obvious. ‘Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn are my superiors, and obeying their orders is the only contribution I can make to the war effort. I work along with them because it’s my duty. And also,’ he added in a much lower voice, dropping his eyes, ‘because I am not a very aggressive person.’
‘Your country doesn’t need your help any more,’ Yossarian reasoned with antagonism. ‘So all you’re doing is helping them.’
‘I try not to think of that,’ Major Danby admitted frankly. ‘But I try to concentrate on only the big result and to forget that they are succeeding, too. I try to pretend that they are not significant.’
‘That’s my trouble, you know,’ Yossarian mused sympathetically, folding his arms. ‘Between me and every ideal I always find Scheisskopfs, Peckems, Korns and Cathcarts. And that sort of changes the ideal.’
‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively. ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’
Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’
‘But you must try not to think of that, too,’ Major Danby insisted. ‘And you must try not to let it upset you.’
‘Oh, it doesn’t really upset me. What does upset me, though, is that they think I’m a sucker. They think that they’re smart, and that the rest of us are dumb. And, you know, Danby, the thought occurs to me right now, for the first time, that maybe they’re right.’
‘But you must try not to think of that too,’ argued Major Danby. ‘You must think only of the welfare of your country and the dignity of man.’
Yossarian denies that the country is still in danger at this late point in the war.
‘If I were to give up my life now, it wouldn’t be for my country. It would be for Cathcart and Korn. So I’m turning my bombsight in for the duration. From now on I’m thinking only of me.’
Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile, ‘But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.’
‘Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?’
The conversation then turns to the personal responsibility to act.
‘You know what I might do? I might stay right here in this hospital bed and vegetate. I could vegetate very comfortably right here and let other people make the decisions.’
‘You must make decisions,’ Major Danby disagreed. ‘A person can’t live like a vegetable.’
A distant warm look entered Major Danby’s eyes. ‘It must be nice to live like a vegetable,’ he conceded wistfully.
‘It’s lousy,’ answered Yossarian.
‘No, it must be very pleasant to be free from all this doubt and pressure,’ insisted Major Danby. ‘I think I’d like to live like a vegetable and make no important decisions.’
‘What kind of vegetable, Danby?’
‘A cucumber or a carrot.’
‘What kind of cucumber? A good one or a bad one?’
‘Oh, a good one, of course.’
‘They’d cut you off in your prime and slice you up for a salad.’ Major Danby’s face fell.
‘A poor one, then.’
‘They’d let you rot and use you for fertilizer to help the good ones grow.’
‘I guess I don’t want to live like a vegetable, then,’ said Major Danby with a smile of sad resignation.
And then comes the discussion of capitulation to power.
‘Danby, must I really let them send me home?’ Yossarian inquired of him seriously.
Major Danby shrugged. ‘It’s a way to save yourself.’
‘It’s a way to lose myself, Danby. You ought to know that.’
‘You could have lots of things you want.’
‘I don’t want lots of things I want,’ Yossarian replied, and then beat his fist down against the mattress in an outburst of rage and frustration. ‘Goddammit, Danby! I’ve got friends who were killed in this war. I can’t make a deal now. Getting stabbed by that bitch was the best thing that ever happened to me.’
‘Would you rather go to jail?’
‘Would you let them send you home?’
‘Of course I would!’ Major Danby declared with conviction. ‘Certainly I would,’ he added a few moments later, in a less positive manner. ‘Yes, I suppose I would let them send me home if I were in your place,’ he decided uncomfortably, after lapsing into troubled contemplation. Then he threw his face sideways disgustedly in a gesture of violent distress and blurted out, ‘Oh, yes, of course I’d let them send me home! But I’m such a terrible coward I couldn’t really be in your place.’
‘But suppose you weren’t a coward?’ Yossarian demanded, studying him closely.
‘Suppose you did have the courage to defy somebody?’
‘Then I wouldn’t let them send me home,’ Major Danby vowed emphatically with vigorous joy and enthusiasm. ‘But I certainly wouldn’t let them court-martial me.’
‘Would you fly more missions?’
‘No, of course not. That would be total capitulation. And I might be killed.’
‘Then you’d run away?’
Major Danby started to retort with proud spirit and came to an abrupt stop, his half-opened jaw swinging closed dumbly. He pursed his lips in a tired pout. ‘I guess there just wouldn’t be any hope for me, then, would there?’
They discuss a few other possible ways to escape the dilemma. In all of the cases, Danby explains why Yossarian's threads of hope won't bear weight. Everyone who could possibly have helped has died or been co-opted.
‘Then there is no hope for us, is there?’
‘No hope at all, is there?’
‘No, no hope at all,’ Major Danby conceded. He looked up after a while with a half-formed notion. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if they could disappear us the way they disappeared the others and relieve us of all these crushing burdens?’
Yossarian said no.
Major Danby agreed with a melancholy nod, lowering his eyes again, and there was no hope at all for either of them....
To me, that's where the book ends. There is a deus ex machina, and an ambiguously hopeful ending that I won't discuss (and I hope that you won't either), but it feels tacked on. To me, though, the key exchange in the book is right there where I think it ends. The academic asks the agitator, wouldn't it be nice to be relieved of the burden of responsibility? The agitator says no. The academic agrees.
I did not choose the name "Major Danby" as my handle because I thought that Danby was a particularly appealing character. Parts of the above dialogue may make clear why that is. I chose the name because I think that his perspective provides a necessary counterweight to the main thrust of the netroots, where everyone (me included) wants to think of themselves as heroic, intrepid Yossarian. But Heller was writing for an audience that he had to know would be predominantly intellectual and academic; I believe that's why Danby is one of the few good characters who is allowed to live through the end of the book, so that his dialogue with Yossarian can illuminate a dialogue progressive intellectuals have within ourselves.
Yossarian's bravado largely comes from his not understanding the situation he's in clearly enough, not understanding just how malicious and twisted the world is. Danby understands that, and understands the perils at hand. He tempers Yossarian's bravado. Yossarian, on the other hand, helps give Danby heart, which he can far too easily lose. The themes described in the excerpts above are some of the main ones with which activists, or decent moral human beings of any stripe, must grapple. The most basic one: how does one act when the other side seems to be holding all of the cards?
At the end, when pressed, Danby accepts that even though the world is an ugly place with the rules stacked against justice, one is not excused from the responsibility to resist to the extent one can. One may be left without hope, but not without responsibility, and it is that moment when he "agreed with a melancholy nod," even before hope returns, that redeems him for me. He is right that Yossarian won't do anyone a bit of good by fighting without a good understanding of the situation, but he understands that his job is to understand the situation and to see where and how resistence is possible. He might think he wants the cup taken from his lips, but in the end he doesn't.
In the progressive activist world, the Danbys of the world routinely get accused by the would-be Yossarians -- often armchair Yossarians who rarely have to decide whether to suffer a significant cost to achieve a small (and perhaps even illusory) benefit -- of being cowardly and weak, of lacking balls. Generally, this is a load of crap: re-read the above passages and ask yourself where having gonads the size of coconuts would make a damn bit of difference. (While I named myself after Danby, in my life I'm at least as much Yossarian-aspirant, so this criticism applies to me as much as anyone else.)
It's easy -- so easy, especially from an armchair -- to talk about how all we need to do to win is fight harder and the people will rush to our side and the walls of Jericho will fall. The battlefields of progressive history are littered with the bodies of people who believed that -- and who were readily dispatched by the likes of Cathcart, Korn, Aarfy and Milo -- without doing a lick of real good in the world. But on those battlefields of times past also lie the honored progressive dead, who believed that the fight could be won -- and were right.
Worker's rights, civil rights, economic and environmental justice, peace -- there are things worth fighting and dying for. But one ought to want to know if one really is likely to have an effect on the world -- in fostering change in society or even simply in other people's hearts -- in making (or calling for) such sacrifice. No life, not even one's own, is to be sacrificed casually, and all the less so stupidly. And so Danby prodded Yossarian to figure out whether his sacrifice was likely to be justified on instrumental grounds, before ultimately agreeing that in this case it would be justified even if it did no good.
We are almost all Yossarians here on one issue or another -- me included -- and to be effective activists we have to be prepared to let the Danbys of the world challenge us and give us pause. By "Danbys," I don't mean me specifically -- or necessarily at all; like anyone else, I should be judged by the quality of whatever claims I make about the world. I mean those who challenge us, who stick an oar in the water to insert some turbulence into the flow that otherwise brings us too quiclly to a result that may not stand scrutiny. Some argue that the netroots is strongest and most powerful when it allows for a blogswarm, a hive mind in which no one gets in the way of the charge upon pain of ridicule. (To me, this belief seems to be most predominant among those who fancy themselves able to direct the swarm to where they believe it should go.) There are times when I'd agree. But more often, the Yossarians and wannabe Yossarians among us need to be tempered with a serious measure of Danbian doubt.
We will never run out of Yossarian-style sentiments in the netroots. But because of the machismo that helps fuel activism, and especially because one's endorsing the strongest action rarely gets far enough along to get swatted down by grim reality, it's easy for people to criticize the caution of a Danby. (And it's too easy as well for a Danby to dismiss a Yossarian as not thinking things through; were I part of a blog dominated by DLC or even DCCC thinking, I would probably have chosen the name "Yossarian.") We need both "guts and brains" -- among us and within each of us -- but it is the Danby within us that seemed to me to be more endangered here back in September of 2005.
And that is why, when I ventured into the netroots, I chose "Major Danby" as my name.