Tag: literature

Joseph Heller in the Pages of Inquiry

Fifty years ago, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, giving us a new idiom and forging a new perspective on the business of war. While other novels—such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front—stripped warfare of its romance, Catch-22 exposed it as just another form of the fundamental absurdity of bureaucracy. Writes Walter Kirn in Slate:

Then, that fall, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 appeared, abruptly downgrading war’s special status as an existential crucible and also, unwittingly, beginning the process of rendering four-star male novelists irrelevant. The book treats war on a par with business or politics (to Heller they were very much the same), portraying it as a system for alienating people from their own interests and estranging them from their instincts. Protocol replaces principle, figures plucked from thin air supplant hard facts, and reason becomes rigamarole. Heller’s island airbase of freaked-out aviators oppressed by cuckoo officers is the ding-a-ling civilian world in microcosm, not an infernal, tragic realm apart. The men who can feel aren’t agonized, they’re addled. The ones who can’t feel (and therefore give the orders) are permanently, structurally annoyed. The naked and the dead are here but invisible to the beribboned and the daft.

In 1979, shortly after the release of Good as Gold, Charlie Reilly interviewed Heller for Inquiry magazine, then published by the Cato Institute. They discussed the new novel and its narrative structure, Heller’s humorist techniques, and how Heller deals in his writing with terrible, real-world events.

Q: Another thing that interested me was the effect that writing about the Vietnam War had upon you. It seemed apparent in Something Happened that you felt a sense of moral outrage over our role in the war, and in this one Gold seems to boil in rage at some aspect of it. Was it difficult to write about an issue that is so enraging and draining?

HELLER: No, and this is true of Catch-22 as well. When I’m writing, I am only interested in writing. Now when I’m not writing, I confess I can hear something that will make me boil over. A phrase that really gets to me, for instance, would be one of those neoconservative references to Vietnam as a national tragedy, but only because we lost. That thought fills me with ire. To begin with, the person who says it is typically untouched by tragedy; like me, he has not lost a son or a job. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.

Read the whole thing here.

A Contrarian Cheer for Twombly

My new article, Procedure’s Ambiguity (now up on SSRN and also available here) is a rare bird in the world legal scholarship: it defends the Supreme Court’s much-reviled pleading decisions, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal.

It is, in fact, a rare bird even in the small world of articles defending Twombly and Iqbal. Others claim these cases, by directing lower courts to dismiss implausible claims, will deter frivolous suits, save judicial resources, and the like. I find these defenses, while plausible, too speculative and take a very different tack–one that builds on the growing literature on so-called “pluralist” approaches to interpretation. Judicial pluralists favor interpreting ambiguous statutes in ways that mimic approaches to which interest groups would, hypothetically, agree. And Twombly and Iqbal, I argue, are cases after judicial pluralists’ own hearts: They reflect a fair compromise—one, I argue, that mimics the bargain different groups with a stake in procedural rulemaking would, if given the chance, reach among themselves.

Winters’ Content Standards — Can they Work?

Marcus Winters offers a clever new national standards proposal in the current Education Week: reward states whose students do well on their own standards _and_ whose standards prove challenging to students from other states. Winters suggests administering each state’s standardized tests to random, nationally representative samples of students to determine how challenging they are. The federal government would then give the greatest amount of funding to states whose students perform well on tests that prove challenging to kids around the country.

This system would be gamed. The way to “win” would be to develop highly detailed, easy, obscure standards. Literature would consist of detailed analysis of the early works of Nathanial Hawthorne, math would focus on theorems not normally covered but not overly challenging, history would focus on seldom-told tales of the host state or the nation or world. The host state would then teach intensely to these specialized standards, knowing that its own students could master them and students in other states – receiving a completely different curriculum – would perform poorly. It would be neither a “race to the top” nor a “race to the bottom,” but rather a “race to the trivial.”

This proposal also suffers the same problem that a single set of national standards would suffer: it would force all students of a given age to march through their state’s curriculum at the same pace, denying the obvious reality that kids of the same age learn the various subjects at different paces. Shackling them together into a scholastic chain-gang is not sound pedagogy.

What is encouraging about this proposal, though, is that it attempts to marshal both competition and incentives in pursuit of improved performance. Clearly, it’s on the right track. But why reinvent the wheel? We already HAVE a system that has proven, over centuries, to be able to effectively combine competition, freedom, and incentives in pursuit of innovation and excellence: the free enterprise system.

School systems organized along free market lines dramatically outperform all others – especially those which are most closely overseen, and run, by the state. We just need to figure out how to bring a free and competitive education marketplace within reach of all students.

Soaring Sales for “Road to Serfdom”

Cato’s new staff writer, Aaron Powell, told me he had recently seen two people on the Washington Metro reading The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek. That prompted me to check the sales figures for Road to Serfdom at Nielsen’s Bookscan. And whattaya know? Sales have increased this year at an even faster pace than sales of Atlas Shrugged. (Atlas sells 10 times as many copies, but the percentage increase over last year is less.)

So far this year the most popular edition of Road to Serfdom has sold 11,000 copies. That compares with 3,000 copies at the same point last year. That’s a 263 percent increase for those of you keeping score at home.

Why? Well, no doubt huge new government spending programs and attempts to massively expand the welfare state send people looking for classic literature that makes the case for liberty and limited government. But what the Marxists call the “objective conditions” can always use a bit of help. And indeed, just as I found in investigating the sales bump for Atlas Shrugged, it looks like an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was instrumental in boosting the sales of The Road to Serfdom.

On February 4, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now chairman of Freedomworks, published an op-ed in the Journal titled “Washington Could Use Less Keynes and More Hayek.” Sales of Road to Serfdom, which were in the low hundreds each week since the beginning of 2009, more than doubled over the next four weeks. It seems likely that Armey’s op-ed caused the new interest.

Armey didn’t actually mention The Road to Serfdom – he just talked about Hayek and his ideas generally – but when you go looking for Hayek, you’re going to find his most popular book. So maybe we could attribute the sales bump instead to David Henderson’s review of The Road to Serfdom – titled “Still Relevant–Perhaps More So” – in the Spring issue of Regulation. But the Wall Street Journal does have a larger circulation.

Update: This item has been edited to remove proprietary information.