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February 2010
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The Catcher AND the Rye

JD Salinger (author of the Catcher and the Rye)

The recently reported deaths of two post-modern heroes of our time, left me contemplating not only the diversity in their respective character makeup, but also the remarkable size of the contributions they made and the legacies they have left behind.

The Catcher…

The first of the two figures in question was J.D.Salinger, well known author of: "The Catcher in the Rye", which struck a worldwide chord with the young, by dealing with complex issues of identity, belonging, connection, and alienation.

Despite being listed as one of the best novels of the 20th century, it indirectly found itself in the centre of a series of censorship and morality controversies and between 1961 and 1980, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries across the US.

During this time, a number of legal challenges were brought by individuals or groups seeking to ban or further censor the book, based on a variety of moral objections. Ironically (and inevitably), these actions only served to increase sales of the book and when reports began to emerge that some of the plaintiffs had not actually read the book themselves, credibility faltered and the cases were dropped.

The book’s fame also had a dark side; Mark David Chapman’s shooting of John Lennon, John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and other murders have also been associated with the novel and 60 years on, the book is remembered as much for it’s controversial history as for it’s story.

Soon after its publication, Salinger became disillusioned with the publishing industry and in 1953 he bought a house at Cornish, New Hampshire and became a recluse for the rest of his life. He died of natural causes on the 27th January 2010, aged 91.

References to The Catcher in the Rye in media and popular culture are numerous and the book continues to be regarded as iconic by many. It’s influences are apparent in films and music and a number of contemporary figures still cite the book as an important influence.

But perhaps it’s most important legacy is that it forced us to examine our own ideas about where the line between freedom of expression and censorship should be drawn. Something that we all need to do now and again…

Charlie Wilson (US Congressman for Texas)

…and the Rye (on the rocks)

The second figure is almost Salinger’s alter-ego; retired US Congressman Charlie Wilson. Wilson is best known for leading Congress into supporting Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever CIA covert operation, which supplied military equipment, including Stinger missiles, to the Afghan Mujaheddin during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

A colourful and charming character by any standards, Wilson’s early history in the US navy where he received the second highest number of demerit points in history, was to set the tone for the rest of his high-profile, gregarious party lifestyle. Occasionally this lifestyle courted public controversy with a number of accusations of cocaine use and a hit and run charge, none of which resulted in conviction.

As the Congressional representative of the 2nd Texas district, a place that Wilson said “didn’t want anything more than lower taxes and no gun laws”, he was well placed to: “say yes” as he put it. This allowed him to bargain a large number of political favours for causes he believed were especially important.

For 12 years, Wilson made his reputation in the Texas legislature as the “liberal from Lufkin”. He battled for the regulation of utilities, fought for Medicaid, tax exemptions for the elderly, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a minimum wage bill. He was also one of the few prominent Texas politicians to be pro-choice.

His most momentous contribution began in 1980 when after reading an Associated Press dispatch on the congressional wires describing the refugees fleeing Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, Wilson used his authority as a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, to double the CIA budget for covert operations in the region.

This and other funding increases he approved, led CIA officer Gust Avrakotos to directly approach Wilson (breaking the CIA’s policy against lobbying Congress for money) to ask Wilson for $50 million more. Wilson agreed and convinced Congress, by saying:-

“The U.S. had nothing whatsoever to do with these people’s decision to fight … but we’ll be damned by history if we let them fight with stones.”

Charlie Wilson’s relationship with Joanne Herring, a Houston socialite, political activist and successful businesswoman was to play a significant role in helping the Afghan resistance fighters get support and military equipment from the U.S. government. She persuaded Wilson to meet the Pakistani leadership, and after meeting with them he was taken to a major Pakistan-based Afghan refugee camp so he could see for himself the atrocities committed by the Soviets against the Afghan people.

About that visit, Wilson later said:

“the experience that will always be seared in my memory, was going through those hospitals and seeing, especially those children with their hands blown off from the mines that the Soviets were dropping from their helicopters. That was perhaps the deciding thing… and it made a huge difference for the next 10 or 12 years of my life because I left those hospitals determined, as long as I had a breath in my body and was a member in Congress, that I was going to do what I could to make the Soviets pay for what they were doing!”

Wilson’s efforts were a major contribution to the turning of the war in favour of the Afghans and the complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. For his efforts, Wilson was presented with the Honored Colleague Award by the CIA and he became the first civilian to receive the award.

But as public interest declined, Wilson found it increasingly difficult to convince the US Congress of the need to rebuild the Afghan infrastructure. The resulting reduction in funding led to a civil war in which the victors were largely the more hardline Islamic fundamentalists, including the Taliban. Of this situation, Wilson said:

“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame”

Wilson retired from Congress in 1997 and died from a heart attack on the 10th of February 2010, aged 76.

Wilson’s contribution to the current global situation is as obvious as it is huge. Without Wilson, the Soviets may have rolled through Afghanistan all the way to the Persian gulf. If his advice about funding the post-Soviet Afghan economy had been heeded, the Taliban and Al Quaeda may never have become more than a political sideshow and the twin towers might still be standing.

History has cycles and our ignorance keeps those cycles turning. Every time we don’t learn the lessons of history, we have to stay after class for a repeat performance. If there is a lesson to be learned from Charlie it is this; Take a stand and make a choice…but see it to it’s proper end.

Thanks’ be to you both…

oh…and Lord?

Please buy them both a drink…

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3 Comments for: The Catcher AND the Rye

  1. Visitor Comment # 1
    Steve Butler : (Visitor)

    A good article and a nice obituary for both people.

    I never knew about Charlie Wilson – I’ll have to look it up.

  2. Visitor Comment # 2
    Robert : (Visitor)


  3. Visitor Comment # 3
    Fendi Baguette : (Visitor)

    I have to say, every time I come to there is another interesting post to read. One of my friends was talking to me about this topic several weeks ago. I think I will e-mail them the url here and see what they say.

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