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Maureen Farrell on Sinclair Lewis


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Here's something that ought to make folks ponder a bit:

 

Can It Happen Here?

 

by Maureen Farrell

 

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis penned the cautionary tale, It Can’t Happen Here, chronicling the fictional rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who becomes President against the protests of Franklin D. Roosevelt and America’s saner citizens.

 

A charismatic Senator who claims to champion the common man, Windrip is in the pocket of big business (i.e. Corpos), is favored by religious extremists, and though he talks of freedom and prosperity for all, he eventually becomes the ultimate crony capitalist. Boosted by Hearst newspapers (the FOX News of its day), he neuters both Congress and the Supreme Court, before stripping people of their liberties and installing a fascist dictatorship.

 

One might argue, of course, that since It Can’t Happen Here was written nearly seven decades ago and America has yet to succumb to fascism, the book is the product of a novelist's runaway imagination, with an interesting yet less than probable theme. But then again, the same might have been said of George Orwell's 1984, before most realized that the book is brilliantly prescient -- and merely off by a couple decades.

 

Like 1984's warnings about perpetual war, doublespeak and Big Brother, It Can’t Happen Here describes conditions for totalitarianism that exist to this day. There is the usual ignorance and apathy ("most of the easy-going descendants of the wise-cracking Benjamin Franklin had not learned that Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ meant anything more than a high school yell or a cigarette slogan."); blind faith in American exceptionalism ("Everyone, including Doremus Jessup, had said in 1935, "If there ever is a Fascist dictatorship here, American humor and pioneer independence are so marked that it will be absolutely different from anything in Europe. . .All that was gone, within a year after the inauguration, and surprised scientists discovered that whips and handcuffs hurt just as sorely in the clear American air as in miasmic fogs of Prussia."); and a sense of the surreal ("It’s not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply could not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus – even now.").

 

During last spring’s Dixie Chick fiasco, columnist Paul Krugman drew parallels between Sinclair Lewis’ book burnings and modern CD smashings. "One of the most striking [vehement pro-war rallies] took place after Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, criticized President Bush; a crowd gathered in Louisiana to watch a 33,000-pound tractor smash a collection of Dixie Chicks CD's, tapes and other paraphernalia," Krugman explained. "To those familiar with 20th-century European history it seemed eerily reminiscent of. . . . But as Sinclair Lewis said, it can't happen here."

 

And certainly, the hatred towards treasonous "anti-Buzz" factions could readily be applied to those who believe being "anti-Bush" is somehow anti-American. "Antibuzz. . . was to be used extensively by lady patriots as a term expressing such vicious disloyalty to the State as might call for a firing squad." Lewis wrote. "Today, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of a Democrat's manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief," Zell Miller ranted -- though in saner times, a "manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief" was called a "presidential election."

 

(For more on Mr. Miller and American fascism, Google "Zell Miller, Dominionists".)

 

And though It Can’t Happen Here is out of print, and surprisingly hard to find, selected quotes remind us that despite its 1935 publication date and antiquated references, the book remains far too relevant:

• "The D.A.R. [Daughters of the American Revolution]. . . is composed of females who spend one half their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely the principles for which such ancestors struggled." – page 5

• "Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going." – page 20

• "Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles, ‘Liberty measles?’And wartime censorship of honest papers?. . . Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?" -- page 21

• "[T]he Saturday Evening Post enraged the small shopkeepers by calling Windrip a demagogue, and the New York Times, once Independent Democrat, was anti-Windrip. But most of the religious periodicals announced that with a saint like Bishop Prang for backer, Windrip must have been called of God." -- page 96

• "For the first time in America, except during the Civil War and the World War, people were afraid to say whatever came to their tongues." – page 263

• "December tenth was the birthday of Berzelius Windrip, though in his earlier days as a politician, before he fruitfully realized that lies sometimes get printed and unjustly remembered against you, he had been wont to tell the world that his birthday was on December twenty-fifth, like one whom he admitted to be an even greater leader. . ." - page 260

• "The newspapers everywhere might no longer be so wishily-washily liberal as to print the opinions of non-Corpos; they might give but little news from those old-fashioned and democratic countries, Great Britain, France and the Scandinavian states, might indeed print almost no foreign news, except as regards the triumph of Italy giving Ethiopia good roads, trains on time, freedom from beggars and from men of honor, and all the other spiritual benefactions of Roman civilization." -- Page 342

• "But he saw now that he must remain alone, a "Liberal" scorned by all the nosier prophets for refusing to be a willing cat for the busy monkeys of either side. . . 'More and more, as I think about history,' he pondered, 'I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world had been accomplished by the free inquiring critical spirit and the that preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.'" – page 433

 

America is haunted by past sins, to be sure, and Sinclair Lewis craftily presents a series of them as a primer for what the "land of the free" is capable of. "Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical—yes, or more obsequious!—than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana. . . Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio—divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding’s appointees?. . . Remember the Kuklux Klan?. . . Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares. . .and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children?. . .Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they MIGHT be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in AMERICA! Where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!"

 

Yes, the mindset that allowed for slavery and lynchings and the Scopes monkey trial still produces an unsettling undercurrent, while radioland demagoguery, crooked Presidential appointees and dishonest and prejudicial Carolina political smears are hardly things of the past.

 

Meanwhile, like "the hick legislators" Lewis described nearly 70 years ago, the President of the United States advocates teaching Creationism in public schools and putting the kibosh on real science. Just as President Windrip told people he was born on Christmas "like one whom he admitted to be an even greater leader," George Bush dubbed Jesus Christ his favorite philosopher. And while all of Lewis' "Corpo Universities were to have the same curriculum," Mrs. Dick Cheney and stealth Bush appointee Daniel Pipes actually made "lists" of academics straying from acceptable parameters of thought.

 

And it was just three short years ago, you might recall, that voting one's conscience, speaking one's mind or criticizing G.W. Bush (regardless how truthful and pointed the criticism), was enough to get a person fired or bombarded with death threats.

 

At the start of our recent weirdness, Dave Weissbard, of the Universalist Unitarian Church in Rockville, IL studied It Can't Happen Here alongside They Thought They Were Free (Milton Mayer's nonfiction account of Germans' perceptions during the Third Reich's reign) and related the themes to contemporary America.

 

"Sinclair Lewis used racism and jealousy of privilege as his motivators for the election of a demagogue. I believe it takes more," he said. "It takes a patriotic frenzy constructed on fear and on feelings of superiority. That’s why I have combined Lewis' novel with Mayer’s nonfictional analysis of the coming of dictatorship. The combination of those two with the current news causes me some terror."

 

Chronicling a now familiar list of liberties surrendered and endangered, along with increased government secrecy and belligerent nationalism, Weissbard concluded: "The problem, of course, is not in Washington in the hands of two or three. The problem is in America where there are people who are frightened and who have a loose commitment to our freedoms."

 

And so it goes.

 

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times ran an Op-ed entitled, "Americans in danger are vulnerable to dictatorship," describing the frighteningly simple conventional wisdom the country now seems to embrace. "The 'man on horseback' mentality, the belief that a leader's strength is more important than where it leads them, defines a population that is vulnerable to dictatorship," Martin Dyckman wrote, before adding (else someone jump down his throat) a disclaimer. "This is not to call Bush a dictator or suggest that he wants to be one." (Never mind Bush's thrice-repeated joke about wishing it were so).

 

"But let no one believe that it couldn't happen here, as has happened so often elsewhere," Dyckman concluded, echoing Lewis' ageless theme.

 

Of course, now that two wars and two Presidential campaigns are underway, attention has been diverted. But the unease that rippled from post-9/11 aftershocks continues. It's just different now. Somehow.

 

"Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows," one of Mayor's subjects confided. "You speak privately to you colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, "It's not so bad" or "You're seeing things" or "You're an alarmist."

 

And it's not so bad. For the moment. Or at least until after the election and the return of the draft or until after the next major attack and the triumph of fear over liberty. After all, mainstream papers are free to discuss Americans' vulnerability to dictatorship, while citizens are still permitted to read 70-year-old novels describing conditions that are eerily familiar.

 

But, still. . .

 

"Thus had things gone in Germany, exactly thus in Soviet Russia, in Italy and Hungary and Poland, Spain and Cuba and Japan and China. Not very different had it been under the blessings of liberty and fraternity in the French Revolution. All dictators followed the same routine of torture, as if they had all read the same manual of sadistic etiquette," Lewis wrote, long before anyone heard of Abu Ghraib.

 

Could it happen here? Looking at the past four years, from the bizarre election to the shadow government to secret detentions and pre-planned wars, doesn't it seem naive to think we're immune?

 

 

Maureen Farrell is a writer and media consultant who specializes in helping other writers get television and radio exposure.

 

© Copyright 2004, Maureen Farrell

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