Not a Book Review: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

“I think I’ll indulge in the luxury of being independent, for once, and vote Prohibition or the Battle Creek bran-and-spinach ticket, or anything that makes some sense!”

Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is an alternative history novel about fascism coming to the United States of America. It’s not so much prescience. The book was written in 1935 as the Nazis were ratcheting up their good works in Germany, and a lot of the story was more or less a direct transfer of Nazi tactics to a North American sensibility. But there are some fascinating parallels, not with 1930s Germany, but with the 2016 US Presidential Election, particularly in the early chapters, before the election of Senator Benzedrine “Buzz” Windrip [sic]. No, it’s not prescience. These are timeless Americanisms. Almost a century later, politics in America has gotten better, has gotten worse, has stayed exactly the same.

Trump supporters aren’t called the League of Forgotten Men but they could just as easily have been. There isn’t a Reverend Paul Peter Prang, whose “weekly radio address … was to millions the very oracle of God”; there are dozens of them, though there certainly have been competitors for the title of Lee Sarason. And men, it seems, have never stopped paying lip service to “draining the swamp”.

“[E]ven if our Buzzy maybe has got a few faults, he’s on the side of the plain people, and against all the tight old political machines …”

Windrip was a clown, a liar, and a charlatan, “ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing … in front of a microphone.” He was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. … [He] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts–figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

When approached by supplicants vis a vis the moral defense/condemnation of a burlesque show, he “called the clergymen “Doctor” or “Brother” or both; he called the promoters “Buddy” and “Pal”; he gave equally ringing promises to both; and for both he loyally did nothing whatever.” Similarly, “it was known that, though he drank a lot, Senator Windrip also praised teetotalism a lot, while his rival, Walt Trowbridge, though he drank but little, said nothing at all in support of the Messiahs of Prohibition.”

So, at the tragic end of the tragic day, the people saw in him, “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the crippled and senile capitalistic system.”

Coincidentally, Windrip is a Democrat, but then so was Trump once. In the end, it makes no difference. America is a two-party country, both of them for the rich, and the poor are just pawns kicked around the chess board.

Windrip’s opponent in the presidential election, Walter Trowbridge, “quietly, steadfastly, speaking on the radio and in a few great halls, explained that he did advocate an enormously improved distribution of wealth, but that it must be achieved by steady digging and not by dynamite that would destroy more than it excavated.” Windrip flatly promises $5000 to every “real American family”.

As Lewis writes, the “conspicuous fault of [the opposition] was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for … all the primitive emotions they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” It didn’t matter that “one tenth of 1 per cent of the population at the top have an aggregate income equal to 42 per cent at the bottom. Figures like that are too astronomical. Don’t mean a thing in the world to a fellow with his eyes–and nose–down in a transmission box …”

It’s an obvious observation (though not obvious enough for the country to have done anything about it) which Lewis puts keenly when he writes that “Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still left fermenting in the stomach … No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to”. At another spot, he adds that “Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy–oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another.” Of course this is also where life outstrips the greatest imagination. Who did 2016 America elect to defend this “justified discontent” but the plushest of the Plush Horses!

Dark times follow, which we are not here to discuss. A good history book of Nazi Germany will suffice. Instead, Lewis offers up a prayer for all of us:

Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all doubters must be liquidated–tortured–slaughtered!

With respect to this, Trump’s America is both better and worse. Trump has not built an overt state-run terror machine to violently suppress minorities, the press and political opponents, but that is not to say that every one of these groups has been terrorised in myriad ways more insidious and thereby more difficult to combat and resist.

Lewis astutely observes that “the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

But the book does end, there is an ‘end’ to the trials of Doremus Jessup–yes, he’s the hero of the story, the editor of a small local paper called The Informer, and sure it’s quite a late introduction for the main character, but this is not a book review so what does it matter, here he is anyway–and approaching the final chapters, I couldn’t help being nervous about the potential resolution. Was everyone going to die? Does he love Big Brother? Part of me wished for a happy ending but as Lewis himself reminds us (referencing Romain Rolland), “a country that tolerates evil means–evil manners, standards of ethics–for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” How does a country recover from totalitarianism?

Let’s not forget that It can’t Happen Here was written and published in 1935, before the outbreak of the second World War, nor had a world war precipitated in the book by the time the story ends in 1939. But yes, spoilers ahead, I’m going to tell you how it ends. Like I said, there is no easy road away from totalitarianism. The dictator Windrip is deposed by his second-in-command Sarason, who is soon after removed by the Secretary of War and head of the military Colonel Dewey Haik, and things, which up until that point had been atrocious and irredeemable, get even worse. War is declared on Mexico, less for any substantial reason than in the hopes of uniting the country against an outside enemy. Fortunately, the move backfires and instead plunges the country into civil war, which, very soon thereafter, in one final dig at America and perhaps highlighting the root cause of all the aforementioned and -quoted evils, “halted, because in the America which had so warmly praised itself for its “widespread popular free education,” there had been so very little education; widespread, popular, free, or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted–indeed knew about so few things to want at all.”



ICTY: Mladic guilty of genocide

Don’t think humans can’t do such things. And it wasn’t just the Nazis. This happened in our lifetime. We watched it on television while eating our Sunday roasts. We went to school, got haircuts, played soccer in the park while these people suffered and died. This isn’t history. This is today. Go to Sarajevo, learn about the war, the murders, the genocide. It can happen again. Unfortunately, it likely will.


BBC: Mladic jailed for life for Bosnia war genocide
Guardian: Ratko Mladic convicted of war crimes and genocide at UN tribunal

Anthropogenic Evolution

Another day, another article highlighting studies into the differences between the brains of conservatives and liberals. Read for yourself but there seems to be good evidence that differences in political orientation is specific, marked, and more than casually influenced by our genes.[1] Add to this the increasing isolation, both intellectual and in real geographic terms, between conservatives and liberals, plus the revelation that politics[2] are causing people to walk out on dates, relationships (including friendships) and marriages,[3][4] and we have the prerequisite conditions for our next evolutionary stumble.

We stand at a fork in the road of humanity, where in the future two species may stand where today only one. Think H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And just like the Eloi and the Morlocks, our evolution will be decidedly anthropogenic. We are the creators of the conditions to which we now need to adapt. And not only that, but the diverging paths that we have chosen we have chosen for ourselves.

And so only one question remains: Who will be the small, effete surface-dwellers, and who the toiling, subterranean primitives?


[1] The Atlantic: Can your genes predict whether you’ll be a conservative or a liberal?; Slate: Why are conservatives more susceptible to believing lies?
[2] Specifically, in the US, the question of whether someone is a Trump supporter, as the perfect crystallisation of their political and social views.
[3] Like all the best revelations, it surprises nobody yet nevertheless changes everything.[4] Politico: How Donald Trump changed the dating world; Harper’s Bazaar: If you are married to a Trump supporter, divorce them

BBC: Why cake mix lacks one essential ingredient

This is fascinating. So people were too busy/lazy/other to bake at home and flour companies were worried, so they invented ready cake mix. But people didn’t like ready cake mix because it was too easy. Supposedly a cake should be something that ‘comes from the heart … a love poem, an act of faith’, something just adding water and pushing into a not-quite-yet pre-heated oven failed to satisfy. So, after talking to some experts and conducting some surveys, the manufacturers decide to leave out the eggs. Now people had to crack and whisk the eggs themselves. This, astoundingly, was enough to provide the necessary emotional connection. People felt vindicated. It’s like the Matrix.

There, between adding water to ready cake mix and adding water and eggs to ready cake mix, in that sliver of distinction, that’s where you’ll find our humanity.

Read the article, here.


A House Built on Biblical Sand

It’s true: the God of the Old Testament, the Abrahamic God, Yahweh, Allah, one third of the indivisible Christian Trinity, has always preferred his women young and virginal, has always sought the ruthless destruction of his enemies, and has always punished disobedience in his own followers without mercy or remorse. He is a vengeful, jealous, unforgiving god. So has He always been. Amen.

For centuries now (dare I say for over six  millennia) many among his faithful followers and cowed adherents have struggled with the ugly humanity central to many of the best-known Bible stories: the intolerance and hate, the violence and murder, the rape and incest–the whole, pervasive, foundational bigotry of God’s message.[1] For the most part they have chosen to ignore the unpalatable aspects, to focus instead on the more positive teachings in the New Testament (though similarly and conveniently ignoring the messages they dislike[2]). But this position was always unstable, one could say like a house built on biblical sand, a house that must, sooner or later, collapse.

And now, finally, Christians are being forced to reconcile their beliefs–finally to choose between the justifications for murder and rape and genocide in the Bible, and rejecting the bigotry, violence and harmful posturing of a primitive people. They choose the Bible.


[1] Not to mention the inconsistencies.
[2] Admonishments against greed, for example, or teachings on compassion.

Read: All the Appalling Ways Republicans are Defending Roy Moore


Vox: America is facing an epistemic crisis

If I wanted to sound trite, I could say there are two types of people in the world: those who understand epistemology, and those who don’t care.

Growing up, I was always taught not to argue with stupid people. But what no one ever taught me was what I’m supposed to do instead, if you have to live with them, work with them, be governed by them, as we all invariably do.

It’s like back in school when the class bully calls you a stupid, nasty name, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Ignore them, get angry, even defend yourself with fisticuffs, the damage is still done. Now the bully is in the Oval Office and the Boardroom, and they’re your neighbours and your family, and the schoolyard is everywhere.

Have you ever had an argument with a friend where one person says what is true, and the other person says what they want, and you both carry on and on and talk at cross-purposes until you’re both blue in the face and neither of you are any closer to understanding?

This article is a brilliantly depressing analysis of all these things in the context of America’s current political climate, which can only be described, meteorologically, as a shitstorm, and specifically the question: What if Special Counsel Mueller proves Trump’s wrongdoing, and we just can’t do anything about it?

Some highlights:

“It is quite simply impossible for most people to imagine believing all the things that would be required to also believe that DC Democrats are into organized child trafficking. … And yet millions of Americans fervently believe these things.”

“Mainstream scientists and journalists see themselves as … neutral arbiters, even if they do not always uphold that ideal in practice. … But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right. … They are prosecuting its interests; that is the ur-goal. … That mindset leads to what I call “tribal epistemology” — the systematic conflation of what is true with what is good for the tribe.”

“[The reason] why Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are leaving the Senate [is that t]hey no longer have any control over what their constituents believe or want, and their constituents believe and want increasingly ugly things.”

“There is no longer any settling such arguments. The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy … If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done. Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above.”

I highly recommend you read the article in full, here. And the best thing is, this commentator doesn’t seem inordinately beholden to that soporific, all-too-human need for ‘hope’–he’s not afraid of turning over the bodies.


If You’re Not Part of the Problem

It used to be said: “If you’re not part of the SOLUTION, you’re part of the PROBLEM.”

But the tide of recent history, culminating with (but by no means limited to) the election of Trump to the US presidency,[1] has changed all that. Don’t think this was a sudden change; all manner of groups have been trying this for decades. Voltaire wrote in the eighteenth century that it is dangerous to be right when those in power are wrong. Now in countries all across the world, in Russia, in China, in America, in America(!), those in power have finally succeeded in making the human rights activists, the environmentalists, and all those who fight for real freedom and fairness, into the enemy.

So, it used to be said: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Now we say: “If you’re not part of the PROBLEM, you’re part of the SYSTEM.”


[1] Which until the moment Trump entered the Oval Office, despite not innumerable attacks from within and an almost congenital degeneracy, still stood as the pinnacle of our modern, western democracy. Thinking of Trump and the symbolism of the presidency reminds me of Groucho Marx’s comment that “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” I can’t help feel a little sorry for Trump that he is the only person who can never get the irony.


They–the pop psychologists and others–say that we hate in others only what we don’t suffer ourselves.[1] A classic example: the fitness instructor who hates laziness. But I have another theory. What if they’re the only ones who can see it? As I’m constantly declaring to anyone who’ll listen and others who won’t, no one can see their own limits–in this case, their faults. It’s simple, biological self-protection. No one wants to live with constant reminders of their failings. Moreover, no one can. Someone who repeatedly makes the same mistake, reminded of it enough times, will despise the complainant and deny the mistake. So maybe it’s not that the fitness instructor hates laziness because she is in no danger of suffering it. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t suffer from it that her eyes are open and she can see it in others.


[1] I write here not of the people who attack in others specifically what they suffer from themselves.[2] I can only they get what they deserve one day, publicly and without mercy.
[2] Though the basis is the same: they also do not see their own faults.

Against Nationalism

Against nationalism, saluting the flag, pledging allegiance, rising for the national anthem, and all blind obedience to authority for all people in all countries.

Today in the news, it’s Egypt, USA, and Germany.


One week to German election

The AfD party is polling at over 10%. Sure that’s not 46.4% but it’s still horrifying. In a country of over 80 million people, we’re talking more than 8 million Germans who are planning to vote for this unashamedly nationalist and violently anti-foreigner party. And of course the 10% aren’t evenly distributed across the country, meaning there are likely areas, maybe even whole towns, where voting AfD is unexceptional. Unexceptional!