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.”

-BeLessHuman

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Washington Post: Florida school lets parents buy bulletproof panels for student backpacks

On the school supplies order form at the Florida Christian School in Miami: bullet-resistant panels for inserting in your child’s backpack for $120. Just another tool to help keep your children safe. Like security guards, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, active shooter drills–does anyone even remember when active shooter drills were not the norm at school? No, there’s nothing wrong with the country.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/11/07/florida-school-lets-parents-buy-bulletproof-panels-for-students-to-put-in-backpacks/

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.

-BeLessHuman

The Onion: ‘No way to prevent this’

The tragic irony of humour being the only means remaining of tackling an issue that is not funny, not even a little.

http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-prevent-says-only-nation-where-regularly-ha-57086

The score at fractional-time

To give a final tally of mass shootings in the US would be more my style. (Post-)humans looking back on the present at our (super)human tolerance for killing each other. Instead, here is the score from 2.10.2017: 1516 from 1735. Not a bad conversion rate.

BBC: Why Trump’s supporters will never abandon him

I realise there’s a cultural war going on and you think your side must win at any cost. I understand your motivation though I strongly disagree with your conclusion. So tell me you are a selfish, racist, bigoted, willfully-misinformed asshole and I will concede that you simply have different moral priorities.[1] But stop giving me these bullshit justifications and rationalisations for your views and actions.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41028733

-BeLessHuman

[1] Surprisingly, I have heard not one person admit this.

You’re God damn right I did!

Code Red

“I think he wants to say it. I think he’s pissed off that he’s gotta hide from this. I think he wants to say that he made a command decision and that’s the end of it. He eats breakfast 300 yards away from 4000 Cubans that are trained to kill him. And nobody’s going to tell him how to run his unit least of all the Harvard mouth in his faggoty white uniform.”

-A Few Good Men

Let Trump testify.

Change Everything (or, Warming Up for ‘The Game’)

When Arthur Dent landed on Hawalius, “the planet of oracles and seers and soothsayers” in Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, he found an old fortune teller living in a smelly cave swatting giant flies from dead goat-creatures, who gave him a photocopy of the story of her life with all the major decisions she ever made underlined, and told him to do the exact opposite.

This is my feeling of what it’s like being an American today. We may not think that the way we live, the things we like, and the opinions we hold are bad, each thing taken by itself, from seemingly innocuous indulgences like celebrity YouTubers and pizza delivery to graver issues like education and foreign policy, you may even believe these things are pretty great, but the increasingly unavoidable fact is that everything we do, have done, and continue to do, has brought us to where we are today.

Who can say which thing or things are responsible for what went wrong? No amount of reflection will be able to unravel the tangle of causation. The only thing we can take from it all is that if we are unhappy with how things are, and if we are serious about wanting to change things, we may not need to change everything, but we have to at least be prepared to change everything.

And who can do that? Who can change how they are? Who even wants to? We have a fantasy that civilisations can turn themselves around when they are on the wrong path, when really they move in one direction, and crash, and begin again. People don’t change, they double down.

And so we remain the old lady in the smelly cave swatting giant flies from dead goat-creatures. Because in the end, even a fortune teller cannot prevent herself from becoming what she has become.

-BeLessHuman

NYTimes: Donald Trump: The Gateway Degenerate

Devastating opinion piece. One to file away and return to in 100 years time. Show your grand children. Analyse in history class.

“Republicans, blinded by fear and rage, thirsty for power, desperate for a reclamation and reassertion of racial power, have cast their lot with the great deceiver and all their previous deal-breakers are now negotiable.”

Read the full article here.

-BeLessHuman

Notes on America from James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name

Insights from over 50 years ago cut even deeper today for the fact that we have learnt absolutely nothing.

On anti-intellectualism and the myth of America:
[W]e [as Americans] have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, that myth of America to which we cling so desperately).

On racism and poverty:
Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else.

On the American dream:
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black rose from the slums into the big time. The existence–the public existence–of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort … and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. … Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.

On justifying our crimes:
The world has never lacked for horrifying examples [even if Birmingham is worse, no doubt Johannesburg, South Africa, beats it by several miles, and Buchenwald was one of the worst things that ever happened in the entire history of the world]; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.

More on the myth of America:
This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. … If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.

On education:
It is hard enough, God knows, under the best of circumstances, to get an education in this country. White children are graduated yearly who can neither read, write, nor think, and who are in a state of the most abysmal ignorance concerning the world around them. But at least they are white. They are under the illusion–which, since they are so badly educated, sometimes has a fatal tenacity–that they can do whatever they want to do. Perhaps that is exactly what they are doing, in which case we had best all go down in prayer.

On false nostalgia:
I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.

 

Quotes from Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin, collected on irepeatinmysleep.wordpress.com.