[FoRK] 69 Years Later, Is It Happening Here
jbone at place.org
Sat Nov 6 13:15:08 PST 2004
The article speaks for itself; and if you haven't read the work in
question, you should.
69 Years Later, Is It Happening Here? (Politics)
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Sat Nov 6th, 2004 at 03:12:13 PM EST
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Before 1984, before The Handmaid's Tale, before either the movie or
the book by Stephen King, there was Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen
Lewis' vision of an American descent into Fascism is as fresh and
disturbing today as it was when it was written in 1935. Check out the
full text online, and consider with me the continuing relevance of this
69 year old warning.
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It Can't Happen Here is many things.
Perhaps most obviously today it's a window on a time that is almost
beyond living memory. When Sinclair Lewis wrote this on a manual
typewriter there were no guided missiles, no space travel, no broadcast
television. Radio as a broadcast medium accessible to a large number of
ordinary people was only about ten years old. The automobile hadn't
been around in large numbers much longer than that. The nation was in
the grip of a cruel economic depression, and in an increasingly less
distant Europe the clockspring of war was inexorably winding itself up.
It's also a window on an American culture that is in some ways much
the same today as it was in Lewis' day. In 1930 Lewis became the first
American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his vigorous and
graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and
humour, new types of characters." Lewis is a skilled caricaturist who
throws his characters into sharp relief by exaggerating the tendencies
which set them apart, while keeping them believable. When we meet
reluctantly noble newspaperman Doremus Jessup, shifty ne'er-do-well and
aspiring brownshirt Shad Ledue, amiable but politically canny
politician Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, or shadow-stalking kingmaker Lee
Sarason, they seem instantly and comfortably familiar, and we are drawn
into their story.
But most of all It Can't Happen Here is a warning, a cry of alarm from
one whose powers of observation may have been sharper than most. For 69
years that warning has proven unnecessary, but the conditions which
spurred it have not gone away.
Fascism circa 1935
Before contemplating Lewis' message to us in 2004, it is helpful to
consider what inspired it back in 1935. Lewis wrote from a very
specific point in history, and his influences are well known.
As most of us know, around that time the Italian Fascists and German
Nazis were in ascent. Both dictatorships were consolidating their power
at home, brutally suppressing their perceived internal enemies. Both
states were preparing for wars which would have to be wars of
aggression, since they were under no threat to justify their military
It should be understood that "Fascism" doesn't just mean "building
nasty prison camps and locking your enemies up there," though that is
very often its result. Fascism is technically a merging of Corporate
and State interests into a single monolithic bloc of power, which
becomes (theoretically at least) invincible against either outside
threats or insurrections from within. The many terrible abuses rightly
attributed to Fascism stem from its vast power and lack of scruples in
meeting those perceived threats.
It is also worth noting that in 1935 nobody realized just how whacked
out the Nazis in particular really were. Although Hitler had set out
everything he intended to do in his book Mein Kampf, and although it
was a knockout bestseller which every German seemed to want on his
coffee table to show his dedication to the State, William Shirer
reports that very few people actually read the damn thing in large
measure because it was unbelievably tedious and boring. So Lewis knew
of concentration camps and rumors of war, but he did not know of the
droning implacable thoroughness of the Final Solution, of the death
camps, of the innovative new uses of technologies like Zyklon-B. He did
not know of the thoroughly insane military overreaching which would
doom the Thousand Year Reich to a cold, soggy end in the fields of
Lewis was not trying to warn us about becoming the Europe of 1944; he
was trying to warn us about becoming the Europe of 1935, which was not
quite the same thing at all. Lewis' model for the American dictator did
not come from Europe; it came from Louisiana.
Louisiana governor Huey Long was Lewis' model for Berzelius Windrip,
and radio personality Father Coughlin was the model for Lewis' Bishop
Prang. I live in Louisiana, and I can report that even a century after
his assassination in 1936 there are people who utter Long's name in the
reverent tones reserved for such others as Jonas Salk and Franklin
Delano Roosevelt -- just as, in most other places, those who know of
him consider a rattlesnake whose assassination was fortunate indeed.
Long's formula was a little different than the Continental Fascists;
he appealed to the common man with promises of "a chicken in every pot"
without bothering to explain how this would be paid for. Long was a
sharp politician who kept smart people behind him to work out the
details, while he came across as an "ordinary guy" to the voter on the
And on the radio, Father Coughlin was the untiring voice that pounded
a very similar message home. It's the Communists, it's the Jews, it's
the international financiers (who are mostly Jewish), who are the cause
of your troubles. Your government could provide for you if they weren't
interfering. It's the jackals who support them, some of whom might be
concentrated in some conveniently invadable country.
The fictional Prang's nationally broadcast radio diatribes echo eerily
in the modern bellowing of folks like Pat Robertson, Bill O'Reilly, and
Huey Long's career came to an end in a hail of bullets in 1936, and
Coughlin was forced off the air and into obscurity when America entered
World War II. Lewis' warning lost some of its immediate punch, but some
things never change.
Parallels in 2004
Lewis writes of the fictional Berzelius Windrip,
He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the
stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl
arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a
gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like
an aching lover, and in between tricks 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
...he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so
that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose,
which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among
them, and they raised hands to him in worship.
George W. Bush's oratory certainly doesn't impress one in this way;
indeed, in my memory the one President who was shucking for Windrip's
position would be Ronald Reagan. But Bush does have the "common man"
thing down pat. And while Reagan surrounded himself with people who had
some common sense even if they were extremists, Bush has surrounded
himself with people like Lewis' fictional Lee Sarason, Berzelius'
"secretary" in the novel, a character eerily remniscent of both Karl
Rove and Dick Cheney at times in the narrative.
In many respects the similarities between Windrip and Bush are
? Both make specific promises of prosperity without explaining how
they will be funded (The $5K stipend for Windrip, tax relief for Bush).
? Both appeal to vague moral imperatives (virtually identical,
though Windrip didn't have the gay thing to exploit)
? Both men ignore a terrorist threat (In ICHH Mary is given a
military funeral with honors for her attempted murder-by-aeroplane of
the vicious Effingham Swan; back in RL, Osama the aeroplane-murderer of
3,000 Americans was able to thumb his nose at Bush on video mere days
before the election).
? Both endorse censorship of things critical to them
? Both subvert the law when it annoys them, and use it in creative
ways to "get" their enemies
? Both have people under them who authorize torture
? Although the order of events is different, in both cases America
is galvanized into war against an adversary who never posed a threat to
I think Lewis intended the real horror of the book to be the final
quarter, where we see the "Corpos" fall upon the formerly free America
like a suffocating horde of vampires. But in 1935 Lewis didn't realize
just how fucked up a Fascist state could get, and with our records of
Nazi Germany the novel's final chapters seem almost tame and
lighthearted. The true horror is closer to the beginning, as Lewis lays
out the case for how a free Democratic republic could be seduced and
hijacked by a sufficiently skilled liar and a few unscrupulous aides.
In 1984 Orwell just drops us into the already-established Total State.
One's first reaction is to wonder how things got that way. It's easy to
answer on Orwell's behalf; writing in 1948, 13 years after Lewis, with
much more knowledge of how both the Communists and the Nazis had
consolidated their control, he considered it obvious. But most of us
today don't have the benefit of his firsthand observation, and as K5'er
Wise Cracker commented to me, Lewis does a much better job of
connecting the dots from freedom to totalitarianism for those of us who
haven't lived through the transition ourselves.
Some things do change in 69 years. Perhaps the most important was
mentioned by K5'er PhysicsGod, who asked simply, where is the private
army sported by Hitler, Mussolini, the fictional Windrip, and even
according to some accounts by Huey Long?
Thought control is a matter of exposure. In 1935, radio was a new
thing and while its power was obvious, most people were still only
exposed to it for a few hours a week at most. One of the most prescient
things in It Can't Happen Here is the throwaway mention that the State
invests vast sums in creating a national TV network in 1938, a thing
that didn't materialize in the real world until almost 1950. Lewis
understood before the technology was even practical that if you have
tools like Windrip's oration and Sarason writing his lines, those tools
are best leveraged by getting them out before the public as often as
possible. Television gets only a few passing mentions in ICHH, but
those lines written in 1935 are the work of pure speculative genius.
George W. Bush doesn't need brownshirts because he has half a dozen
national television networks to spread his image and a dozen Father
Coughlins to keep his message before the public. If the pen is mightier
than the sword then the TV network in turn hulks similarly over the
pen. With modern media you just don't need brownshirts. You don't have
to intimidate the people who would counter your lies with documented
truth when the radio is off. Nowadays the radio is never really off,
and the lies are so sweet that mere truth is not nearly so pleasant,
and the people you are lying to will intimidate the truth-tellers for
Windrip also comes across as refreshingly honest compared to modern
politicians; he doesn't even bother to conceal the intent of his
"fifteen points" with code words. This is another reason the
Brownshirts aren't necessary today; a platform plank like this...
(10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public
office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the
grade of grammar school, and they shall be taxed 100 per cent of all
sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year which they may earn or in
any other manner receive. In order, however, to give the most
sympathetic aid possible to all Negroes who comprehend their proper and
valuable place in society, all such colored persons, male or female, as
can prove that they have devoted not less than forty-five years to such
suitable tasks as domestic service, agricultural labor, and common
labor in industries, shall at the age of sixty-five be permitted to
appear before a special Board, composed entirely of white persons, and
upon proof that while employed they have never been idle except through
sickness, they shall be recommended for pensions not to exceed the sum
of $500.00 per person per year, nor to exceed $700.00 per family.
Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one sixteenth
...would today be prettied up with codewords like "welfare queen" and
"crack dealer" and "war on drugs" to make it look much less onerous. In
those "innocent" days of 1935 it was quite mainstream to hate niggers
on general principles, and folks like David Duke were assured of
promising careers in politics in every state, not just backward places
It also sounds amusing that Lewis has America preparing to invade
Mexico; of course it doesn't really matter which country a Fascist
state invades so long as it has some conflict to justify its militarism
and on which to blame any domestic problems. And with the technology of
1935 supporting an invasion half-way around the world like our Iraq
adventure would have been truly impractical.
Another difference between ICHH and the Fascist dictators of history
is quite deliberately drawn into the story; it's the difference between
those men and Huey Long. In the story Doremus asks us to consider it:
The one thing that most perplexed him was that there could be a
dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and
gesticulating Fascists and the C?sars with laurels round bald domes; a
dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark
Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward. Windrip could be
ever so funny about solemn jaw-drooping opponents, and about the best
method of training what he called "a Siamese flea hound." Did that,
puzzled Doremus, make him less or more dangerous?
Two things were made clear by the recent Presidential election. The
first is that clique surrounding George W. Bush is not bothered by
scruples in the pursuit of what they want. They will make promises that
make no sense, ambush opponents with carefully planted lies, rig the
voting machines, and use their power to manipulate the news. Perhaps
the boldest and most sinister expression of this character trait was
explained to Ron Suskind by a senior Bush aide:
"That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire
now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're
studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again,
creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how
things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you,
will be left to just study what we do."
Such monumental hubris can justify anything.
The second reality the recent election made clear is that, regardless
of whatever election-rigging might or might not have tipped the scale
in Bush's favor, it is undeniably true that over fifty-five million
American citizens honestly did ignore Bush's failure to get Bin Laden,
ignored the missing WMD's, ignored the thousand war dead, ignored the
back-door draft, ignored the two hundred million dollars wasted,
ignored two dollar a gallon gasoline, ignored the plunging stock
market, ignored our vanished international reputation and dwindling
list of allies, and voted to let George W. Bush keep doing it for four
When Bush speaks of having a mandate, he's not talking about the
razor-thin one percent margin by which he won; he's talking about the
fifty million who really are that dumb. These are people who can be
trusted to respond to his platitudes instead of acting in their own
interests, and they are an enormous source of power even if they barely
represent a majority.
I work with several of these people, and they've been quite smug since
Tuesday. Yesterday L. greeted me with a cheerful "Thank God you guys
lost!" to needle me. L. is impervious to any argument that W. isn't a
"great man;" W. gave him a tax break and put down that bastard Saddam.
He can't think of anything else W. has done, but he brushes off every
negative argument: Foreigners can go fuck themselves, Saddam was a
bastard whether or not he had WMD's, no amount of logic will convince
him that he's gonna be giving back that tax break money in a year or
two with interest. He listens to several hours of right-wing talk radio
every day and parrots the points without even realizing what he is
Me: "You're just saying that because Rush said it yesterday."
L.: "No I'm not, it's what I really think."
The thing that revealed L's nature to me came several minutes later.
As I checked my e-mail I overheard him tell another coworker one of the
most obvious and ridiculous urban legends as if it were God's own
"Hey L., that's not true," I called out. "It's an urban..."
"Of course it's true."
"Um, no it's not, I can print you up the documentation from Snopes."
"Well, that's their story. I say it's true."
And that, I suddenly realized, is why he voted for George W. Bush. In
his reality, Bush is a great man, and he has sealed himself off from
any unpleasant input that might challenge that world-view.
And this is why Bush doesn't need a private army; the fifty million
people like L. don't wear brown shirts and don't knock heads, but they
serve the same function. In our kinder, gentler Fascist state enemies
aren't put into concentration camps; we're just laughed at and
marginalized. We just stop talking about our real beliefs in public
because it never does any good. It works every bit as well as the
threat of violence and is so much more modern.
It Happens Here ca. 2004
Remember, as I said earlier Fascism isn't defined by concentration
camps and private armies; it's the fusion of corporate and State power
into an invincible bloc. This is why Sinclair Lewis calls his American
Fascists "Corpos." And in the USA that fusion is all but complete.
The media, a much more potent force than any army of thugs, is happy
to sing the Bush Administration's tunes. The State doesn't need to own
them; all they have to do is make life easy for other wings of the
megacorporations that own the networks, and wait for the reach-around.
It's all so pleasant and noncoercive, except that the result is exactly
the same as it would be if the State had nationalized the networks.
In the USA that power has already been used to propel us into an
unjustifiable war of aggression even as we ignore the people who really
did attack us three years ago, who after all have uncomfortably close
relationships with "the Chief." It's been used to shred long-standing
treaties and break old alliances. It's been used to gut environmental
protections that took decades to put into place. It's been used to
justify a senseless cash grab by the Administration's rich friends,
made more palatable by a thin scattering of crumbs to the footsoldiers
like L. It's been brought to bear, less successfully, to stuff the
courts with like-minded ideologues who will go along with efforts to
gut civil rights and turn the country into a Christian theocracy.
Now that George has his "mandate" he will be in no mood to change
tactics. As he gloated at his post-election press conference, the
election is political capital; we "reality-based" folks have no doubt
what he'll spend it on. Very soon it's going to suck to be poor, black,
female, gay, or overtly non-Christian. Both inside and outside the USA
it's going to suck to have some belonging or natural resource our
leaders want. And given that one of the things W. will undoubtedly
spend his political capital on is more e-voting machines to make the
next election even easier to rig should rigging even be needed, we can
count on it sucking for a long, long time.
Full discussion: http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/11/6/9523/36989
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