Thursday, December 29, 2005

It Can't Happen Here

I saw a link last night, in this MetaFilter post, pointing to where you can read Sinclair Lewis' novel, It Can't Happen Here, online for free. Link. I read it all in one go.

Coles Notes version of the plot is that a folksy Southern politician creates all sorts of buzz in the mid-1930s United States with contradictory promises to help the working man and suppress labour organization. A something-for-everyone campaign where having a scapegoat to hang one's disaffectedness on is the common bond of his fervent supporters. In this new leader, rising to a logical position in historically fascist-curious America, we find a uniquely American trait of being too outwardly stupid to be singly frightening. Clearly he wins the 1936 elections and goes about implementing his 15 points, threats to nationalize banks and large industry becoming swords to wave over heads of loyal contributors should they not serve the state with gusto, a provision that expands executive power of the president so it is unfettered by congress or the courts, and points restricting the rights of Jews (who, the leader insisted, were fine human beings, but who lamented the fact that the great international conspiracy was so populated by Jewish intellectuals and financiers.) and coloured people (who served the useful purpose of being the one group poor American white working men still had to look down upon.).

Interestingly, the new phenomenon of the radio demagogue (the real Father Coughlin and fictional others) were the main instruments in the election of this great reformer. Instead of working the miracle of getting the masses to vote against their own best interests, instead every American is promised $5,000. This promise of money in your hand against which people were financing more major purchases left all but the distasteful bourgeois liberal clamoring to elect the newcomer.

Almost immediately after taking power an emergency is declared and the president declares he has powers to suspend civil liberties and the power of congress 'temporarily'.

What I love most about this book is that he puts the liberal, in all his unpopularity, in the position of having to stick to principle and not corrupt his ideals for efficacy. The main character is tempted by communism's organizational ability and faces, interestingly, the exact proposition that Winston Smith is asked when he is pledging to join the resistance to Big Brother: "would you be willing to follow orders and do whatever is deemed necessary for cause of defeating the enemy?" The main character in this novel, a small-town newspaper editor, refuses, and remains uncompromised and unco-opted by the system he's trying to fight.

It had that uniquely American trait of needing to sound hopeful at the end, but only by showing that the system is vulnerable, not telling of its downfall.

Interesting also that he would so nail the sheer incompetence of every level of government the American fascist would operate on, with no post being safe from political crony appointments. Anti-intellectualism rained supreme in the way Universities were reduced to technical schools and literature was not so much feared as ridiculed at first.

Lewis hits on a 'biology of dictatorships' where the key is to make people think that they are free and that criticizing government doesn't happen because of censorship, but because the idea is so distasteful as to not even be considered.

Lewis also takes on the eagerness to which uneducated young men seem to take a taste to wielding violence and getting away with it. The Minute Men (the S.A. and S.S. combined into one) take over the civil service and even start to run their own prisons, away from the inconvenient regulation of the existing institutions.

Reading the virtues of liberalism praised instead of apologized for is reminding me to call myself a liberal (small 'l' for God's sake.) proudly and aware of the wavering and caution and lack of easy answers decried by the masses in the novel.

Overshadowed by its political nature is the fact that the book itself is very well-written. (Lewis did, after all, win the Nobel Prize for literature for an earlier work) And one thing I noticed in particular was the predominance of strong female characters who put their heads down and did the hard work when they had to and weren't so vulnerable to hopelessness. I don't know how ahead of its time such notions of strong women were in American literature, but I was pleasantly surprised to find more than the simple female placeholder characters.

This book sits very comfortably in a timeline where it would sit about 50 years ahead of 1984 and as the ancient history to Brave New World's universe, but again with the cracks of American sense of hopefulness setting it slightly apart from the other two.
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