Sunday, February 04, 2007

“It Can’t Happen Here”

That’s the title of a book I am currently reading. I have had it in my library for a while, but haven’t gotten around to reading it. It was written in 1935 by Sinclair Lewis, author of “Arrowsmith” and “Elmer Gantry”. I am about a third of the way through it. It is about, to put it bluntly, the takeover of the American government by ideologues and the installation of a fascist government, from the point of view of a small town newspaper editor, his daughter, and several friends who have not been swept up in the frenzy.

I am rather vague about American history in 1936. American was still in the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the incumbent president and was reelected. This book is similar to several other “alterative history” works of fiction I have read, where history diverges from a known starting point and proceeds down a new path. In this book, a new politician with the unlikely name of Berzelius Windrip springs from nowhere to capture America’s imagination, mostly by promising anything and everything to everybody, including $5000 (which was a substantial sum in 1936) to every working family. Given the sometimes dark and disturbing history of this nation, and the fact that it takes place in the Depression when hope and money was in short supply, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this person could be elected instead of Roosevelt.

The underlying message of this work is, and is reflected in the title, that ordinary people can be swept up by the passion of a person or group with an agenda that gets enough momentum going, and everyone else might be concerned but not terribly worried, because things like that just “can’t happen here”.

The reason I decided to read this was, of course, the parallels to our current situation. I have been concerned for some time that we seemed to be recklessly heading down a path to a fascist theocratic state, and not very many people seemed to be aware of the danger of this country becoming something totally different than what it has been in the past. George Bush, along with his brains, Karl Rove, succeeded in putting together a political machine that essentially hijacked another, more established and much larger, political machine in the Republican party. There can be much debate as to how far the Republicans had gone down this road already before Bush showed up. He may have just been the tipping point: the right person at the right time. However we got here, the Republican Party is no longer the party of smaller, less intrusive government and fiscal restraint and responsibility. It is a party devoted to the ideals of overarching government, unrestrained power of the Executive branch, stacking the Judiciary with true believers, redistribution of wealth toward the top end of the pyramid, graft, corruption, lying to the people whenever it forwards their agenda, and a very powerful military that is capable of never ending war.

The plot, at times, is somewhat “heavy handed” and there are differences when comparing it to today. One big one is that Windrip gets the nomination for President from the Democratic Party, knocking out Roosevelt at the convention. Windrip speaks to the “forgotten men”, the workers, the miners, the unemployed, and the disaffected. That is certainly not how our current situation developed. However, it is quite apparent that Windrip never intended to follow through on any of his promises, including the $5000 per family that was the basis of his campaign. Once elected, there was no more need to pretend. He instantly installed a fascist type government, complete with his own private army of “blue shirts” that quashed any sort of protest immediately and without mercy.

However, these difference aside, it is eerie how “spot on” this book is regarding our current situation. Lewis is as prescient in the political realm as Jules Verne or H.G. Wells was in the realm of science. There was a “man behind the man” in the form of an advisor, who really ran things and even went so far as to author a book that was published under the name of his boss. The physical attributes of the two men are very different, but it is impossible to not recognize the character of Karl Rove. Windrip was elected with the help of the fundamentalist Christians, when a newly conceived “radio evangelist” threw his endorsement behind Windrip. The evangelistic character was subsequently arrested immediately after the inauguration, which could be considered to be how disdainful Bush and his minions are of the fundamentalists once they get their votes. One of the main planks in Windrip’s platform is to alter the Constitution such that Congress can only act in an advisory capacity. It can offer no real restraint to the power of the Presidency. The Judiciary is emasculated, such that it cannot issue any judgments on the edicts of the President. And, of course, there is the capacity to wage war. War is seen as something that will stimulate the economy. It will put “backbone” back into the country, which has become weak and effeminate.

There are many other similarities that have jolted me while reading “It Can’t Happen Here”. I am anxious to get to the place where the country really becomes a fascist state, just to see how bad Lewis’s predictions are. His basic message is, of course, you are absolutely fooling yourself if you don’t think it could happen here. Here is one, somewhat plausible, scenario that could have occurred in 1936. We have just been witness to another, plausible because it was happening in front of our very eyes, scenario that could (and still might) lead this country into morphing into a very ugly specter of what it once was. We need to be on our guard at all times, as our democratic system can be hijacked my merciless people with an agenda who will do or say anything to get elected and, once elected, will do anything to stay in power.

I am only hoping that the country is finally waking up to what has truly been transpiring behind the curtains over the last six years. I recommend that everyone in the country should get a refresher course in history and, if they can turn off the television when “American Idol” is on, read this fictional account of what can happen when emotions overcome logic and rational thinking.

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