Monday, 13 March 2017

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis


An anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States
 - and wins. It can't happen here. Right?
Written in the mid-1930s, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here tells the fictional account of the rise of President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, an ignorant, small-town nobody who, by playing on the fears and insecurities of white working-class America and by dividing loyalties to his opposition, manages to worm his way into the White House. And once he's in, it is a matter of weeks before he reveals himself to be an apparently unstoppable dictator.

The land of the free becomes a state of terror. Within days, the President gives himself absolute power to enact whatever legislation he sees fit, no opposition allowed. He gives guns and a uniform to his most fervent supporters and sends them back to their communities as his defenders. The press is censored and any dissenters imprisoned under terrible conditions. It's written as a satire, and is clearly intended to be very shocking - and the violence of it is. (The rapid timescale - not so much. Not in 2017. Just look at how quick another president was to sign his Executive Orders in the week after his inauguration.)

Looking at the context of the time Lewis was writing, and once more you can draw parallels. Of course, this was written in response to Hitler's rise to power in Germany - and I'm quite sure that most ordinary Germans would have thought their country too civilised for anything like that to happen, just as much as Americans. In America, and around the world, this was the time of the Great Depression. It Can't Happen Here gives a little insight into why desperate people might consider democracy and freedom a fair exchange for a bit more money, better job security and a more comfortable lifestyle. More comfortable, that is, as long as you don't make a fuss.

All this is seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, an aging newspaper editor who lives in comfortable circumstances in the region formerly known as Vermont. He's a liberal-minded man, wary of Windrip from the start, and gradually is drawn into an underground resistance. But what is the best way to use his power in such circumstances? If he draws attention to himself, he'll be locked up or killed, and what use is that to anyone? But if he stays safe, he's just allowing the regime to be normalised. It's a fine line.

Lewis makes it quite clear that liberal complacency is just as much to blame as the ignorance and malice that actively brings a tyrant into power. By saying "Oh, it can't happen here," people don't bother doing anything to prevent it from happening. And by then, it's too late.

And so, It Can't Happen Here is as relevant a warning today as it was when it was written; we can already see some of our nations taking the steps towards towards a future like the one represented in the book. I'd say this is an extreme version, but it's that sort of complacency that enables such systems to take hold. It can't happen here? It's up to all of us to make sure it doesn't.

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