id’s #CBR5 review #6: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis


(this review is of the audiobook read by Christopher Hurt)

It Can’t Happen Here has been on my list of books to read since 2001, when our (American) world went mad. For twelve years now, we’ve inhabited a ‘kinder, gentler’ nation obsessed with preventing terrorism and willing to surrender certain privacy rights in the name of the greater good. It hasn’t been all bad, like the recent liberalization of marriage equality, but I still consider much of what’s been enacted since the beginning of the Aughts corporatist or facist-lite; governmental & corporate policies ostensibly placing their concerns above citizens rights and concerns. The recent drone concern is just one example of the larger morass. I’m not likely to get dragged out of my house in the middle of the night or even blacklisted for my criticism, but I certainly have lost bankruptcy protections, social safety net protections, and the right to keep information private from businesses and government. You might say, “They know where you live, but they frankly don’t give a fuck unless you give a Bad Person money, or don’t pay your taxes or bills on time without a fuss.”

From this perspective alone, It Can’t Happen Here is already outdated. Sinclair Lewis’ novel is rife with dated references to people, events and slang – as a history minor I know the first two are unavoidable, but the third is painful:

All the audience made their faces to shine upon the General and Mr. Staubmeyer–all save a couple of crank pacifist women, and one Doremus Jessup, editor of the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, locally considered “a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic,” who whispered to his friend the Reverend Mr. Falck, “Our pioneer fathers did rather of a skimpy job in arduously cultivating some of the square feet in Arizona!”

Sinclair knows he’s writing some paternalistic crap, the tone is intentional and satirical, but he doesn’t raise above the material to make it digestible.

Context is important; in 1935, Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here as reactionary and populist concerns to European fascism in Germany, Spain & Italy. “It couldn’t happen here because we’re . . ” was a common refrain he heard frequently, despite the fact that Americans had similar economic and social anxieties which spawned the European movements. Lewis argues that Huey Long, and other American populists like him, could indeed the United States into fascism. But the corporatism-lite of modern America is really not much like Sinclair’s argument. The better comparison to Long is not W., Cheney, or Obama, but rather the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

It Can’t Happen Here is a novel of two layers, where the narrator alternates between a historical perspective relating national events and then shifting to a local perspective, a New Hampshire newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, to personify the changes happening. As a journalist in a country rapidly turning fascist, Jessup obviously and rapidly comes into conflict with the new political reality. A populist Democrat named Buzz Windrip advocates policies not unlike Huey Long’s “Every Man a King”, winning a nomination fight against a weak FDR in the 1936 campaign. (The narrative’s quite plausible, especially when you consider that in 1935-6, Franklin Roosevelt had served barely one term, his alphabet soup of relief was getting ruled unconstitutional, and Congress was getting cold feet over deficit spending and worsening the Depression.) Windrip is double-dealing however, cutting backroom deals with monied interests; once elected in office, Windrip begins using the period’s fascist tools of oppression to effectively merge business and government into a permanent entity of power.

The quote widely attributed to Sinclair that you often see is:

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

But let’s think about this – even Sinclair wrote in this book that the state most effective would be the Corpo, or Corporatist regime, where the government of state is merged with corporate power. Maybe there’s a second half to this axiom. “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross, and it’ll all be manufactured by the lowest paid worker.”

Which leads up back to Our Modern Times. Our police forces have become more para-military in their deployment and disposition, and groups such as Occupy Wall Street have a strong case that police have become more oppressive. We’re all supposed to suffer the indignities of recession and foreclosure, but the wealthy and powerful don’t.  But there’s a there missing, something at which we can directly point at and say, “That’s fascism.  That’s oppressive. That’s wrong.” There’s something missing that keeps us from that extra step, clearly indicating we’re losing the benefits of being an American, but not our rights, per se. Something that lets us acknowledge that the country and planet is in dire circumstances but unable to effect change, but that it’s not a threat to liberty or freedom.

The historian is constantly invigorating youth and peers that if we forget history, we are doomed (doomed, i tell you!) to repeat history. But at the same time, our time now is not like history, nor has it ever been. Very few times can you clearly point out, “See, there! We fucked up this way when that happened, and then we did it again after we forgot.” Human circumstance doesn’t work that way. We know we’re losing, but we seem unable to means test the changes into a political notion that indicates good or ill, and how to alleviate it.

It’s been a bit of a joke to call this time in our lives something historic – it’s aggrandizing to do so, and one thing the Internet has taught us is that we, the people, can be ridiculously self-important. But it’s time we seriously admit that we are living in a time of crisis –The Great Change– that necessitates aggressive policy, and act on it.

You can read It Can’t Happen Here as part of Project Gutenberg.

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