Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sinclair Lewis: forgotten prophet

Before I get to the main body of today's post, some quick comments on the big political news. If I was the paranoid type, I'd think that John McCain's out of left field VP nominee, female Alaska governor Palin, was a ploy to bring disenfranchised Clinton supporters over to the Republicans. But, knowing almost nothing about Palin, I really can't comment at this time. Another note about McCain: I know he's a war hero, but does that mean he can run a country? He's a popular Republican senator, but it seems everything I read about him mentions his military service and little else. I don't want to diminish how much he and many other soldiers suffered in Vietnam, but a war hero does not necessarily make an effective political leader. That was the point of Beowulf. Also, having fought in a futile war, shouldn't McCain know another futile war effort when he sees one? Yet he continues to justify the mess that is Iraq. Onto Obama/Biden. While I wish the two names were reversed, and still think that Obama should have waited and gotten more experience before running for President, I think the two will balance each other out, with Biden's solid Washington experience and foreign policy knowledge will counter Obama's freshness in the political arena. Also, I hope that Biden will prove a sobering influence on the optimistic but often hollow rhetoric of Obama.
Speaking of American politics, the book I'm currently reading, It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, describes an alternate dystopian history where, in the wake of the Great Depression, America elects a president who becomes a fascist dictator, stomping on free speech, the rights of women and minorities (with particularly venemous rhetoric toward Jews), and the checks and balances system. The major tenet of this fictional president's platform is taking power away from Congress and giving it to the Executive branch. His other platform promises economic security to millions of impoverished citizens, which fails to materialize. Instead, he sends unemployed citizens to labor camps. Doremus Jessup, the book's protagonist, is imprisoned for publishing a disparaging editorial against the regime. Even the Fox News crowd could appreciate this book, because President Windrip is a Democrat who starts out offering support to labor unions and the poor, and the Republican candidate who runs against him is an honest, upstanding politician (an oxymoron, I know). But, as Jessup concludes, the promised government aid to the poor is just a way for Windrip to gain more solitary power over the American people, and he instead gives the money he promised for economic aid to the big businesses that supported his campaign. Colleges in Windrip's America become little more than military training grounds, full of young men whose only aim is to prove how tough they are. Academics become marked men, and women. Christianity becomes the country's official religion, with the expression of any other faith grounds for imprisonment. Women are gradually driven out of the workplace, forced to assume what Windrip considers their "natural" function, as wives and mothers. In terms of artistry, this is hardly one of Lewis' better works, but the America it describes, its anti-intellectualism, politicans saying one thing then doing another upon election, the strangely reversible process of women and minorities gaining then losing rights, the urge to prove its dominance on the world stage, is still resonant today. Jessup, examining American war efforts, reflects on the Phillipines, which he recalls as a war to help a society that didn't want America's help. That sounds all too familiar. The gradual, unnoticed slide into fascism makes me think of something I once heard. A frog, when thrown into a pot of boiling water, will immediately leap out, but, if placed in a pot of warm or cool water, will allow itself to be boiled alive if the temperature is gradually increased. That's why all fascist governments, from Hitler to Stalin to Mugabe, start out slow, gain the trust of the citizens, tell them exactly what they want to hear, then, one by one, taking away their rights, coating it in justification that the citizens often believe. I can't say for certain if things will improve when Bush leaves office, no matter who takes his place, but after the Patriot Act, the shift of power from Congress to the President, and the tragedy of Iraq, are we being boiled alive?

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