Politics

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

Following the 2016 election, George Orwell’s 1984 was sold out online and rushed into sinclair_lewisanother print edition. Last year’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a monster hit, and expectations are high for HBO’s stab at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

If nothing else, the election has made dystopian fiction great again.

There is another classic that should be required reading for our times: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

What sets this 1935 novel apart from the others is that there is no great cataclysm throwing the country into turmoil, and we are not dropped into a future dystopia with little understanding of how we got there. It Can’t Happen Here disturbs by how blasé the descent into fascism can be.

Before delving into the narrative, it’s important to distinguish between political philosophy and the rhetoric of politicians. Having particular opinions about fiscal policy, foreign diplomacy, and tax rates doesn’t make someone evil or racist or fascist.

Political philosophy is something that decent, intelligent people can debate with merit. They can share a common goal, but disagree on how to achieve it.

The rhetoric of politicians, however, is another matter, and this is what is most startling and prescient about It Can’t Happen Here. The novel begins at a Rotary meeting, with a populist speech by anti-suffragette Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, calling for a return to traditional values.

“We don’t want all this high-brow intellectuality, all this book-learning,” she says.

Seated in the crowd is the hero, Doremus Jessup, local newspaperman. He warns the crowd of the dangers of fascism disguised as nationalism, the likes of which was rising in Germany and Italy at the time. When members of the audience dismiss his warnings with the refrain that it can’t happen here, Doremus prophetically retorts, “The hell it can’t.”

It’s been more than 80 years since the book was published, but the populist rhetoric is eerily familiar. The outside challenger to FDR is Buzz Windrip, who, parroting the words of his chief strategist, appeals to the “Forgotten Men” who don’t feel appreciated now that women have the right to vote. Windrip goes after other populist bogeymen: labor unions, minorities, Commies, and the press.

While that is the rhetoric of modern Republicans, it is not proprietary to any party. Windrip runs on a socialist platform in the novel, and for a real-world example, read Democrat George Wallace’s disgusting 1963 inauguration address (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”).

As Lewis writes, “nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.”

During the campaign, Jessup muses that President Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet position) “were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.”

Jessup can’t understand Windrip’s appeal and how he can draw such large audiences. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”

In one speech, Windrip vows “to make America a proud, rich land again.”

Cue the dystopia. Once empowered, Windrip erodes civil liberties and Jessup is torn between fighting as part of the resistance or fleeing to Canada. Resistance fighters (or those simply accused of this) are herded into camps.

Remember, this novel was published in 1935: before Pearl Harbor, before we learned of the concentration camps.

While Lewis can’t match Orwell, Atwood, and Bradbury for creative totalitarian societies, he bests them in verisimilitude—what Hannah Arendt would later call the “banality of evil.” There are no two-way TV monitors or book-burning firemen, but there are heavily armed militias editing all newspaper articles and “encouraging” loyalty from businesses and citizens.

Inevitably, there are camps, and there is a resistance force… but it is clear to Jessup that the resistance has come too late. What good could pamphlets do against propaganda? Not surprisingly, fatigue and hopelessness set in: “What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness?”

Fast-forward 80-plus years, where daily scandals, transgressions, incoherent Tweets, and deceptions have become mundane. The inundation has numbed us to the absurdity. Whether it’s noble or naive, Lewis, through Jessup, encourages us to soldier on, even if the cause is lost.

Jessup answers his own query about why one should seek “after righteousness”: “He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.”

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Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

No words can make sense of the terror attacks in Paris. No cause, no religion, no prior offence justifies the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and “coward” isn’t strong enough a repudiation of someone who fires an assault rifle into an unsuspecting crowd and then detonates a suicide belt to dodge the consequences.

In lieu of words, we have images. They are horrifying, but, sadly, they are not unfamiliar. We’ve watched this play out too often in the past two decades, but if you take the longview from France, it’s a struggle that dates back to November 1954 and the start of the Algerian War.

And that leads us, inevitably, to the Algerian-born writer and philosopher Albert Camus.

Sure, I’m biased, as Camus is my favorite author, but nobody has spoken so eloquently about French-Arab relations and terrorism as the 1957 Nobel Prize winner. His most challenging work, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, details the rise of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Terrorism is born of “nihilism, intimately involved with a frustrated religious movement,” he writes. “Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide. It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others… the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated.”

Camus’ most poignant writing on the topic appears in his essay collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Camus was outspoken against French colonialism and the treatment of Arabs in Algeria, but he was disgusted by the actions of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which, in its efforts for independence, killed both French and Arab civilians. “Such terrorism is a crime that can be neither excused nor allowed to develop.”

He wrote the following passage in 1958, but it certainly applies to the cowards in ISIS who ordered and committed the atrocities in Paris on Friday.

“Whatever the cause being defended, it will always be dishonored by the blind slaughter of an innocent crowd when the killer knows in advance that he will strike down women and children.”

The most instructional of Camus’ writing on the topic is “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” written for his Arab friend Aziz Kessous. In it, he chronicles the transgressions of both the French colonists and the Algerian natives, imploring each side that the way to peace is not terrorism. “The inexcusable massacring of French civilians leads to equally stupid destruction of the Arabs and their possessions.”

This cycle of violence is difficult to stop, but Camus believed it was possible. It’s haunting to think that he wrote the following words 60 years ago, in 1955, and sad that they are as relevant today as they were when published.

“I want most earnestly to believe that peace will rise over our fields, our mountains, our shores, and that then at last Arabs and French, reconciled in freedom and justice, will make an effort to forget the bloodshed that divides them today.”

Review: The Jefferson Rule

The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have all the Answers

David Sehat

Cue the broken record. From now until November of next year, we’re going to hear a lot about the Founding Fathers, The Jefferson Rulethe Constitution and its authors’ intentions. You can be sure that Thomas Jefferson will be cited a time or two million. But be they coming from the right or the left, the middle or the fringe, all appeals to Revolutionary politics will have two things in common: they will be accurate and they will contradict each other.

The notion of the Founding Fathers as a single intellectual entity is post hoc myth-making, according to historian David Sehat. Though we have attached a unified set of principles onto the architects of our government, Sehat writes, “The founding era was, in reality, one of the most partisan periods of American history.”

In fact, it would be quite recognizable to the cable news generation. The Constitution was not a consensus of guiding principles, but rather a compromise, much like today’s Congress in which legislation that does manage to get passed is mutilated beyond recognition.

Likewise, there was dispute over the intention of the Constitution before the ink had dried on Rufus King’s signature.

“The Founders had agreed on the wording but did not necessarily agree on what it meant or even its purpose,” Sehat writes.

This was evidenced by the feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the former believing its intent was to limit federal power, the latter believing it emboldened a national government.

Jefferson won that battle, and with his presidential victory, “he rhetorically turned the founding era into one of political purity that he himself had channeled.” (Ironically, Jefferson eventually incorporated many of Hamilton’s ideas, and his Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country, was viewed by many at the time as unconstitutional.)

Though the myth was complete, the debate was not. The struggle between states’ rights and federal power festered until it went septic in the antebellum era.

The slavery issue was the litmus test for the Constitution. The Dred Scott ruling confirmed that the protections of the Constitution did not extend to slaves, who were considered property. A constructionist reading of the document would render the federal government powerless to intervene on slavery, and in addition to advocating for states’ rights, Jefferson himself had owned slaves, creating a challenge for Lincoln in his debates with Stephen Douglas.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Sehat writes, the litmus test was failed. “Constitutions are supposed to keep citizens from killing one another,” he writes. “But Americans killed Americans on a spectacular scale in the Civil War. And the Founders had left little guidance on what to do about it.”

The framers lost relevance for a time after the war, but like a pop group that invents a revolutionary sound, then falls out of favor, the Founding Fathers made a comeback in the 20th century. They have since become sacred cows — they are referenced on the campaign trail and their words wielded as weapons, but they are never questioned.

That’s an issue worth raising, Sehat writes. “Because the Founders do not offer a stable reference to make sense of the present, their presence in American political debate has long been problematic.”

The Jefferson Rule is a stellar work of historical research and narrative storytelling. Sehat’s prose flows with an uncommon ease, at times reminiscent of Nathaniel Philbrick. But he also digs into the philosophical ramifications of his subject. It’s not simply a revisitation of historical events, but a work that drops us into the Revolutionary era to see that the Founding Fathers were not a like-minded council of sages with all the answers.

The words of the Constitution were not etched on stone tablets from on high, but rather drafted by a group of headstrong men who clashed with one another, varied greatly in their viewpoints and were capable of the same grandstanding, short-sightedness and pettiness as today’s politicians.

This book brought to mind the timeless essay by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which studies the psychological need for origin stories. It’s an issue worth exploring, both in Gould’s classic essay and in Sehat’s book.

If you’re at all interested in political debate or American history, The Jefferson Rule is required reading.

Review: American Hysteria

American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States

Andrew Burt

For most, Jade Helm 15 may sound like the newest MMORPG, but for Chuck Norris, recipient of many kicks to theAmerican Hysteria head, the upcoming military training exercise is something straight out of Gray State (in other words, B-grade survivalist porn).

“It is neither over-reactionary nor conspiratorial to call into question or ask for transparency about Jade Helm 15 or any other government activity,” Norris wrote in an op-ed for WND.

Sadly, it’s not just over-the-hill actors. Some politicians have been swept up in the paranoia as well. It’s disappointing, but not surprising. As Andrew Burt writes in his new book, American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States:

“Every few decades, a striking political phenomenon emerges, based upon the fear that a secret network has infiltrated American society and threatens destruction from the inside. Even more fascinating is the fact that this type of movement is not relegated to the fringes of the political arena — it routinely takes center stage.”

While there are plenty of examples to choose from, Burt focuses on five less-than-dignified instances of American witch hunts: the anti-illuminati and anti-mason movements from the country’s earliest days to 20th century’s Red Scare and its bastard sequel, McCarthyism, and finishing with the anti-Islam sentiment of the modern day (specifically, the anti-Sharia movement).

In this excellent study, Burt seeks the common ground between these manias. What he finds, not surprisingly, is that “hysteria arises at times of profound change in America’s national identity,” predictably when a fading social group is losing its leverage. They perceive an outside threat that has penetrated the establishment.

Jade Helm 15 is a perfect example. Since the Civil Rights movement, a culture war has been festering, particularly among aging white men threatened by new demographics and the embrace of multiculturalism.

This war went nuclear when Americans elected a black president who was acquainted with Islam. The enemy wasn’t at the gates — it was inside the White House!

So, despite the fact that routine military exercises have been occurring in Texas for years, under the direction of a black commander-in-chief, ostensibly sane politicians are buying into Norris’ nonsense.

This, Burt writes, is what separates hysteria from extremism. Extremism is always present, but generally marginalized. Political and cultural battles can be contentious, but they typically occur within an agreed-upon scope of reality.

The time to get nervous is when legitimate mainstream figures get caught up in the crazy (e.g. a viable presidential candidate believing that Obama and the CIA are plotting a takeover of Texas and Utah).

In other words: It’s time to get nervous.

But back to Burt. There is no knocking his narrative and reporting skills. American Hysteria is well-researched and -written, and I hope to see more from him in the future. He has written for such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, the Atlantic, Slate and Politico, but this is his first book-length work. My only knock on this book is the overlap between some of the episodes (e.g. the Illuminati and the Masons, the Red Scare and McCarthyism). I would love to see Burt take on other manias, such as the Satanic Panic, perhaps in later books.

After giving us the history of hysteria, Burt goes one further and offers us tips in handling the manias that haven’t happened yet. “The first rule of hand in approaching movements of hysteria is thus to accept them for what they are, rather than dismissing them outright, as is so often the temptation.”

As much as I am amused by Norris’ rants, it would be wrong to dismiss his views out of hand — not because there is any substance to his op-ed, but because there is something important to be learned from the subtext.

“Hysteria, after all, is about exclusion — it is the story of groups of men and women, like McCarthy and his supporters, confronting profound changes within American society and then excluding other groups as a result.”

To prevent the next Red Scare, we’ve got to recognize it in its infancy, understand the true interests of its followers and confront the unreasonable with reason.

It may work, it may not. The upshot of those times when it doesn’t work is that it makes for colorful history — a history skillfully explored by Burt in this must-read book. I can’t think of anything more patriotic than reading this book in time for July 4, to learn from our missteps to avoid repeating them again and again.

Review: The Perfect Kill

The Perfect Kill

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, by former CIA case officer and best-selling The Perfect Killauthor Robert Baer. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up.

But before you start stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of The Perfect Kill as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook. This is an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

The assassin, though, is not Baer, but rather Hajj Radwan (aka Imad Mughniyeh), a notorious Lebanese terrorist affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. He is the man responsible for the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and marine barracks, and Baer links him to a number of kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations in the 1980s and ’90s.

Despite being an international fugitive (he was on the “most wanted” list of dozens of countries) and the focus of numerous arrest and assassination attempts by the U.S. and Israel, Radwan was able to execute successful terrorist attacks for a quarter-century before being killed by a car bomb in 2008.

His ability to elude justice for so long is frustrating to fans of instant karma, but for an experienced CIA operative (Baer himself was in pursuit of Radwan), he authored a playbook for political murder.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

And Baer’s got the bona fides to back it up. He writes for Time and other news outlets; he has produced documentaries for the BBC; and he has authored nonfiction best-sellers like See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil.

Oh, and George Clooney played Baer in Syriana. Not a bad resume.

Each chapter begins with a “rule” for assassins, such as “The Bastard Has to Deserve It” (Law #1), “Every Act a Bullet or a Shield” (Law #4) and “Nothing Wounded Moves Uphill” (Law #20). Also included are “notes” to help one stick to each law and historical lessons (successful and otherwise) enforcing its importance.

But always, the primary narrative is the chess match between Bear and Radwan, and it is one that spans decades and continents. It’s a fascinating tale, and not surprisingly, the TV rights to the book were sold months before its publication.

I’m excited to see its adaptation, but there’s no substitute for the source. This is a stellar book that is a must-read for fans of history, the Middle East, the military and U.S. foreign policy.

Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feministsand Purple Hibiscus is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. It was adapted from Adichie’s famous TEDxEuston talk, and whether you prefer the visual or the text, make sure you get a hold of one of them.

“Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

Reading this essay brought me back to my first day of Human Sexuality class at Penn State. “How many of you consider yourselves feminists?” the teacher asked. None of us men raised our hands (I hadn’t yet learned that, by definition, men could be feminists), and maybe only half the women raised theirs.

The teacher asked the hands-downers why they weren’t feminists, and though the reasons they gave were myriad, every response was prefaced with some variation of “I support equality and fair treatment and don’t believe that women are inferior to men, but…”

Interesting.

The teacher’s point, of course, was to show the class how this word had been bastardized and appropriated by so many groups for so many reasons that half the women disowned the label. Adichie shares similar anecdotes of her own struggles with the term.

This was almost 20 years ago, and the word “feminist” is more loaded than ever. With one or more women expected to compete for the presidency in 2016, attack-ad narrators are surely practicing their intonations for the coming voice-over work.

The Nigerian-born Adichie addresses one of the most common criticisms of feminism: Why the gender-specific language? Why not humanist? Or equalist?

“Because that would be dishonest,” Adichie writes. “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.”

But this isn’t an essay about terminology. It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.