IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching 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.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

CHESS: The Scars of Persecution and Exile

Chess (1941) by Stefan Zweig

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          We often read narratives of those who flee from persecution, or who suffer the physical violence of their captors, or who are ultimately killed by their tormentors. But what of the stories of those who survive? How does one even begin to describe the psychological toll taken on an individual who lives through the horror of an oppressive regime that takes the lives of so many others, and how do those survivors cope with their scars — physical, psychological, and emotional?

          Two books on my Inaugural List tackle these topics: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Zweig’s Chess. I might very well have included Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Grass’s The Tin Drum, which I might still write about in future blog posts. In the case of each novel, the protagonist is physically confined: asylum (Grass), sanitarium (Mann), hospital (Solzhenitsyn), and hotel room prison (Zweig). In each case, the protagonist experiences a distortion of some essential element of his life, leading to a functional abnormality — the physical manifestation of permanent psychological damage. For Mann, it’s a distortion of time; for Grass, a stunting of growth; for Solzhenitsyn, a sexual impotence; and for Zweig, a mental breakdown. These texts do not give us the comforting illusion that surviving political persecution makes one stronger. Quite the opposite. These works present a stark reality in which their protagonists are staggered, wounded, and scarred for life.

          But of all these examples of “survivor fiction,” one stands out as slightly different — not for what happens in the text, but for what happens in the life of the man who wrote it. Only one of these writers ultimately didn’t survive his persecution. Just after the publication of Chess in 1942, Stefan Zweig would succumb to the stress, depression, and sense of hopelessness he felt while fleeing from the Nazis and, along with his wife Lotte, would commit double-suicide in Brazil while living in exile.

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Stefan and Lotte Zweig

          Although Zweig composed a suicide note, I think that Chess might very well have served an equal purpose. The novel reveals how the psychological effects of persecution can divide one’s psyche, leading to mental breakdown, physical exhaustion, and self-destruction. The plot is straight-forward: on a ship from New York to Brazil, a prodigy chess champion is challenged by an amateur stranger with a stunning grasp of the game. We soon learn that this stranger, Dr. B., was held captive in isolation and psychologically tortured by the Nazis for months. His only solace was a book of chess strategy he happened to find and sneak into his room. For months, he drove himself to memorize every move of every classic match and all the strategies of the masters, playing against himself inside his own head as he spent long days in isolation. He would play both black and white sides at the same time, pushing each side of himself to the limit. Chess became what he lived and breathed, even more important to him than food. Ultimately, the game of chess that saved Dr. B. from isolation and boredom during his capture, psychological torture, and interrogation by the Gestapo would become the obsession that fractures his mind and destroys him. We see this play out on the ship in his matches against the grand champion.

          The novella is an allegory that challenges readers to make their own connections, as Zweig does not explicitly point out how we are supposed to understand each character and event. I can only offer my own interpretation, without any claim to a definitive reading:

          The game of chess is writing itself. (The title is often loosely translated as The Royal Game, which I like because, quite coincidentally, Royal was one of the major brands of typewriters at the time of the book’s publication.) Out of the nothingness and isolation of his imprisoned existence, Dr. B. latches onto the one activity that allows him to both relieve his anxiety and give vent to his intellectual confinement. He must invent games only with the limited tools of language at his disposal. The language of chess. What is often a battle between two minds (or among many more, as the chess champion on the ship often competes in multiple games simultaneously, or against multiple opponents working on the same team) becomes, in Dr. B.’s own words, an “impossible” task because he must take on the role of communicator and audience while in total isolation. Perfecting skills he can never use and unable to properly play the “game” that sustains him, he becomes an expert in a language he can never use — an exile within his own mind.


Now if Black and White together made up one and the same person, the result would be a nonsensical state of affairs in which one and the same mind simultaneously knew and did not know something, in which as White it could simply decide to forget what it had wished and intended to do as Black a moment earlier. In fact what is presupposed by this kind of duality of thought is total division of consciousness, an ability to turn the workings of the brain on or off at will, as though it were a machine; playing chess against oneself is thus as paradoxical as jumping over one’s own shadow. Well, to make a long story short, in my desperation I attempted this impossibility, this absurdity, for months. Illogical as it was, I had no other choice if I was not to lapse into absolute madness or total intellectual inanition. My awful situation was forcing me to at least try to divide myself into a Black Me and a White Me in order not to be crushed by the horrendous nothingness around me.”

–Stefan Zweig


          After his mental breakdown, he is released by the Gestapo, who determine him to be too damaged to be a threat. His encounter with the chess grand champion on the ship forces him into a world where his skill is now unbound. This total freedom — after being resigned to his own imprisonment and possible death — is too much for his brain to process. His breakdown is swift and brutal.

          Dr. B. ultimately survives, but only after realizing he can never play chess again. It’s a realization that was too stark for Zweig, who could not come to terms with practicing his craft — the one perfected skill that sustained him and defined his life — in anything less than “a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.” That line in his suicide note confirmed that, unlike Dr. B., Zweig could not live without the ability to freely practice his craft in his homeland. Chess became his final statement and, arguably, his greatest work. It stands as a testament to writing under the threat of political persecution as both a saving grace and an impossible plight: that which can restore and revive, or divide and destroy, with equal impunity.

 

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ: Being Woke in Weimar Germany

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

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          The context behind Berlin Alexanderplatz, according to Alfred Döblin, is that there isn’t much difference between a criminal and an average person. The former usually is the latter, and the latter can become the former without very much variation in routine. And so Döblin gives us the story of Franz Biberkopf, an average man who is a criminal without ever making the conscious decision to be so. The novel begins with his release from prison after serving time for accidentally killing an ex-girlfriend in an argument. Instead of the moment marking a new beginning for Franz, Döblin lets us know in the first paragraph that his life will continue down the same road: “Now the punishment begins.”

          Franz’s “punishment” is simply living in Berlin in 1928, giving an average man like Franz ample opportunity to stumble into trouble, which he certainly does. Although he appears on the surface to have some direction — gaining a job selling far-right newspapers and shacking up with a new girl — he soon falls in with the wrong crowd, drinks too much, becomes the unwitting accomplice in a crime, and loses him arm when his criminal “friends” throw him from a get-away car. So begins his long, slow downfall, as Franz is forced to become a one-armed pimp, never escaping the life of crime into which he was born.


Who is standing in the Alexanderstrasse, very slowly moving one leg after the other? It’s Franz Biberkopf. What’s he done? Well, you know all that, don’t you? A pimp, a hardened criminal, a poor fool, he’s been beaten, and how — he’s in for it now. That cursed fist that beat him. That terrible fist that gripped him. The other fists hammered at him, but he escaped. A blow fell and the red wound gaped. But it healed one day. Franz didn’t change and went on his way. Now the fist keeps up the fight, it is terrible in its might, it ravages him, body and soul, Franz advances with timid steps, he has learned his role: my life no longer belongs to me, I don’t know what to set about. Franz Biberkopf is down and out.

–Alfred Döblin


          And yet, the reader is always sympathetic to Franz. He is a product of his time, culture, and upbringing, whose poor decisions seem clear to those of us observing from the outside, but never so clear to Franz himself. And this is Döblin’s point: we all blindly stumble through life, carried along by Fate, and are forced to learn our lessons in the darkness before we can ever reach a light of understanding. The path that seems so clear to others observing from the outside will seem unknown to us on the path.

          Images of sacrifice run throughout the narrative, from a harrowing and realistic description of a slaughterhouse to a reenactment of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his son, with each interlude coming at moments when Franz is in Berlin and about to have a transformative encounter that will crush him even lower. He is both criminal and victim. Döblin tells us from the very beginning that he has no chance: he is defeated before he even begins. But it is a defeat that is ultimately redeeming, for it brings about a new self-awareness and knowledge about one’s place in the world.

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Alfred Döblin

          Döblin’s structure is obviously indebted to Joyce: the fractured narrative, the non-chronological temporality, the multiple shifting perspectives, and the simultaneity of thoughts/actions are all hallmarks of Ulysses. (We even get a Blazes Boylan-type character, Reinhold, who is a kind of evil doppelgänger for Franz. But unlike Franz, Reinhold doesn’t transform, and his static state leads to his downfall, which is not redeeming, as it is for Franz.) The book also seems to be structured on Dante’s Inferno with nine books, corresponding to the nine circles of hell, and a “ride to Hell” in the final fifty pages. I haven’t seen any mention of the influence of Dante in the critical readings I’ve done on Döblin (granted, I’ve only been able to read English-language scholarly works), but this connection seems fairly concrete throughout the text.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)

          The message behind the novel is bleak, but with a spark of hope at the end: people have little recourse when it comes to the social and economic position of their birth. Even when they try to rise above their circumstances, they don’t realize that they are defeated from the very beginning by systemic trappings beyond their control. Like animals to the slaughter — or wounded men with only one arm — they march to their inevitable disastrous destinies, largely ignorant of their own sad fate until it’s too late. (Ironically, Franz’s downfall is for a crime he didn’t commit, but that matters not in the poverty-stricken world: all are criminals under the yoke of the system.)

          And yet, this is the path that each of us must take if we are ever to learn the transformative lessons necessary to mature. The possibility of salvation does exist at the end of suffering, but only for those with the will to self-reflect on their most painful moments. For subjects like Franz at the lower end of the social order, such moments will be longer, deeper, and more intense than for those who have a greater variety of resources to help them cope. In that sense, Döblin’s novel is very much in line with Dostoyevsky’s fiction, which posits suffering as the necessary path by which one might achieve deliverance. Döblin suggests that we must sacrifice our old selves if we are to be reborn as more insightful people. It will be painful — like Franz’s lost arm, the scars will remain with us for a lifetime — and it won’t necessarily make us happy, but the trials will transform us, for better or worse. In the slang of contemporary social justice, it’s the only way to be woke.

MAN OF STRAW: A Portrait of the Fascist as a Loyal Subject

Man of Straw (The Loyal Subject) (1918) by Heinrich Mann

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          Man of Straw (also translated as The Loyal Subject) is a razor-sharp take-down of the upper-middle-class buffoons who fervently supported Kaiser Wilhelm — the same type of power-worshipping nativists who later embraced the Third Reich. The subject in question is Diederich Hessling, who spends his college years swilling beer with his frat brothers in their exclusive secret society, the “Neo-Teutons,” and avoiding any type of intellectual pursuits, while challenging anyone and everyone to duels of honor (but not going through with those duels, of course; just issuing the challenges!). He worships the military, but desperately tries to avoid service by pulling strings with his social connections to get a medical discharge by feigning minor health problems. (Weak bones! A flat foot!)

          It’s obviously a portrait of Wilhelm himself, as Mann (older brother of Thomas and uncle of Klaus) describes Diederich as looking very much like the emperor, even shaping his mustache upward in sharp right angles in imitation of the Kaiser. But it’s also a portrait that has universal application, at times so accurately depicting certain modern American conservative warhawks and chickenhawks — everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to Donald Trump, but also their lackeys, like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz — that we begin to see Mann’s brilliance in crafting this character: these politicians, like Diederich, are not great men. They are, by and large, average dolts. The fact that Diederich looks, speaks, and acts like such national leaders (Wilhelm specifically) undercuts their perceived authority. These political figures, for all their pomp, lofty rhetoric, and gilded lives, are no more than uncouth, half-educated blowhards. And on some level, they know it.

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Heinrich Mann

          Mann is quite clear on the dangers of authoritarianism and the kind of people it attracts. His portrait of Diederich might well describe any extreme-right politician (or supporter) of this day. Deiderich isn’t too bright and is physically a coward, but his wealth and status as the son of an industrial owner gives him both privilege and a superiority complex. He lacks empathy and sees women merely as objects for his temporary pleasure or social status, and so his marriage becomes a business deal (and a poor one, at that), with a constant, paranoid fear of blackmail hanging over his head, as in most of his affairs. He is a mamma’s boy who talks bravely about the military and about wanting to “duel” those who dishonor him, but who cringes at any possibility of confrontation. His love of power causes him to worship anyone who wields it and to fall in line behind anyone who commands it, without question. He follows the Church not because he believes in its values, but because it gives him status and further scapegoats the “Others” who are not Christian. (In the case of Germany under Wilhelm, the Jews.) His wealth and status as a leader of industry are entirely inherited, so he knows nothing about the business he owns. As a result, he takes out his anxiety and aggression on his workers, who are brighter than him but lower in class, so are unable to advance under his ownership. He fears them, but his ego prevents him from acknowledging this fact.


…Diederich was alone when he stumbled on to the riding path in the direction of the Emperor, who was also alone. Diederich looked like a man in a very dangerous state of fanaticism, dirty and torn, with wild eyes — from his horse the Emperor gave him a piercing glance which went through him. Diederich snatched off his hat, his mouth was wide open, but not a sound came from it. As he came to a sudden stop he slipped and sat down violently in a puddle, with his legs in the air, splashed with muddy water. Then the Emperor laughed. The fellow was a monarchist, a loyal subject! The Emperor turned to his escort, slapped his thigh and laughed. From the depths of the puddle Diederich stared at him, open-mouthed.

— Heinrich Mann


          This complex combination of physical weakness, willful ignorance, hyper nationalism, capitalistic exploitation of the lower classes, and worship of military power creates “the loyal subject”: one who will be attracted to any powerful force upon which he can project his idealized (and unachievable) Self as a way to substitute for his own lack of will and inner fortitude. He will follow anyone who advocates crushing or eliminating the weak or “undesirable,” not realizing that 1) these are the very flaws that his ego refuses to acknowledge within himself, and 2) he is supporting the power-hungry authorities who will not think twice about crushing him as one of the weak. His own insecurity and lack of self-worth causes him to act against his own self-interest, but in the end, because of his inherited wealth, status, and privilege, he survives — and even thrives — safe in the bubble of his own foolish ignorance.

ALL THE KING’S MEN: Shotgun Politics and Transferral Blame

All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

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          Between the ages of 10 and 13, I went to LSU’s baseball camp every summer in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. They had just attained the status of college baseball powerhouse in the mid-90s under coach Skip Bertman, and the camps were packed every year with eager youngsters hoping to glean a bit of magic from the storied program. One year we heard a motivational speaker — the kind of guy who gives pep talks to professional and college athletes — give a speech on Responsibility. He began by asking, “What’s the national pastime?” “BASEBALL!” we all yelled. “Wrong,” he barked. “The national pastime is… transferral blame.” He then went on to describe how the greatest hindrance to success — from the ball field to the boardroom — is blaming others for our failures and pitfalls, a universal trait that spoke strongly to any 11-year-old who gives myriad excuses for not turning in homework or doing chores. It was the kind of speech that stuck with every kid sitting in the stands at Alex Box Stadium that day. As I grew older, I began to accept “transferral blame” as more than merely buzzwords in a cheesy motivational speech aimed at tween boys, but as a useful tool for understanding American life.

          Nowhere is the national pastime of transferral blame more starkly on display than in American politics (where so many participants, from politicians to voters to media personalities, often seem to have the mentality of tween boys), most notably in the form of psychological projection. We project our complex, multifaceted problems on easy, vulnerable targets, and then expect one politician — upon whom we project our ideal, unrealized desires — to wipe them all away (both problems and vulnerable scapegoats) with one mighty blast of bombastic rhetoric. Back in Louisiana, we called this “shotgun politics”: just aim, pull the trigger, and hope that some of those pellets from the spread find the mark…any mark at all, good or bad, consequences be damned.

          It’s no surprise that one of the great American political novels of the 20th century was born in Louisiana, land of shotgun politics, home of transferral blame. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, written when he was a professor at LSU and surely based on the politics of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (despite Warren’s half-hearted attempts to distance the novel from Huey), is largely about the damage we do to ourselves (and to each other) when we stubbornly insist that our actions are meaningless in the larger scheme of things, and when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the rise of corruption, and even violence, in the political system due to our own apathy. Or, even worse, when we cynically work to undermine a broken political system instead of working to fix the problems. It’s far easier to load a shotgun and stand by idly as it’s fired than to speak up and stop the ham-fisted moron who is intent on blasting away. 

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Robert Penn Warren

          It’s a lesson that many of us learned in the 2016 election cycle (and not only the United States), and it’s one that we could have avoided perhaps had we heeded Warren’s warning in the form of Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. Burden is an intellectual, cynical, former academic and current journalist whose apathy and cynicism leads him to cover — and eventually work for — the populist politician Willie “Boss” Stark.

          Burden soon works as Stark’s hatchet man, digging up dirt on political enemies, including his father-figure, Judge Irwin. Stark’s brand of amoral politics — in which ideas and deeds exist independent of truth or fact, which are never concrete realities, and should always be manipulated as a means of some larger political end — initially appeals to Burden’s nihilistic worldview. We all wallow in the dirt, Burden rationalizes, and all dirt is equal. Therefore, a respectable judge’s bribe and a governor’s attempt to cover it up — isolated moments of failure in lives of otherwise moral public service — are on par with the rampant corruption and amorality of Stark, whose entire career has been dedicated to the obfuscation of truth and the slinging of dirt.


“Dirt’s a funny thing,” the Boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”

–Robert Penn Warren


          All the King’s Men shows us what happens when our moral compass has become so distorted that we think, “All politicians are corrupt. All corruption is equal. Therefore, all politicians are equally corrupt, so our only option is to elect an outsider who best knows how to manipulate the corrupt system in order to destroy it.”

          Does this sound familiar, American voters?

          But the lesson of  All the King’s Men is less about the rise of Boss Stark and more about the fall of Jack Burden, an Everyman who should have been smart enough to know that not all crimes are equal and that we are all interconnected. Words and ideas, like actions, can have a far-lasting impact that goes beyond our own cynically detached circumstances. When Burden’s world comes crashing down, he only has himself to blame. Stark might fire the shotgun, but Burden did the loading. And when that happens, one can’t merely stand back and say, “Well, I can’t be blamed for the result of the blast!”

         And yet, this is precisely how authoritarians operate with impunity. When we don’t take responsibility for our actions, then the authoritarian can work without objection, resistance, or responsibility. His minions can do the dirty work while claiming plausible deniability. And they will, with rationalizations like, “I don’t agree with everything he says but…” (Translation: Don’t blame me!), or “Well, other people might vote for him for unethical reasons, but ALL politicians are unethical, and that doesn’t mean all of us voters feel that way…” (Don’t blame me!).

          And then we have the ultimate transferral blame, in the form of those who stayed home during election day: “I didn’t vote at all/voted third party.” (Don’t blame me!) In a sense, we are all to blame for the Willie Starks of the world, in one way or another. He is a monster of our own creation. 

THE HARBOR: Socialist Fiction as a Voice for Labor

The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

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          Ernest Poole won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1918 for His Family, but it was his novel of three years earlier, The Harbor, that remains his most lasting work. It’s the story of a journalist named Billy (surely based on Poole himself), who grows up in a comfortable middle class house overlooking a harbor that his father runs as a small businessman. However, the harbor soon leaves his father behind as it becomes one huge corporate entity (along with the railroads) financed by Wall Street. Billy is stuck between two worlds, desiring to marry into a wealthy family whose patriarch is one of the engineers of the new industrial center, but strangely drawn into the world of the working class men who toil in the harbor, as represented by his radical college friend, Joe. We witness Billy grow up and come into his own as a writer while slowly beginning to understand the wage slave exploitation of the stokers and dockers who power international trade in the harbor but see none of the profits.

Poole’s novel is honest, balanced, and straight-forward in its portrayal. The rich owners and their Wall Street backers, represented by the engineer Dillion, are not evil monsters. In fact, they think their work is actually helping the nation to grow (which it is, but at the expense of its poorest workers). The middle class, including Billy’s father, are not out-of-touch or unsympathetic characters. They work hard, but have faith in the system. Billy’s father doesn’t agree with the strike, and he even looks down on the labor leaders, but he is not a character “type” who exists merely as antagonistic counterpoint to the strikers. He supports Billy’s writing and is hopeful for the future. Likewise, the labor leaders are not painted as saints or heroes. They are regular men who have family problems and health issues. Their ideals carry them through their work, but they understand that the fight will go on long after they are gone, even if they do believe that the revolution is near. We are shown the harsh lives of the stokers, but never in an emotionally manipulative way. Poole doesn’t exaggerate, nor does he hold back. We are witness to the workers bickering among themselves, and also their struggle to put aside their own personal prejudices.

In the midst of this, Billy acts as a type of connective surrogate. He reports on the events for both sides — first for the industrialists, then for the strikers. He remains on friendly terms with both, even as he begins to side with the strikers. He believes in the revolution, but understands that it will not happen as soon or as quickly as Joe believes. He also understands that the best way to get out the message is not to work outside the system, but to work from within, trying to get his articles published in mainstream papers.


Was the defeat of this one strike the end?

The grim battleships answered, ‘Yes, it is the end.’

But the restless harbor answered, ‘No.’

What change was coming in my life? I did not know. Of one thing only I was sure. The last of my gods, Efficiency, whose feet had stood firm on mechanical laws and in whose head were all the brains of all the big men at the top, had now come tottering crashing down. And in its place a huge new god, whose feet stood deep in poverty and in whose head were all the dreams of all the toilers of the earth, had called to me with one deep voice, with one tremendous burning passion for the freedom of mankind.

–Ernest Poole


One hundred years after the novel was written, some progress has been made, but we are still dealing with the same issues presented in the novel. Workers who drive their industries make barely enough to survive. They work long hours will little overtime pay (and, if some in the Trump administration get their way, none at all). Wall Street still reaps the profits while the average worker goes home with not enough enough money to pay rent. Conservatives with ties to big business continue to dismantle labor unions and work to protect the interests of the 1%.
The question we must ask ourselves: where are the strikes? Where are the national movements of workers demanding their rights? Occasionally, we will see strikes for a 15-dollar minimum wage or equal pay for women (a point that Poole makes in his novel, as the suffragists are an important inspiration for Billy to join the socialist movement). And, of course, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement. But with all the power that social media gives us in organizing, we haven’t made all that much progress in those marches translating to legislation, especially considering the work done on that front in the Progressive Era. The march forward continues, but at a pace that seems far slower than it was one-hundred years ago.

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Ernest Poole

Another question we must ask: where are the socialist literary voices helping to carry the banner in the 21st century? Where are our Ernest Pooles, Upton Sinclairs, Ida Tarbells, Carl Sandburgs, and Emma Goldmans? And if they do exist, do they have any mass appeal? Does anyone read their work, outside the halls of the academy or urban intellectual circles?

In an era when the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has even been — when the new Trump cabinet will have more wealthy businessmen than even Harding’s administration — Poole’s novel challenges us to question how we will respond, and whether or not fiction can still be a powerful force in the struggle.

WE ARE NOT ALONE: Shared Human Experiences Connecting a Divided World

We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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          Fear of the Other, nativism, a militarized nation on the warpath against a cagey enemy, a crackdown on civil liberties, a culture of surveillance: it’s an old formula that makes for the easy persecution of immigrants and refugees. It was in this political climate in England, so similar to the one we now face in the United States in 2017, that James Hilton published We Are Not Alone in 1937, a novel about a small town British doctor and his relationship with a poor German immigrant, set against the backdrop of a xenophobic town that rushes to judgment to determine their guilt when a terrible accident occurs. The plot revolves around Dr. David Newcombe, a quiet family man in a small British town leading up to World War I, who treats a suicidal German immigrant dancer named Leni. After forming a bond with her — perhaps romantic — Newcombe hires her as the family governess. As the war jitters intensify, Newcombe’s wife dies mysteriously, and the town immediately condemns Leni without any evidence. The witch hunt soon turns dangerous for both Leni and Newcombe.

Although his name is not as well known as it was seventy years ago — and even then he suffered from the dreaded “middlebrow” label — Hilton was one of the great British novelists of the 20th century. While Virginia Woolf’s genius and stylistic innovations strike my intellectual fancy and E.M Forster’s search for human connectivity appeals to my personal struggle with empathy and identity, only Hilton’s storytelling can hold me entranced, as if drifting in the rapture of an hallucination. He is a Storyteller of the type that Walter Benjamin claimed the modern world had all-but-lost: one who transcends the trauma of an isolated, mechanized post-WWI society to celebrate communal memory.

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Jane Bryan and Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1939)

          At a time when artists were expressing the impossibility of communication (“They walk incommunicado,” as American poet William Carlos Williams laments in Paterson), Hilton succeeds in imparting the shared experiences of simple human contact. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster writes in Howards End. And Hilton does so, not by avoiding modernity or escaping the present through pure nostalgia, but instead by seeking those pockets of universal humanity that unite us with each other and with our natural world. After seeing a boy with a fatal infection (and in light of the upcoming Great War) Newcombe muses on the power of renewal inherent in human connection with our surroundings, and with each other. The lack of empathetic communion leading up to both World Wars– which is a personal struggle for myself on a daily basis, not to mention for a large segment of Americans — is for Hilton an existential question.


It was a lovely night, warm from earth; and he felt, as he always did when he had seen recent death, a mystic communion with all things living and dead, as well as a perception of their own communion; so that, through such a prism of consciousness, he could sense life in a dead stone and death in a living tree.

— James Hilton


His characters might be alienated, lost, doomed to fate, or even facing certain death, but Hilton’s message is clear: we are not alone. It is not a pat, saccharine declaration meant to provide easy comfort (although his fiction most certainly offered solace for weary readers between the wars). Instead, his message is one that resonates as the purest form of storytelling: the expression of shared experiences that lead us to greater wisdom in times of trouble. Hilton does not flee from the Storyteller’s responsibility nor claim that such communication is impossible. He meets the challenge head-on and finds the images to convey truth where speech might otherwise fail: “He had never found it possible to put everything he meant into speech; indeed, he had sometimes felt that words offered merely surface exactness that was both an illusion and a danger.” In the words of Benjamin, Hilton offers not the cold immediacy of information and fact, but the connectivity of wisdom through shared experience.

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James Hilton

          We Are Not Alone, like the best of Hilton’s fiction, constructs memory as a landscape that we yearn to traverse, even as we see it fading from our senses. It bridges the divisions of modern man, revealing the distances that separate us to be spaces where we might one day connect, if only we have the courage to reach out to each other. As Hilton concludes, “Their worlds were different, their ages were different, their lives and language were different; yet all those differences became themselves absurd when measured against the flash of recognition that sprang between them at every nearness.” Hilton stands out from his contemporaries because he strove to express our “every nearness” in his fiction during an era when literature was defined by alienation, isolation, and separation. That his words continue to ring true is a testament to his success as a Storyteller in a new century bereft of communal memory.

THE IRON HEEL: “Fear the Coming of the Oligarchy”

The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

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          While presidential administrations have often been overwhelmingly represented by the elite classes, Donald Trump’s cabinet will be the wealthiest in our nation’s history, which is stunning, considering the concentration of wealth seen during the Gilded Age, as well as in the administrations of Harding, Eisenhower, Kennedy, et al. With the loosening of corporate restrictions and the easing of governmental oversight that will inevitably follow, the Trump administration runs a serious risk of fostering the type of corruption not seen in the United States since the Harding administration. Unfortunately, that type of pocket-lining might be the least of our troubles. With Trump’s push towards unchecked capitalism, protectionist trade policies, isolationism from international diplomacy, and an ultra-militarism that calls for a nuclear arms race via a Tweet (I can’t even believe I’m typing those words), we face a world order in which nations blindly pursue their own economic interests with no international diplomatic means to curtail the damage. On the home front, Trump has signaled that he will continue to disparage the press, refuse the White House press corps basic access, and (at worst) actively work to dismantle long-standing first amendment safeguards.

          A nation run exclusively by the wealthy, who are actively creating economic policies that benefit themselves, with an expansive military at their disposal and the power to manipulate elections, is precisely the dystopian vision presented in Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Written in the form of a manuscript that is discovered 700 years in the future, the novel is a dire warning about an out-of-control centralized government with militarized police that crushes labor to protect corporate interests. The Oligarchy, as London frankly terms the ruling power, is the American capitalist military-industrial complex gone berserk, with North American governments falling in line behind far-right corporate interests to form one massive, oppressive state. The only thing that stands in the way of this dystopian nightmare is the socialist resistance, in the form of labor unions in the United States (or what is left of it) and European socialist nations. (Considering the state of Europe right now, perhaps London was a little too optimistic in that regard!)

          As the Oligarchy consolidates power, the socialists still naively believe they can win at the ballot box. Only Ernest Everhard, the doomed leader of the revolutionary resistance, understands that the Oligarchy has crushed civil liberties and voting rights to the point where elections have become moot. He recognizes that a revolution of the working class is the only option. The people still refuse to believe their eyes, and insist that the Oligarchy can be defeated politically. (I am reminded of that famous declaration of denial from Sinclair Lewis’ novel of the same name: “It can’t happen here!” But those words are always spoken too late. It already is here.)  By the time the workers begin to fight back, it’s already too late. The struggle will continue for hundreds of years.


Thus the summer of 1912 witnessed the virtual death-thrust to the middle class. Even Ernest was astounded at the quickness with which it had been done. He shook his head ominously and looked forward without hope to the fall elections.

“It’s no use,” he said. “We are beaten. The Iron Heel is here. I had hoped for a peaceable victory at the ballot-box. I was wrong. Wickson was right. We shall be robbed of our few remaining liberties; the Iron Heel will walk upon our faces; nothing remains but a bloody revolution of the working class. Of course we will win, but I shudder to think of it.”

And from then on Ernest pinned his faith in revolution. In this he was in advance of his party. His fellow-socialists could not agree with him. They still insisted that victory could be gained through the elections. It was not that they were stunned. They were too cool-headed and courageous for that. They were merely incredulous, that was all. Ernest could not get them seriously to fear the coming of the Oligarchy.

–Jack London


          London’s novel is divided into two parts: the first half documents the political philosophy and rise of Ernest Everhard, with long speeches and conversations detailing London’s socialist views. The second half of the novel documents the violent revolution against the Oligarchy, which has an oddly paced spy subplot that seems an amalgamation of Conrad’s Secret Agent and the works of H.G. Wells. We get interesting predictions of a war with Germany (headed by a crazy tyrant), modern guerilla-style warfare in the cities, and even aerial bombing (via hot air balloons) with incendiary weapons.

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Jack London

          London’s framing device includes a scholar who has discovered this manuscript 700 years in the future and is writing footnotes describing the absurd institutions of the early-20th century. The resulting footnotes read like Ambrose Bierce definitions (one of which is quoted in the novel, so clearly London was inspired by Bierce). An example:”lobbies — a peculiar institution for bribing, bulldozing, and corrupting the legislators who were supposed to represent the people’s interests.”

          The Iron Heel remains starkly relevant in a Western world that is on the precipice of turning hard towards the extreme right. It is recommended for anyone interested in London, early-20th century American literature, or revolutionary fiction, but also as required reading for Americans living in the Trump era. At what point do we begin to fear the coming of the Oligarchy? When Trump’s economic policies begin to squeeze the lower classes, when his social policies begin to place the blame on vulnerable minorities, when the GOP’s political gerrymandering turns elections into farces, and when international diplomacy is eschewed in favor of a global escalation of military might, will we be in any position to reverse this abominable course, or will we already be too late to act? 

 

BILLIARDS AT HALF-PAST NINE: The Lasting Ruins of Fascism

Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Böll

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          The specter of fascism doesn’t merely disappear when the threat is defeated. It lingers for generations, with much of the psychological effects becoming manifest only years after the violence has ended. This is the basis of Heinrich Böll’s novel about three generations of German architects who struggle with the impact of two World Wars and Nazi oppression. Their friendships, families, and psyches are shattered, and the fragmented narrative of the novel reflects this reality, where memories are always ever-present, like the ruins of the city after the war.

          Grandfather Robert Faehmel has great dreams of building churches and having a large, robust family well into old age. He begins his career by designing an abbey that is the pride of the city. Unfortunately, the Nazis arrive as the “Beast” to destroy everything in their wake. Opposed to the nationalist thugs are the “lambs” of the novel: those who resist the Beast, but who are often slaughtered for their efforts. Robert’s son, Richard, is described as a shepherd: he attempts to rescue as many lambs as possible, including his school friend Schrella, the victim of bullying in the schoolyard by both a student and a teacher who would be attracted to fascism. Richard is forced into the military even as he resists the Nazis, ironically being offered the role demolition expert due to his knowledge of building structures. 

          Despite being an architect himself, Richard doesn’t build anything, either during the war or after. Indeed, his big secret is that he was the one who blew up the very abbey his father designed on the orders of a foolish commander. The symbolism is clear: under the thumb of the Beast, an entire generation of Germans became sterile, unable to build upon the achievements of their parents, but only destroying, at the behest of the Nazis, the great civilization handed to them.


Men, responsibility. Obeying the law, imparting a sense of history to children, counting money and resolved on political reason, all were doomed to partake of the Host of the Beast, like my brothers. They were young in years only, and the only one thing — death — promised them glory, would give them greatness and enfold them in the veils of myth. Time was nothing but a means of bringing them closer to death.

–Heinrich Böll


          Even though it was published in 1959, Böll’s novel is distinctly modernist, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character. The simultaneity of inner and outer experiences, as well as the fractured temporality of the text, give the impression that the novel was written thirty years earlier — in other words, at the very time when many of the events of the novel take place in memory. The memories and flashbacks to the past are as clear as if they were happening in the present (the late-50s, when the novel was set). Every building, person, and object reminds Robert and Richard of their past. Robert’s son, Joseph, is also an architect. He discovers his father’s secret and must come to terms with living in a world of ruins handed to him by the previous generation. We also encounter former-Nazis who are now politicians and government officials, many of whom are only moderately repentant.

          When a former Nazi runs for office on a staunch nationalist ticket, Böll takes us down a road that is difficult to discuss: how far do we go to ensure that fascism doesn’t return? Those who are most vulnerable, and who are driven almost to the point of madness, might take matters into their own hands and resort to violence — and even assassination — to prevent the next rising of fascism. Is this acceptable? Böll doesn’t attempt to justify such violent recourse, but he does try to understand it.

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Heinrich Böll

          I am tempted to call this novel a postmortem of Germany after the fall of the Third Reich during the ensuing years of the so-called Economic Miracle, but the entire point of the novel is that fascism wasn’t dead at all. It was still alive, and remains so, but in muted or distilled form. Böll shows how the specter of fascism will inevitably haunt succeeding generations, and even attempts at healing through unification will never entirely erase the scars and ruins (both physical and psychosocial) that remain. Böll’s novel serves as a warning that when the menace is turned loose, no one escapes harm, whether lamb, shepherd, or beast.

THE GRAVEYARD: Searching for Facts in a “Post-Truth” World

The Graveyard (1958) by Marek Hlasko

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          There are some political ideologies that are so twisted and wrapped up in skeins of illusion that the very concept of “fact” is called into question or even ceases to exist in the minds of adherents. Even when those of us on the outside peel back the layers of lies in search of that inner truth, we are often left with an emptiness surrounded by the cast-off rinds of fabrication. Oxford Dictionaries has chosen “post-truth” as the Word of the Year, signaling a new shift toward that type of ideological self-blindness throughout the Western world. Perhaps we should call this shift “post-fact,” since “truth” still exists, but only relative to how one accepts or willfully rejects facts.

          We see it in stark relief in the United States with the election of Donald Trump, whose words are so empty that fact and fiction become inconsequential to his followers — as long as the words are spoken by Trump, then those words are Truth, because Trump only speaks Truth. All else is a Lie. And so the tautology of totalitarianism begins its long, twisted warping of reality, spinning delusions so chaotically as to make the concept of “fact” disappear altogether in the haze. “Truth” still exists, but it is the Truth of Trump. Only the facts have become meaningless. (Social workers in the last couple decades have termed a similar manipulative warping of perception “gaslighting.”)

          Rebellious Polish writer Marek Hlasko would understand this phenomenon explicitly. His novel The Graveyard, written in 1958 and recently published after long being suppressed, is a sharp critique of the Communist ideology in Poland that rigidly defined the lives of its acolytes to the point where the illusion masking their reality ran so deep that the Party’s truth became the only truth they knew. The protagonist, a working man and loyal party member named Franciszek Kowalski, is dragged into custody one night for speaking a vulgarity to a policeman — a minor offense that is spun by the arresting officers as an insult against the Party — that sets in motion the unravelling of everything he understands to be the Truth about the party and its followers.

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Marek Hlasko

          As he is forced to confront the circular logic and injustice of the police officers, party leaders, and fellow workers who condemn him based only on what they “know” to be true, Kowalski soon comes to understand that tyranny and oppression have replaced political ideals and unity, and that service and social cohesion have transformed into a pattern of conformity, surveillance, and denouncement. When this happens, he realizes, all men are living in the graveyard of ideology, but they just don’t realize it. Kowalski only recognizes this after it’s too late. His mind has been so warped by the Party’s narrative that he even begins to question his own memory and believe the trumped-up charges (pardon the pun). Ironically, this event removes his ideological blinders, so that by the end of the novel he genuinely insults the Party in front of the same officer as his first open act of defiance against the Party he now rejects.


If I go on living, it means that I accept all this, and I have no right to squawk. A man can live through any hell, survive any tyranny, get out of any swamp and any oppression, if he has at least a crumb of certainty, or at least hope, that there is somewhere another man who walks and breathes like him; who suffers, seeks, or fights like him, preserving his purity. Among us, none can have this hope. Here, among us, the heart of the world has died. Here the great myth of the poor gave up the ghost. Not somewhere else, but here; in this place, toward which the eyes of all unfortunate and oppressed are turned. Here died the world’s faith. All the words. All the ideas. All the dreams of man’s emancipation. You are right: this is a graveyard. This is the worst. Where can we find strength?

–Marek Hlasko


 

          Not surprisingly, the novel was refused publication by the Communist regime in Poland. In the 21st century, Hlasko’s novel stands as a warning for anyone who might cast aside critical thinking and willingly (if unwittingly) accept the status quo. We must resist the gaslighting of reality and the obfuscation of fact that dangerous political rhetoric generates. Through the character of Kowalski, Hlasko suggests that the ones most capable of resistance are the outcasts, the misfits, and the marginalized. And even then, their only choice is to break away from the dominant ideology and go into exile — a traumatic experience that will not be easy or without pain (physical, mental, and emotional).

          There is no happy ending in the graveyard (or in The Graveyard). There is only the epiphany of self-knowledge and a sharper understanding of the Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses whose coercive power we might resist, but can never escape.