AMERICA AND AMERICANS: The Lasting Hope of “One People Out of Many”

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

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          As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States — to the considerable shock and lamentation of over half of this nation’s citizens, who did not vote for him– I can’t help but feel anxiety for the future state of the republic: its most vulnerable citizens, its institutions that have (until this moment) stood in resistance to any one leader who might exhibit authoritarian tendencies or exert tyrannical force, and its progress toward a more perfect union — even through all its stumbles and black-eyes along the way. In short, I fear that with the election of Donald Trump the United States is veering wildly off course, as perhaps it hasn’t done since the days of the Civil War.

          I don’t know if this doom-and-gloom feeling is overstatement or if it’s the accurate diagnosis of a wobbly political system that is close to the point of breakdown. In either case, I wonder: Is there a hope for a divided nation? Do we have anything at all to look forward to in the coming years? If we look to the past (and to literature) to answer those questions, then we might respond, “Yes, but it will be a long, hard road. And that hope might not translate into progress for many years, if not decades.”

          I wanted to end my Inaugural List on a note of hopeful-yet-realistic optimism. As low as things seem, our country has been here before. In fact, today is part of a larger struggle that has always existed in this nation. But it’s a struggle that we are winning, and will continue to win — a bright spark of optimism for when we feel our lowest.

          With these thoughts in mind, I recall a rally I recently attended to protest the policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump, in which a protestor was carrying a sign that read, “AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.” I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the intent of the sign: to acknowledge that our nation has always perpetrated atrocities and injustices, even while claiming to be a lamp of liberty and tolerance. But our nation was founded precisely on that struggle to close the gap between our rhetoric of idealism and our reality of injustice. In that struggle lies our greatness.

          It’s a struggle that Steinbeck illuminates and celebrates in his final book, American and Americans, while neither resorting to the tired clichés of patriotic claptrap, nor thrashing away at the easy straw man of overgeneralized sentiments like those expressed on the sign held by my fellow Trump protestor. 

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John Steinbeck and Charley

          Instead, Steinbeck’s collection of essays — the only nonfiction book on my Inaugural List — is a meditation on the American people, character, landscape, history, and future. He offers insight on the paradoxes of our political system, the immigrant experience (and our treatment of immigrants), the myths that construct our shared American identity, the way we project our identity to the rest of world, our connection to (and destruction of) the land, our economic obsession, the pitfalls of our nation, and how we seem to overcome our flaws to continue progressing as a nation. Steinbeck offers an honest, frank, and highly-subjective analysis (which he freely admits on page one), and he does so out of an obvious abundance of love for the nation and its people. 

          Sometimes his essays are illustrated by personal experiences or stories he has heard from other Americans. The hardback edition from 1966 contains striking black-and-white and color photos offering a glimpse of America in the mid-twentieth century that perfectly compliments Steinbeck’s text. Photographs are included from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, among many others. The result is a literary and visual composite of a people in the mid-20th century, at the height of America’s influence in the world after WWII, but also in the midst of some of the nation’s most challenging and chaotic problems, including the Cold War, the atomic age, and the fight for civil rights. Steinbeck’s portrait still holds true fifty years later, and his warnings of a populace numbed by complacency and all-too-riled-up by emotional political rhetoric that panders to base fear and prejudice remains relevant as our nation enters the years of a Trump administration that threatens to take us down an authoritarian route.

          Perhaps we can understand the rise of Trump from Steinbeck’s view of what Americans desire in their politicians: “We want a common candidate but an uncommon office holder.” It’s an impossible contradiction, but one that has somehow worked in the past, which Steinbeck acknowledges. But what happens when that office holder is revealed to be decidedly “common”? Or even worse: dangerous? Again, I turn to Steinbeck to offer some words of hope. The final paragraph of his afterword reassures us that even in the midst of our darkest moments (which Steinbeck does not shy away from illuminating throughout the book) we always manage to progress. These are comforting words for those of us who recognize our nation’s tendency to slip backward on the road of progress, but who have hope that we can once again work together to overcome our basest human flaws to work toward our ideals. The paragraph is worth printing in its entirety:


From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back — never.

— John Steinbeck


          I leave these words of hope at the end of my Inaugural List after twenty days of writing about fiction that explores some dark and often depressing subject matter. Moving forward with this blog during the Trump years, I’d like to see Steinbeck’s words as a small but necessary flicker of illumination in a very dark and vast — but not unchartered — path of America’s history. Let us hope that the Ideals of this nation, as expressed by Steinbeck, may ultimately rule the day, guiding us away from Mephisto’s Mother Night and back into the light that burns for “one people out of many.”

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?: The Death of the American Dream

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

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          In the United States there is a great self-perpetuating myth that hard work and tireless exertion can lead to wealth, success, and prosperity for all. As an anesthetic to the monotonous daily grind of work-eat-sleep, certain distracting entertainments are dangled in front of the eyes of the working class, along with the promise of greater material gain for their continued efforts. Their will to live is soon usurped by their will to possess, which is intrinsically tied-up in the compulsion to work. As a result, labor becomes an end in itself: not that which sustains life, but that which promises prosperity —  a promise that is necessarily just-beyond-reach, as those who control the means of production must ensure that workers continue to strive for that ever-elusive golden ring without actually achieving it. Thus, the working class is defeated in their efforts before they even begin, born into circumstances that ironically reward those who labor the least by virtue of their inherited status, and wear down those who work the hardest for the smallest degree of potential gain.

          It is this circuitous grind that Horace McCoy explores in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the most important works of existential fiction to come from the United States, employing a 1930s dance marathon as an allegory for the horrific, self-destructive competition that capitalism engenders in workers. The novel begins telling us exactly how events will end: narrator Robert Syverten is on trial for the murder of Gloria Beatty. He admits guilt and throws himself on the mercy of the court: he was only doing Gloria a favor, he states.

          Robert and Gloria are down-and-out Hollywood performers in the 1930s looking to make money as they strive for their dreams. They decide to enter a dance marathon — a grueling, weeks-long event in which promoters promise contestants cash for out-lasting one another in bouts of dancing and speed-walking derbies that continue for hours at a time. Contestants are given mere ten-minute breaks for food and brief rest, hardly time enough to recuperate from their hours of work.

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Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969)

          Like a real-life version of The Hunger Games, wealthy patrons in the stands can “sponsor” contestants, giving them money or other advantages, which pits contestants against each other — sometimes violently — for recognition. While the rules seem straight-forward, it is clear that the organizers are pulling strings behind the scenes, changing rules and making up new ones as the contest wears on. Their only goal is to promote the madness by exploiting the young couples for maximum profit. The $1,000 prize is dangled in front of the contestants, but ultimately there are no winners —  only downtrodden young couples in varying states of loss and grief.

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Horace McCoy

          As the marathon progresses, couples find themselves competing in special events and derbies that have no prize attached: they do it merely because they have gotten into the routine. Trapped in a system that promises them an ultimate prize at the end, they feel compelled to work overtime for no immediate gain in the hope that they will attain their ultimate reward at the end.


She shot the pistol and we were off.

Gloria and I let the racehorses set the pace. We made no effort to get out in front. Our system was to set a steady clip and hold it. There was no special prize money tonight. Even if there had been it would have made no difference to us.

The audience applauded and stamped their feet, begging for thrills, but this was one night they didn’t get them. Only one girl, Ruby Bates, went into the pit and that was only for two laps. And for the first time in weeks nobody collapsed on the floor when the race was over.

But something happened that frightened me. Gloria had pulled on my belt harder and longer than she ever had before. For the last five minutes of the derby it seemed she had no power of her own. I had practically dragged her around the track. I had a feeling we had just missed being eliminated ourselves. We had just missed. Late that night Mrs. Layden told me she had spoken to the man who had checked us. We had made only two more laps than the losers. That chilled me. I made up my mind then that from now on I had better forget my system and open up.

–Horace McCoy


          McCoy’s novel is a brief, stark critique of an exploitative system that destroys the will to live even as it promises prosperity. Ironically, the contestants enter the marathon as a means of survival, only to find the contest is the very event that is most hindering their struggle to survive. Robert and Gloria soon understand that the marathon becomes their only purpose in life — one that is so dreary and unending that it offers no purpose at all. The only thing that remains for Gloria is to ask Robert to put her out of her misery. As his guilty verdict is handed down by the judge at the end of the novel (a verdict that McCoy clearly telegraphs from the opening pages: this is a system in which we are all condemned from the very beginning), Robert speaks his defense as the last lines of the novel: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

          It is no coincidence that McCoy sets the novel in Hollywood, a land in which the dreams and desires of a nation are manufactured as myth to be sold to a population desperate for hope as a distraction from their meaningless cycle of despair. Like its literary cousin The Day of the Locust (published by Nathanael West four years later in 1939, and also set in Hollywood), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a Depression-era shot across the bow of the mythical American Dream — the failed promise of a capitalist system that thrives on promoting a prize it can never deliver. Eighty years later in the United States, the novel stills feels as honest and urgent as it was in 1935.

CANCER WARD: “Either Tyrant or Traitor or Prisoner”

Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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          At certain moments in a nation’s history, the body politic can become irrevocably sick. They catch a fever that spreads across the country by invading the moral fiber of the populace, turning individuals against each other, and then multiplying and dividing like so many cancerous cells. At some point, treatment cannot stop the spread, and the body necessarily breaks down.

          Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is an allegory of the disastrous impact of Stalinism on the Russian people, and the lasting damage of the “tumorous” labor camps, which might no longer exist, but have nonetheless left a lasting scar on the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s observation is one that we are well advised to heed: even if a nation survives the cancer of totalitarian rule, the body politic remains forever damaged.

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gulag mugshot, 1953

          The novel’s protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a labor camp exile (much like Solzhenitsyn was beginning in the late-40s) who is hospitalized with stomach cancer. His fellow patients are in varying emotional states, from denial to resigned acceptance. The primary atmosphere of the ward is overwhelming helplessness — not only from the perspective of the patients, but also from the staff. Both try to distract themselves from the painful reality that the men on the ward will likely die no matter what treatment is offered. Recognizing the symptoms and the nature of the disease do nothing to curb its spread or even provide comfort. As a result, the staff finds itself suffering as much as the patients. In one case, the head doctor becomes ill herself from the very type of cancer she treats. As another doctor tells her, “It’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” It’s a test insofar as the doctor in question must acknowledge the limitations of her own expertise, for even the experts can’t cure the disease. It strikes all equally.


“But can there really be a whole nation of fools? No, you’ll have to forgive me. The people are intelligent enough, it’s simply that they wanted to live. There’s a law big nations have — to endure and so to survive. When each of us dies and History stands over his grave and asks ‘What was he?’ there’ll only be one possible answer, Puskin’s:

‘In our vile times

…Man was, whatever his element

Either tyrant or traitor or prisoner!'”

Oleg started. He didn’t know the lines, but there was a penetrating accuracy about them. Poet and truth became almost physically tangible.

–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


          Those rare few who survive are neither stronger nor well ever again. The sickness of Stalinism lingers as a lifelong scar for the survivors, who must grapple with their own place in the historical context of the times. Did they stand up and fight against the illness, or did they put their heads down and ignore it? Or, even worse, did they take part in the denunciations and purges, enabling the illness to spread unchecked?

          Solzhenitsyn’s novel forces us to question where we stand when our social and political position appears to be helpless, even while acknowledging that our response might very well be in vain. If, by chance, the body politic survives the cancer, then the sickness still hasn’t ended, but has only just begun. Even so, do we still stand up and fight? Which role do we choose for ourselves: tyrant, prisoner, or traitor?

GENERALS DIE IN BED: “They Should Be Made to Remember”

Generals Die in Bed (1930) by Charles Yale Harrison

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          One of the thoughts that keeps me up at night is that in four days Donald Trump will be in command of the most powerful armed forces in the world. This is a man with no impulse control, who believes he knows more about any issue than anyone else, who has never had so much as a security briefing before November 8, 2016 (and, apparently, who doesn’t even want security briefings post-November 8!), and who is so loose with fiery, sable-rattling rhetoric that he often sounds like a third-world tin-pot dictator. He has not experienced war, violence, famine, or genocide; he has not practiced or even closely observed diplomatic negotiation (and no, “business deals” don’t count, because a failed boardroom deal doesn’t have the possibility of ending in mass bloodshed);  he has not studied history or political science; he has not read literature or philosophy; he certainly has not been engaged with geopolitical affairs beyond his desire to build golf courses in Scotland.

          And this man will be leading the United States military — and will surely be ordering them into armed conflict at some point in the next four years for whatever purposes he deems necessary.

          If I had the power to compel one person in the world to read one novel in the world, that person would be Donald Trump and the novel would be Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed. Hell, I’d be content if Trump merely read the title.

          This highly autobiographical novel from American-Canadian machine gunner Charles Yale Harrison is one of the most emotionally draining accounts of war I’ve ever read. The battle scenes are stated in plain language, without exaggeration, but in devastating detail. Harrison records all the brutality of trench warfare: the rats, the lice, the gas, the flamethrowers, the tanks, the constant artillery barrages, etc. These experiences of battle are not heroic. They are awkward, frightening, frantic, and sad.

          The most memorable moment — and the chapter that drew tears to my eyes — is when the protagonist bayonets a teenage German soldier, and his rifle becomes stuck in the boy’s ribs. The pages that follow are very tough to read (and I have a pretty high tolerance for such things): The frantic cries of the boy as the protagonist attempts to remove the bayonet. The way he runs away to leave the boy to die in agony, only to realize that he needs his rifle. The way he describes returning, grabbing the rifle, placing his boot on the boy’s face and tugging to remove the embedded bayonet as the wound widens and gapes. The awkward ballet of the boy trying to help the protagonist remove the bayonet from his own bloody torso. The realization by both soldiers that the only way for the bayonet to be removed is for the protagonist to fire the rifle point-blank. And the moment when the boy’s brother — another German solider — sees the boy’s limp, lifeless body in the trench.


How can I say to this boy that something took us both, his brother and me, and dumped us into a lonely, shrieking hole at night — it armed us with deadly weapons and threw us against each other.

I imagined that I see the happy face of the mother when she heard that her two boys were to be together. She must have written to the older one, the one that died at the end of my bayonet, to look after his young brother. Take of each other and comfort one another, she wrote, I am sure. 

Who can comfort whom in war? Who can care for us, we who are set loose at each other’s entrails with silent gleaming bayonets?

I want to tell these boys what I think, but the gulf of language separates us. 

We sit silently, waiting for the storm of steel to die down.

–Charles Yale Harrison


 

           The novel is short, but filled with such harrowing accounts. Harrison pulls no punches, including moments when his comrades loot French towns, when surrendering Germans are brutally mowed down, when commanding officers lie to soldiers to get them to fight harder, or when an unpopular officer is shot and killed by his own men. The cycle of advance/retreat/rest made me feel dazed just from reading. It is a visceral experience: inside trench bunkers, shells screaming overhead, rats scurrying, candles blowing out from the concussion of exploding shells, etc.

          It is both the best war novel and the best anti-war novel I’ve ever read. The title reflects the bitterness of an entire generation of men who survived trench warfare. We hear soldiers discussing the war profiteers who make millions from death and the generals who order young men to advance from the relative safety of their field offices. At one point, the protagonist goes on leave in London and watches a comic theatrical performance of chorus girls dressed as soldiers. The rich Londoners, safely away from the front, laugh and joke. The protagonist turns to his date and says, “These people have no right to laugh.” She responds, “But, silly, they are trying to forget.” He replies, “They have no business to forget. They should be made to remember.”

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Charles Yale Harrison

          Harrison’s novel forces us to remember that war is not heroic — that it is not sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. This novel should be required reading for anyone who wants insight into the pain, alienation, and bitterness of the Lost Generation after the Great War, and who needs a reminder that sable-rattling rhetoric and warhawk policies have real human consequences. It should be read by politicians who send men and women to be violently killed and gruesomely scarred in battle, but who couch their bureaucratic decisions in the sterile, dehumanizing euphemism “boots on the ground.”  It should be read by American citizens who think the appropriate answer to any international dispute with any rival is to “bomb them into to the stone age.”

          And, most importantly, it should be read by Donald Trump.

          But since he won’t, then it’s up to us to read it and communicate it to him, and to our elected officials who might have some small sway over American foreign policy in the coming years, through our words and actions in the coming years.

MOTHER NIGHT: “We Are What We Pretend to Be” — Trump’s Performative Rhetoric

Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

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 “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

— Kurt Vonnegut


          Donald Trump is a performance artist. A “showman.” A con man. A professional liar with a dangerously unstable personality. He is also a businessman, a politician (despite his insistence otherwise), and, beginning January 20, 2017, President of the United States of America. He wears so many masks as a part of his public persona that he doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a walking, talking brand. And the only consistent trait of that brand is to be foolishly — and recklessly — inconsistent. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, all Trump can do is be Donald J. Trump…whoever that is.

          The impossibility of pinning down Trump is precisely what draws so many people to his cult of personality. His followers can project their desires onto him because his performances are unchecked by accountability. And the keystone to the performance of “Donald J. Trump” is that he openly desires what they desire: power, wealth, and success. He is their Ideal made flesh. Likewise, he speaks to their fears because they are his own — the very deep-seated fears and insecurities that are masked by his persona. 

          And so Trump’s truth becomes their own. The fact that this “truth” is ever-shifting and rarely based on evidence, logic, or reality is all-the-more reason for them to accept the Trump fantasy: Trump speaks their truth. And why is it true? Because Trump speaks it. So goes the tautology of totalitarian thinking. Trump “tells it like is” because he knows. But what does he know? Exactly what his followers “know,” but what they cannot say in public for fear of ridicule. So Trump, the Ideal upon whom they project their desire, will perform this truth for them because he has the power and the wealth to resist that ridicule. His power becomes their own through his theatrics, which are the epitome of what J.L Austin termed “performative utterances.” Ironically, Trump has the insecurity of a child, but neither he nor his followers see it. Why not? 

          Because Trump is who he pretends to be. 

          It’s a lesson that we can learn from reading Kurt Vonnegut’s most complex and challenging novel, Mother Night, framed as the “confession” of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a Nazi radio propagandist during World War II who was also working as a spy for the United States. However, Campbell’s web of lies runs so deep that he becomes unable to distinguish what is real and what is illusion. He begins to live the role he has been performing on the radio. When he is put on trial for war crimes at the end of the novel, his own broadcasts stand as evidence against him.

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Kurt Vonnegut

          Vonnegut asks us to consider the power of performative rhetoric and the dangers of how the misuse of language might distort the world around us and warp our own inner sense of self. The danger is not merely that politicians with damaged moral compasses might gain significant followings, but that their words and lies will begin to damage the collective moral compass of the nation — like a powerful, centralized magnet that forces all needles to point in one direction, rendering all bearings unsound. What ultimately matters is not what a speaker says is “true”/”false” or whether the speaker is authentic/inauthentic, but rather what the words are doing — the impact those words have on others

          And here we begin to see the folly of apologists who justify inflammatory speech by claiming “It’s only campaign rhetoric” or “That’s only one side of the candidate.” We saw this not only with Trump, but also with Hillary Clinton: discussions of her “public” side and her “private” side. Vonnegut warns us that there is no other side. The personas we project are the people we are — even if those personas are largely performances, and even if they conflict — because the impact our words have on others remains the same, regardless of any other factors. After all, our personalities are complex and multifaceted. We “perform” differently depending upon the audience and our own changing purposes. But each one of those performances constitutes the construction of a Self — an identity that we adopt even as we shift and change roles depending on audience. So we had better be careful how we perform, Vonnegut warns, because the words we speak have consequences, no matter which persona we adopt at any given moment, and no matter what the purpose of our performance. 

          Like Mephistopheles, whose speech in Goethe’s Faust gave Vonnegut the title for his novel, Trump’s persona of “greatness” comes wrapped in the swaddling darkness of Mother Night. The question our nation must ask in the next four-to-eight years is not “Who is the real Donald Trump?” (because he is who he pretends to be), but rather, “Who will hold Donald Trump accountable for being the Donald Trump he pretends to be at any given moment through his dangerous rhetoric?” Since neither Trump himself nor his acolytes are up to the task of adjudicating Trump’s performative “crimes against himself” (to quote Vonnegut on Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), then it falls on every rational, critical thinking person to do so. 

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.

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 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? 

 

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.