Monday, December 19, 2005

Is It Happening Here?

Ever read Sinclair Lewis's novel "It Can't Happen Here"? Doesn't matter. You already know the story. Joe Keohane, writing in yesterday's Boston Globe, has an excellent review of Lewis's eerie work in which "A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America."
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Written in 1935, and recently reissued, if Lewis's novel is as Keohane describes it (and I'll know soon enough, I ordered it today) it should send chills down the spine of anyone who reads it. In Lewis's fictional America democracy has fallen to despotism - and nobody seems to care. But as Keohane writes, the smooth-talking Southerner with his legions of cronies and disastrous plans isn't the only one at fault. "The blame also falls on the 'it can't happen here' crowd, those yet to realize that being American doesn't change your human nature; whatever it is that attracts people to tyranny is in Americans like it's in anyone else."

Do we marvel at the prescience of Sinclair Lewis seventy years ago, writing words that seem destined for today? Or do we shudder at the realization that we stand today, just as we stood seven decades ago, nearer to the edge between democracy and despotism then we care to admit? I wish I could say 'neither,' I just don't believe that's the truth.

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