December 18, 2005

Nothing is Ever Really New

We humans have such short lifespans that we lose perspective. Sometimes we believe that our time on earth is the most important time with the most important challenges Americans, and indeed, humans have ever faced. So it comes as shock to know that on some fronts, what we face is not unusual and definitely is not unpredictable. In fact, reading the following account makes it clear that we Americans are simply playing out a scene that was anticipated.

PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared, angry, and disillusioned.

This politician, a ''Professional Common Man,'' executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos, promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for a return to traditional values, to love of country, to the pie-scented days of old when things made sense and Americans were indisputably American. He speaks almost entirely in ''noble but slippery abstractions''-Liberty, Freedom, Equality-and people love him, even if they can't fully articulate why without resorting to abstractions themselves.

Through a combination of factors-his easy bearing chief among them (along with massive cash donations from Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy, aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they've been unfairly marginalized)-he wins the presidential election.

Once in, he appoints his friends and political advisers to high-level positions, stocks the Supreme Court with ''surprisingly unknown lawyers who called [him] by his first name,'' declaws Congress, allows Big Business to dictate policy, consolidates the media, and fills newspapers with ''syndicated gossip from Hollywood.'' Carping newspapermen worry that America is moving backward to a time when anti-German politicians renamed sauerkraut ''Liberty Cabbage'' and ''hick legislators...set up shop as scientific experts and made the world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution,'' but newspaper readers, wary of excessive negativity, pay no mind.

Given the nature of ''powerful and secret enemies'' of America-who are ''planning their last charge'' to take away our freedom-an indefinite state of crisis is declared, and that freedom is stowed away for safekeeping. When the threat passes, we can have it back, but in the meantime, citizens are asked to ''bear with'' the president.

Sure, some say these methods are extreme, but the plain folks are tired of wishy-washy leaders, and feel the president's decisiveness is its own excuse. Besides, as one man says, a fascist dictatorship ''couldn't happen here in America...we're a country of freemen!"

Ah, yes, you say, that is exactly what is happening today. But, what would you say if you realized the scenario laid out was actually a novel by Sinclair Lewis called It Can't Happen Here? Indeed, the story Lewis envisioned is the reality we are now living. We aren't so different nor so special after all.

Read the rest of the review here. Via Laura Rozen.

Coda: here's one more thought to chew on about whether it can happen here.

Posted by Mary at December 18, 2005 11:41 PM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

For a more "modern" twist on the same scary story, albeit with a "happy" (if strangely optimistic) ending, see Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America."

Then again, that pretty much breaks the "nothing is every really new" theme of the post, huh?

Never mind :-)

Posted by: fred at December 22, 2005 11:15 AM