Revisiting: Sinclair Lewis Imagines American Dictatorship: It Can’t Happen Here…Can It…?

“More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system, whatsoever.  But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” – Doremus Jessup in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

One of the great fears one reads about these days is the use of the Covid-19 pandemic as cover for pushing the United States into fascism. I offer here a revisit to my essay on Sinclair Lewis’s classic about the rise of fascism in the US, It Can’t Happen Here as food for thought.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (image courtesy Goodreads)

It may seem strange that I choose to write about Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian satire, It Can’t Happen Here, for July 4th, the high holy day of the American ideal/experiment. Lewis’s novel is, after all, about the subversion of American democracy into a dictatorship. Worse, that dictatorship, is controlled by the leader of a political party called, presciently enough, The American Corporate State and Patriot Party. If ever someone seemed a political seer trying to warn us to consider the results of our actions, Lewis is that seer and It Can’t Happen Here is his warning. Published in 1935, the novel both reminds us of the complicated economic and political stresses of that time and, in an eerie way, reads (for anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade) like the playbook of – well, of both the “corporate citizen” and “patriot” movements within American politics.

For those who don’t know the work of Lewis (and, sadly, that will be far too many), his stock in trade as a novelist was the closely detailed, wittily sarcastic satirization of American life and culture. His masterpiece, Main Street, looks at the smug conservatism of American small towns; Babbitt is an indictment of bourgeois conformity and the practice of “boosterism” (called by another name today, but as rampant now as when Lewis wrote his novel); Arrowsmith, an inquiry into how science, specifically the practice of medicine, is affected by “expected” definitions of success; Elmer Gantry, his attempt to expose the hypocrisy of too many “big time” religious evangelists;  and Dodsworth, a critique of the wealthy (whom Lewis found intellectually empty and self-absorbed). For this body of work Lewis became America’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1930.

It Can’t Happen Here began life as an intended indictment of political demagoguery – in particular, Lewis intended to satirize “The Kingfish,” Louisiana governor and senator (and would-be US President) Huey Long.  Long’s assassination in Baton Rouge, as well as Lewis’s growing concern as he learned more and more about fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany changed the course of his novel – and It Can’t Happen Here was the result. Continue reading

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A Little Light Reading for These Secluded Days

A reading list for our times:
Back in 2018 I ran out of gas – the current government had gotten on my last nerve, and my refuge, reading and writing about what I read, sort of failed me for awhile. I went back into playing music (still very much doing that – working on a solo album right now with the aid of my sons, former members of the band Doco) which gives me a lot of solace. Bought what is probably my last instrument – a bucket list buy, a Rickenbacker 4003 bass. I’ve owned and played lots of basses – started with a 1968 Vox Sidewinder, moved on to a 1969 Fender Telecaster bass (yes, it had the psychedelic flowers on it), then on to a Gibson EB-3 with slot neck tuners, then a few more I won’t list (I realize the only people still reading at this point are other musicians, well, bass players like me, anyway, but I don’t care because talking about this stuff makes me happy and that’s what we’re all trying to find these days – stuff to talk about that gives us a little happiness). At some point we’ll talk strings, guys. And we can talk guitar collections, too, if you like.

Rickenbacker 4003 in walnut. And the bucket list grows more complete.

But not today.

Continue reading

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Aretha and Elvis: the burden of being authentic

Aretha was authentic – like Elvis. That scared the hell out of people. The truth always does….

“…we want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.” – Malcolm X.

At the end of his long running eponymous music program, the late Don Cornelius always ended his program with this reminder of three of life’s important elements:


Aretha Franklin 1968 (courtesy Wikimedia)

No one epitomized that Don Cornelius reminder of those important elements than Aretha Franklin, who died today and whose passing takes from us one who was undoubtedly the greatest singer of her generation and whose talent influenced singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Adele.

Aretha, like the iconic music figure with whom she, sadly, shares a death date, Elvis Presley, now belongs to the ages. But it’s important to consider what Elvis and Aretha share beyond the date of their passing into history. Both figures, enormously talented singers, achieved iconic status for bringing to a larger world music and cultural considerations that had long been ignored because racism and sexism dominated the worlds they were born into in ways that made their music carry more powerful messages – and greater burdens – than either of them would ever have intentionally pursued. Both of them, after all, wanted to be what they were – musicians and artists. Both of them strove to be authentic. At reaching that lofty (and perhaps Utopian) goal of authenticity, ultimately Elvis failed and Aretha succeeded.

The struggles of both have made for many volumes on Presley and will make for many on Franklin. Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Aretha, the Queen of Soul. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” the guy who could be called the King of Literature reminds us. But on this sad day, it’s important to remember why those volumes have been or will be written. Continue reading

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Why Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam – the great rock ‘n’ roll ripoff…

“Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam/Sunbeams are never made like me…”                                                                                                                  The Vaselines, Nirvana

The Who – maximum sunbeam unworthiness (image courtesy

An incident at the memorial service for my friend and former band mate, Mike, about whom I wrote a recent reminiscence, has been rattling around in my head for several weeks now. During that time I’ve finished reading the next to last book on the 2017 reading list, Reverend Emmett Barnard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Ripoff! It’s one of the first of the religious right’s attacks on rock music as the ruination of American youth as well as one of the early salvos in the culture wars that movement has been waging for over 30 years.

As an academic and scholar, my view of Barnard’s book, which he presents in the form of a scholarly monograph, is that it’s a terrible book. It’s  poorly written, weakly sourced, and generally sloppy. Repeatedly, Reverend Barnard displays a profound lack of knowledge of his subject,  and the work is rife with factual errors.  Continue reading

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A kind of requiem – with milk and cookies and a white guitar…

“The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” – Henry David Thoreau

Mike about the time our band, Backyard Tea, formed in 1971

One of my oldest friends died a few weeks ago.

Mike and I first met when were were 7 years old. We bonded over a mutual love of baseball and our love of our grandmothers. Mike lived with his; I visited mine frequently. Many times when I visited my grandmother we’d get together for an impromptu game of whiffle ball, or a game of catch, or simply a walk around the neighborhood.  We’d talk about the stuff 8-9-10 year old kids talked about in those halcyon days of the early sixties: the New York Yankees (Mike was a lifelong fan), Batman vs. Superman, astronauts, Mad magazine.

We were typical American boys of our time.

Then came February 1964.  I got a Silvertone acoustic for Christmas 1964 that I still own. Mike got the cooler guitar, a Silvertone electric with an amp built into the case. I have no idea what Mike did with his guitar. That was many guitars and adventures ago.

The goal was, of course, to become Beatles.

Continue reading

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Republican new order looks a lot like medieval old order…

“…ternarity became the ideology of feudal society; the division into groups was “not on the basis of actions performed, roles played, offices assumed, or services mutually rendered, but rather on the basis of merit.” – Georges Duby

Medieval depiction of The Three Orders: left to right, the Clergy, the Nobility, the Laborer (image courtesy W. W. Norton)

As what the Republicans call the “tax cut” bill and 79% of the public calls the “tax cuts for the rich, nightmares for everyone else” bill moves toward a vote, I’ve been thinking a lot about the French medieval historian Georges Duby.

That’s how I roll, people.

Duby has been on my mind because a couple of years ago I wrote an essay on his masterful examination of the socio-economic structure of medieval Europe, The Three Orders.  I’ve been turning over in my mind one passage in particular from that essay:

What is left for readers is to consider how Duby’s elucidation of that far off time provides insights into our own imaginings of this new millennium.

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Dear Mr. Buffett: about your excess cash problem…

“Warren Buffett has advocated for higher taxes on the rich and a reasonable estate tax. But his company Berkshire Hathaway has used ‘hypothetical amounts’ to ‘pay’ its taxes while actually deferring $77 billion in real taxes.” – Paul Buchheit, Bill Moyers and Company

Warren Buffett with a little of what he has a lot of (image courtesy Wall Street Nation)

This an an open letter of sorts to the richest person in Omaha, Nebraska.

A recent Motley Fool article bemoaned a problem that can best be described as peculiar to one in Mr. Buffett’s  life situation:

As of Sept. 30, Berkshire [Hathaway] (Mr. Buffett’s company) was sitting on more than $109 billion in cash, which represents nearly one-fourth of the company’s entire market cap, and the Oracle of Omaha is undoubtedly feeling the pressure to start putting it to work.

The author of the article, Matthew Frankel, reassures us that he realizes that Mr. Buffett’s problem deserves to be placed in its proper context:

To be clear, having a massive sum of cash is certainly a good problem to have. It’s certainly better than not having enough cash, or having too much debt.

If your response to the above was “Well, duh,” you might be in the 99%.

So here’s an open letter to Warren Buffett, “the Oracle of Omaha,” about ways in which he  might use some, if not all, of that excess cash he has lying around. Continue reading

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Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom… rock music according to Nik Cohn

“Elvis is where pop begins and ends. He’s the great original and even now he’s the image that makes all others seem shoddy, the boss. For once, the fan club spiel is justified: Elvis is King.” – Nik Cohn

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom by Nik Cohn (image courtesy Goodreads)

One of the books from the 2017 reading list that I have most been looking forward to reading (actually re-reading) is Nik Cohn’s now classic 1970 book on rock music, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Cohn’s style, which is opinionated, brash, and merciless in his assessments of some of the musicians we think of as both musical and cultural legends (don’t be fooled by the encomium above – he takes plenty of shots at the post-Army movie star and the Vegas period lounge singer Elvis became).

He is, to me, one of the most authentic writers on the subject of rock music that I have ever read. I rate him with Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, and Lester Bangs (some would count Paul Morley in this elite company, but I find him pedantic and self-indulgent). Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom is Cohn’s first book. Written when he was only 23, it is filled with the hubris and certainty of youth, and I suspect Cohn’s strong opinions, especially about his contemporaries, the rock stars who emerged in the 1960’s, have likely moderated – or hardened – over the years.

Still, nearly 50 years later Cohn’s opinions about both the founding figures of rock from the 1950’s – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley – and the great English stars – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Who – almost all of whom he knew, some closely (he was an intimate of Pete Townshend) resonate with a level of both the gravitas of a serious critic and the snarkiness of a kid in the mosh pit that impresses even as it sometimes maddens a knowledgeable reader. He’s as authentic as those he writes about. Continue reading

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Coda: resisting McDonaldization…

“The system is run by the few with the few as the main beneficiaries. Most of the people in the world have no say in these systems and are either not helped or are adversely affected by them.” – George Ritzer

(Read Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

We’re all living in McDonald’s world (image courtesy LinkedIn)

The range of the standardized, bureaucratic system embodied in McDonald’s is now an immense web in which almost every American is enmeshed. The power of McDonaldization is now so great that for many people resisting the roles defined for us by McDonaldized business and institutional models feels, if not impossible, so difficult and time consuming (inefficient and unpredictable, not to mention difficult to calculate and hard to control) as to seem not worth the effort.

So, the vast majority of us continue to submit ourselves, if not willingly then unresistingly, to McDonaldized systems. From our daily activities of shopping and dining to our most important decisions such as obtaining health care and education, we are, all too often, faced with capitulating to McDonaldization to meet our life needs. We buy our morning coffee from the chain outlet, check and bag our own purchases from a big box store, go to the immediate care facility to get our sprained ankle treated. These behaviors are our first, sometimes our only, options. But most of use realize that such behaviors drain us of our humanity and individuality bit by bit. And we wish there were other possibilities.

Continue reading

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The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 5

“The bureaucracy is a dehumanizing place in which to work and by which to be serviced. The main reason we think of McDonaldization as irrational, and ultimately unreasonable, is that it tends to become a dehumanizing system that may become anti-human or even destructive to human beings.” – George Ritzer

(Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

Wall Street bankers discuss the housing market crash rationally (image courtesy Idle Log)

In part 4 of this series I discussed how the tentacles of McDonaldization have spread far beyond the fast food industry and attached themselves to almost every institution of American culture. This implementation of the hyper-rational methods developed by Ray Kroc for the McDonald’s food chain, however, when implemented, tend to foster irrational behavior and results.

As parts 1 and 2 of this series explained, McDonaldization is evolved from bureaucracy, a form of standardization that emphasizes chain of command, efficiency through strict limitation of individual duties and responsibilities, and above all, strict control over all operations. Kroc’s adaptation of this methodology for his hamburger stands distilled the rigidity of bureaucracy into four essential elements George Ritzer calls McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, control. The application of these elements, as explained in part 3 of the series, was wildly successful – financially – and made McDonald’s the envy of first their direct competitors and then of the entire business world. Businesses of all sorts began to apply the McDonald’s methodology to their companies – with varying degrees of success.  Continue reading

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