As disconsolate as I was at the end of 2016 (and I was, deeply so), 2017 has managed, in some respects, to shock and depress me beyond expectations.
Shocked and depressed by the sight of giant swastika banners, and the sound of anti-semitic chants, on the streets of an American city, and the inability of the leader of the USA to unequivocally condemn fascist violence. Since Charlottesville, of course, that has been compounded by that leader acting as a publicist for the vile Britain First in their attempts to spread fear and hatred.
I know, of course, that fascism never went away, that there have always been cliques and cadres of unapologetic Nazis, but they used to deny what they were, to hide from publicity, not to court it. They used to put on their uniforms and get out their flags in private, amongst those of a like mind, not to parade them on the streets.
Not only are Nazis now out and proud, but the very notion of truth seems to be up for grabs. If you are caught out in an untruth, you simply claim it as an alternative fact.
Robert Spencer, a leading American Islamophobe who was banned from entering the UK in 2013 for his anti-Muslim history, posted on his website Jihad Watch that doubts about the veracity of the retweeted videos were beside the point. “The real question is not whether this or that video is accurate, but whether there is a problem with jihad terror and Islamic supremacism in Britain and elsewhere.”
“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “‘That is what the president is talking about, that is what the president is focused on dealing with, those real threats and those are real no matter how you look at it. His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”
We were warned about this. Warned a long time ago.
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958)
Orwell, in his reflections on the Spanish Civil War, described his fear at the feeling that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’.
Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs. (George Orwell – ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, 1942)
Just over a year ago I was musing about Godwin’s law.
We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust. We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.
And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.
But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.
What strikes me now, reading those words, is that we’re no longer just hearing echoes. Fascist rhetoric is being normalised. It’s perceived as being endorsed, even, when the President of the US refers to far-right protestors as ‘very fine people’, or retweets Britain First’s vile anti-Muslim videos. The wretched Farage is endorsing ‘concerns’ about the Jews, with a smooth segue from ‘the Israeli lobby’ to the ‘six million Jewish people living in America’, and the suggestion of disproportionate influence. Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Whether it’s a real document, the threat is real…
I’ve just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s remarkable 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
As many have pointed out over the years, it’s not the greatest work of literature. And, of course, it’s not actually supernaturally prescient – Buzz Windrip resembles Trump in some ways, but there are many more differences. We are not now in the 1930s. Because we know what happened then, and what happened after, we cannot walk blindly into the kind of totalitarianism that Windrip delivers so easily, with so little resistance. We know – a diminishing few of us from first-hand experience, and many more from having read and learned from history – and we cannot unknow.
We can’t afford to be complacent though – few of us would have expected that we would be where we are today, that we would see and hear this normalisation of fascism. We have to draw upon what we know about what happened then, to ensure that it really, really can’t happen here, and now.
One criticism of Lewis’s novel which jars with me, however, is the notion that Doremus Jessup, its hero, is hard to root for.
Jessup, as his name suggests, was a deliberate throwback to the 19th century. He thinks and talks in very flowery stream-of-consciousness prose, stuffed with references to writers and concepts long forgotten. …. While Orwell’s hero Winston Smith attempts his doomed act of thoughtcrime rebellion against Big Brother from the very first page, Jessup takes an age to really stand up to his dictator. …
Doremus Jessup’s one act of rebellion, months after the dictatorship has been established, is to write a fiery front-page editorial. He is jailed for this, but they let him out when he promises to help his successor write pro-Windrip articles. Some hero.
By the end of the book, Jessup is an agent of the resistance based in Canada; his job is to skip across the border and stir up rebellion. But to achieve this, he spreads propaganda himself, telling each man the rumors he needs to hear.
This kind of behavior doesn’t make for a likable character. Indeed, Jessup’s constant wittering about his self-doubt and compromises make it surprisingly hard to root for him even when he’s in a concentration camp, being forced to drink castor oil and taking 20 lashes. (Whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston is tortured, we’re right there on the table with him.)
Clearly I am invested in Doremus Jessup because I found myself getting rather cross about this, on his behalf. The comparison with 1984 is, I think, largely spurious. We are from the start of that novel in the dystopian future where Big Brother reigns supreme. In It Can’t Happen Here we are in a modern democracy, where Buzz Windrip seems at first to be a hopeless candidate, a joke. Where the idea that a President might set up and mobilise a private army to root out dissidents, and set up concentration camps where those dissidents can be tortured and murdered, seems so improbable that no one is prepared for it.
Doremus isn’t an action hero. Perhaps that’s why I root for him, contrary to the Dystopia Project’s somewhat simplistic view. He’s not the guy you want by your side if it comes to a scrap. But he uses the things he is good at in the service of the Resistance, and uses the opportunity of continuing to work at the newspaper offices to establish an underground newspaper and distribute it through clandestine channels. He is caught with the text of an editorial exposing murders committed by one of Windrip’s Military Judges, and is brutally punished.
I was reminded of Francois Mauriac, the great French novelist, and member of the French Resistance during the Occupation. He wasn’t an obvious candidate for the resistance movement – he was naturally conservative, and indeed he initially supported Petain’s Vichy government. But Mauriac was someone who listened, always, to his conscience, and when the Vichy government began implementing anti-Semitic legislation, his conscience told him he had to act.
He too was a pretty weedy chap, but he wrote, and contributed to the production of clandestine texts such as Le Cahier noir (written under the pseudonym Forez, in 1943), which was a passionate condemnation of the Vichy regime and of collaboration with the Nazis and an equally passionate statement of hope, and of faith in humanity, of the ideals of justice and liberty.
Mauriac was lucky, he managed to escape arrest by keeping on the move, but he knew what he was risking, and that he would have been unlikely to survive arrest, torture and a concentration camp. People like Mauriac, like Doremus, are as much heroes as those who take up arms.
I’m an utter physical coward. When I ask myself, as I have done so often when reading about the Nazi Occupation of France, what I would have done, I know I wouldn’t have been fighting in a partisan unit, blowing up railway lines or assassinating German officers in the Metro. But equally I believe I would not have been just keeping my head down and shutting up, and I know, absolutely without doubt that there are circumstances in which I would instinctively do the right thing even if it was dangerous, and absolutely without doubt that I would not betray or denounce. I like to think that I’d be with Mauriac and Jessup, writing the truth, getting it out there. That’s where our hopes must lie. That in Trump’s America and in Brexit Britain, in the European nations now flirting with fascism and infected with xenophobia, there will always be Mauriacs, always be Jessups, who just can’t sit still and do nothing.
We’re not facing those kind of decisions now, not yet at any rate. But smaller decisions may confront us at any time, even here, in a country where racist bigots have been emboldened by the decision to leave the EU and by the horrors inflicted by IS and their affiliates, to express their hatred in ways that we haven’t heard or seen for decades.
It can happen here. It’s on us to make sure it doesn’t.
So Doremus rode out, saluted by the meadow larks, and onward all day, to a hidden cabin in the Northern Woods, where quiet men awaited news of freedom.
And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for Doremus Jessup can never die.
(Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here)
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Meridian Books, 1958
Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, 1935, Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2017
George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, in George Orwell: Essays, Penguin Books, 2000