The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘Sinclair Lewis’

WHO’S REALLY BEEN MEDDLING IN AMERICAN ELECTIONS?

In yesterday’s post, I described writing a senior high school paper on author Sinclair Lewis.  What I didn’t mention was that in addition to being a fairly prolific novel writer he penned a large number of short stories which were primarily published in magazines.  As part of the preparation for writing my paper, I spent many hours in the main branch of the N. Y. Public Library’s periodicals room reading these.  As I recall I made my way through thirty or so of them.

Although I no longer remember the title of this particular story, there was one that dealt with causality.  It described a man who worked for a company that manufactured munitions.  He forgot to set his alarm clock the night before an important meeting and as a result over slept, catching a later train than usual and so was late for the meeting.  This set off a series of five or six different events which ultimately resulted in a revolution occurring in some unnamed South American country and a military takeover of the same.  The story was unusual for Lewis, almost science fiction-like in content.  But it does speak to the current brouhaha over Russian influence in our recent presidential election.

It would be foolish for any rational person not to believe that hostile foreign nations including Russia, North Korea, China and Iran, to name a few, would not engage in activities which they see to be in their best interest to the detriment of the United States or any other country they believe to be their adversary.  After all, wasn’t that why we so staunchly supported and financed the activities of Radio Free Europe during the cold war with the Soviet Union?  What is remarkable is that there seems to be so much surprise on the part of our elected officials that this happens.

As I recall, during the 2012 Presidential Debates, candidate Romney was asked what he considered to be the greatest threat to the security of the United States.  His almost immediate response was, “Russia.”  In his rebuttal, President Obama ridiculed Romney for his answer. So one of two things is true.  Either Romney was correct and Obama had it wrong.  Or, if Russia did not pose that threat in 2012 but now does, then the failure of U. S. foreign policy under the Obama administration has allowed Russia to become that threat.

Those who are arguing that Russia’s influence affected the outcome of the election must hold to the same simple causality that Lewis describes in his short story.  One thing leads to another to another to an unexpected outcome, as surely as night follows day.  That makes for a good story or perhaps an engaging movie – but it is not how things generally work in this world.

There are several issues in this now wide-raging debate that are not in question.

The first is there was an almost cavalier attitude toward cyber-security on the part of both Hillary Clinton and John Podesta which allowed Russia, if in fact they were the ones who actually hacked their emails, to gain entry into their systems.

The second is that no one has alleged that the emails were in any way massaged or altered before their release.  This, of course, begs the question, should the American electorate not have been allowed to see this material so that they could make a more informed decision on the candidate for whom they would vote?

The third is that everyone agrees that neither Russia nor anyone else were able to alter the actual vote totals as they were recorded precinct by precinct.

The fourth is that everyone agrees that whatever influence the alleged Russian hack had on the election results is unquantifiable – just as it would be naïve to attribute the fall of the former Soviet Union solely on the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe.

It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to hypothesize why the election turned out as it did.  Perhaps there were a lot of Clinton supporters in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan who simply were either too sick or to unmotivated to show up at the polls and cast their ballots.

Or perhaps there were some undecided voters who simply concluded that after years of Clinton controversies, whether or not anything had been proven, there just seemed to be far too much smoke so there may well be a fire burning somewhere.

Or perhaps millions of Republican voters in New York or California either never bothered to register or if they were registered didn’t vote, knowing that their vote would essentially be meaningless.  Perhaps the number of GOP voters who sat it out would have been sufficient for Trump to win not only the Electoral College vote but the popular vote as well.

But let’s talk about my adopted state of Nevada for a moment – one of those “swing states” as political pundits like to call it.  What if something specific happened here which had a far more direct impact on the election than Clinton’s emails or Benghazi or the failure of Obamacare?  What if an employer in this state tacitly suggested to its employees how they should vote in the presidential election?  That employer (and perhaps others) is MGM Resorts International.

MGM is an international corporation headquartered in Las Vegas.  It owns and manages properties in Nevada, several other states and internationally, primarily in Macao, China.  The company employs approximately 50,000 people, 35,000 of those being here in the Silver State.

MGM has a very civic corporate conscience.  It has received a number of awards from several “progressive” organizations for their support for the LGBTQ community and for minority groups, primarily Hispanics, many of whom it employs.  And what would being a good citizen be other than to support the most important right which we have – the right to vote?

During early voting here in Nevada, MGM allowed it’s employees time off from work in order to execute their franchise.  In fact, it provided free buses to local temporary polling stations so their employees could vote more easily.  All that is fine.  But MGM took this one step further.

In order to simplify the voting experience, MGM provided its employees who took advantage of their free transportation a sample ballot to take with them into the voting booth.  The problem was that this “sample ballot” contained the note at the top that “MGM recommends a vote for the following candidates and propositions on the November 8th ballot.”  The names of Hillary Clinton for president and Catherine Cortez Masto for U. S. Senate were checked and highlighted in yellow on the pre-printed form.  As it turns out, Clinton carried Nevada by a margin of  27,202 votes and Masto won the Senate seat by 26,915 votes, obviously fewer votes than the number of MGM employees who received their “suggested ballot.”  I only know this because a friend who is an MGM employee and who supported Trump in the election was infuriated about this and gave me the copy she received from her employer.

It is, of course, a moot point as Clinton lost the election.  But Masto, whose background is sketchy at best, is one of our one hundred senators and a protégé of Harry Reid’s.  With a margin in the Senate as tight as it is, her election may well make a difference.  And while I’m not sure whether MGM broke the law in providing this ballot, I believe it would be fair to suggest that if you were employed by a company that handed you a completed “suggested ballot,” you might feel pressured to vote as indicated.

We can only speculate about either Russia’s or MGM’s motivation in involving themselves in our election.  Perhaps MGM’s management simply was expressing their liberal bent.  Or perhaps they are concerned about their property in Macao and the nature of our relationship with China under a Trump administration.  That the President-Elect took a call from the democratically elected President of Taiwan the day after his election must be giving them fits.

One thing that is certain is that the 2016 election will be a boon to the publishing industry.  I suspect enough will be written about it to fill a presidential library.

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THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA

It was two weeks before the end of my junior year of high school when the bomb dropped.  There I was, looking forward to my third summer working for E. F. Hutton in their backroom on Broad Street when my English teacher informed our class that he was giving us a summer project which we needed to complete by the first day of our senior year.

Each of us had a week to select an American author who would become the subject of a paper (at least fifty pages long – double spaced).  We would be required to read at least five works by that author as well as a biography of our subject.  I immediately thought of Nathaniel West who suffered an untimely death in an automobile accident and had only written four books, one of which, Miss Lonelyhearts I had already read.  But I hadn’t really enjoyed that experience and was uncertain that I wanted to subject myself to further literary abuse by that author.

After a great deal of mental mulling I settled on Harry Sinclair Lewis – a far more prolific author and an individual with whose works I was familiar only by name – specifically Main Street and Elmer Gantry.  Somewhere I had heard that he was also the subject of some controversy which only piqued my curiosity about what he had to say.  I remembered reading a review of a biography of Lewis that had been written by Mark Schorer a few years earlier – still the definitive work on his life.

My English teacher approved my choice and after school I headed down to my local bookstore to see which of  Lewis’ works were available in paperback.  As good luck would have it, on the close out table was a copy of the Schorer biography.  Three dollars for a nearly thousand page hardback.  As my Jewish classmates would say, “Such a deal.”  I grabbed a copy together with paperback editions of Main Street and Babbitt and asked the owner to hold them for me until the next day when I would return to pay for them, which she gladly agreed to do.  Conducting business with merchants was so much more civilized and pleasant back in the ’60’s.

As there were three days of school remaining, our final exams in the rear view mirror and nothing much to do other than plan on attending the commencement program, I dove into the Schorer biography to gain a few days on the project even before we were on summer vacation.  I decided that having a bit of history on the author might help me appreciate his work more.  I finished the book early the next week – and if there was one quote I took away from it, it was that Lewis had earned the sobriquet, “The most hated man in America.”  As I began reading his novels, I quickly understand why.

Lewis’ writing was succinct, compelling and fatally cynical.  He described life in small American towns and the people who inhabited them.  To him, they were little more than plastic figures engaged in mundane activities in the pursuit of mediocrity.  Having himself come from just such an environment in Sauk Centre, MN it was hard not to feel that Lewis was implying that he had risen from that bourgeois existence and had achieved a higher plane of understanding, a greater appreciation of aesthetics and, of course, a moral superiority.

When he died suddenly of heart failure in Rome in 1951 the literary world took note of his passing.  After all, he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1925 novel, Arrowsmith, an honor that he refused to accept.  One literary critic headlined his column on Lewis’ demise with the acerbic introduction, “Sinclair Lewis Dead – At Last.”

For sixty-five years there have been few who have challenged Lewis’ title of “The most hated man in America.”  But one might argue that there is finally a new contender for the title, that being one Donald J. Trump, the soon to be 45th President of the United States.

Remarkably, President-Elect Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America Great Again” is in direct contrast to Lewis’ view that America, or at least it’s people, have never been great at all, a view heartily endorsed by the many cacophonous, caterwauling Trump critics. These same naysayers also assume a Lewis-like sense of moral superiority perhaps stemming from their profound adherence to atheism, a religion to which Lewis subscribed.  It is they and they alone who have an understanding of true righteousness, appropriate behavior and the correct manner of thinking, speaking and acting.

I wish I were here sixty-five years from now to see whether Trump’s optimistic view of what America can achieve will prevail.  Or whether those who view themselves as victimized members of the mindless mob will have their way.  But perhaps it will not take that long to see which side has the upper hand.

Irrespective of the facts, the word is that Trump’s opponents are already assembling to hold a regalia in which they will transfer the title from Lewis to our next president.  As I don’t have anything sufficiently festive to wear, should I receive an invitation to attend, I guess I will be forced to decline that honor.

THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA

Because my high school English teacher had a philosophy that education was not confined to the school term, each year we were given a summer assignment which we were expected to complete and turn in on our return in the fall.

At the end of my junior year we were told to select an American author, read at least three novels or plays by him or her as well as a biography and write a term paper of no less than 25 pages in length.  When I was given this assignment I selected Sinclair Lewis as my author subject..

I will admit to a bit of deviousness on my part in this selection as I had already read two of his novels, “Main Street” and “Babbitt” and I had asked my parents for the extensive biography which Mark Schorer had written several years earlier as a birthday present.  But I would also have to say that I enjoyed Lewis’ acerbic style and his descriptions of life in America and I looked forward to reading several more of his works.

I threw myself head first into the project by reading “Dodsworth” and by the time that I had finished it my birthday had come around and the Lewis biography was beautifully gift wrapped and ready for my eager eyes.  I tore into it rapaciously.

When I finished the biography I read six more of Lewis’ novels including “It Can’t Happen Here” which was published in 1935 and was a parody of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.  The work was transposed to a sleeping America where the electorate allowed themselves to be seduced by a charismatic populist leader who bought their votes by offering them small sops, (the kitchen in every pot syndrome).

Ultimately, he consolidated his near unanimous support to assume dictatorial powers.  But some few, true stalwarts who saw the insidious nature of this new dictator resisted and so the Second American Revolution was born.  Perhaps you will see a corollary between this book written 78 years ago and today’s events.

Lewis was a fiercely partisan American.  While his books often pointed to the pettiness of small-minded middle American individuals, nevertheless he believed that our people and our country, with all their faults, was the modern Prometheus and the shining beacon lighting the way for the whole world.

But because he was not afraid to tell it like it was, he had no compunctions about insulting anyone whom he felt was tarnishing the American dream and all who were hypocritical in the morality they preached and the immorality they lived.  This caused Lewis to earn the moniker, “The most hated man in America.”

(And you thought this post was going to be about George Zimmerman, didn’t you)?

More on Lewis in the next post.

“IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE”

As my junior year of high school ended, my English teacher handed out a summer assignment to us. We were to select an American author, read at least five of his or her works and a biography and present a report when we returned for our senior year. I chose Sinclair Lewis for this paper.

Lewis’ biographer, Mark Schorer described his subject as “the most hated man in America.” The author’s portrayal of the narrow-mindedness of small town Americans (and most of us in general) was clearly evident in “Main Street,” probably his best known novel; his portrayal of religious perfidy in “Elmer Gantry;” the pettiness of successful business people in “Dodsworth.”

There seemed to be no end to the antipathy that Lewis could extend to whatever subject he sought to discredit. I had figured that out by the time I completed the eighth of his novels on my reading list, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

The novel (later made into a play) was published in 1935. There is a difference of opinion as to whether it was intended as a spoof about Adolph Hitler or Huey Long or both of them. Whoever the intended target, there is no doubt that Lewis had no use for him.

The plot is that a a charismatic populist politician runs for and is elected President of the United States. His platform sounds familiarly like Herbert Hoover’s slogan in his election campaign, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” In this case, “Buzz” Windrip (the book’s antagonist) promises everyone $5,000 a year – which in 1935 was megabucks – and a return to economic prosperity for the country.

Once elected, however, his true nature comes to light. He is a self-aggrandizing man with a desire for power and establishes a dictatorship by forming a large force of militia known as Minute Men (an obvious reference to Hitler’s SS). Civil liberties are quickly done away with and dissenters are sent to interment camps. (Could Lewis have foreseen FDR’s treatment of our Japanese-American citizens during WW II)?

Well, to make a moderately lengthy story short, Windrip is overthrown by his own men, the government changes leadership several times and the protagonist in the story, a journalist by the name of Jessup is head of the resistance movement from his headquarters in Minnesota as the book concludes.

That our government saw this as a useful bit of propaganda is clear from the fact that when it was re-written in 1936 as a stage play it opened simultaneously on 21 stages. The play’s production was sponsored by The Federal Theater Project. This would not be the last time that governments used either literature or film for propaganda.

The USSR did exactly the same thing in 1938 when Stalin commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to produce the film, “Alexander Nevsky” – in which the valiant prince of Novgorod battled the evil invaders of the motherland – the “Teutonic Knights.” (It happens to be one of my favorite foreign movies – and the score by Sergei Prokofiev is marvelous).

So what does this all have to do with the price of tea in China? I actually started to write this post several times and then discarded my output. Then in my email yesterday, my next door neighbor forwarded a piece that helped me pull this together.

In 1887 Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinborough, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years prior:

A democracy is always temporary in
nature; it simply cannot exist as a
permanent form of government. A
democracy will continue to exist up
until the time that voters discover that
they can vote themselves generous gifts
from the public treasury. From that
moment on, the majority always votes
for the candidates who promise the
most benefits from the public treasury,
with the result that every democracy
will finally collapse over loose fiscal
policy, (which is) always followed by a
dictatorship.”

The average age of the world’s
greatest civilizations from the
beginning of history, has been about
200 years. During those 200 years,
these nations always progressed
through the following sequence:
From bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.”

It gives one pause to think. Or at least, it should.

 

 

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