“A country that tolerates evil means- evil manners, standards of ethics-for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” (Sinclair Lewis)
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a book, a political semi-satire, entitled It Can’t Happen Here. You may have heard about it recently…it’s been getting a lot of renewed attention.
The novel centers on Doremus Jessup, an American journalist covering the campaign of Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a charismatic and power-hungry politician , who promises to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, to secure “traditional values”–and to do it by any means necessary. He calls himself a member of the “League of Forgotten Men”, whose statue in society has been diminished by Jewish organizations, non-white people, and women. When he is eventually elected, Windrip begins systematically dismantling the American government and instituting a “Corpo” government that gives rights to businesses. The “Corpo Government” proceeds to outlaw dissent, incarcerate political enemies, restrict the rights of women, minorities, and establish concentration camps where those who oppose the regime are sent. Jessup ends up in one of these concentration camps, but manages to escape, making his way to Canada, and working as a writer and a spy by the New Underground, working to bring down Windrup’s regime.
Make of this plot what you will. Sinclair was writing in 1935, when Fascism was gaining power at a frightening speed in Europe, and his concern was that fear would lead the United States down a similar path. His message throughout the book is two-fold:
- That democratic institutions, civil rights, and systems that ensure equality are very easy to break. It only requires people to be frightened enough to mistrust each other. Throughout his campaign, Windrip sows this fear by emphasizing racial, ethic, and religious stereotypes, by telling people that they are not safe around people who don’t look like them, and by assuring them that he alone can protect them. But once broken, those institutions are incredibly difficult to reinstate.
- That … well, I’ll let him say it for himself:
More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worth while 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.”
We know this is a scary time for just about everyone. But we at the Library encourage you to fight that fear, first with information–with good information, from reputable sources. We are quite literally, full of such information, and we exist to help you find that information. George Peabody knew that the only way democracy could function was to allow its citizens to be capable of thinking for themselves, and we function to fulfill that goal.
We also want you to know that, now, and forever, that you are welcome here. The Library is a place of safety and a place of trust. And we reject any ideology that does not respect the dignity and humanity of every person that comes through our doors.