So this Post was originally supposed to be about Sinclair Lewis’s ‘It can’t happen here.’ I’ve been meaning to write about this classic novel for over a year now, but for a long time I couldn’t really decide how to approach it.  How to tie it in with this blog and its themes.  Then some stuff on YouTube happened, and now I got a plan.  So before we get to the heavy reading, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favourite film critic YouTubers:

This is Moviebob.

Moviebob
Image courtesy of The Escapist Magazine.

Real name Bob Chipman, a native of Boston as well as the internet, Moviebob’s channel includes movie reviews, essays and skits about video games and popular culture especially video games and comics (he has actually written a book on Super Mario 3). But he does cover some current events (usually through some kind of movie/video game tie-in) and he’s got a nice down to earth attitude that’s combines empathy with playful sarcasm.

He’s also the guy that helped me tie some current events with one of books that I have been wanting to share with you guys for a while now.  In my last post, I drew a connection between a comment by one of the characters and the attacks on Confederate statues in the midst of the current BLM protests in the United States. Around the time that I post this, Moviebob posted a video about the recent decision by HBO’s streaming service to pull the 1939 film classic ‘Gone with the Wind’ from its service until they could re-upload it with some kind of commentary or introduction to put the film into its historic (and racist) context.[1]

Here’s the video:

 

***I couldn’t get the original link from the Escapist Magazine to embed, so I used the video from their YouTube channel.  Click here if you want to check it out at the source.***

The tl;dr here is that the current-day objections to the “censorship” of a classic film are missing the point on a couple of levels.  1) Gone with the Wind was/is not just a historical film that comes across as racist and pro-Confederate to our modern sensibilities.  It was a film that – at the time – was explicitly presenting a revisionist and racist vision of American history and the producers of the film knew it.  2) The notion that we’re ‘going back to erase history so it will match our modern sensibilities’ ignores the fact that there were serious objections raised against film when it was released as well.  Especially from the Black community in America.

The reason we, today, don’t know about the storm of controversy that erupted at the release of Gone with the Wind is because most of the people objecting were Black people (and occasional whites who supported them) and these were voices that could be safely ignored in 1939.

And then later forgotten about entirely.  Talk about erasing history.

Even shorter version: Gone with the Wind has always been controversial and problematic.  It was just easier to ignore in the past.

So that’s Moviebob.  It’s his video that crystalised a bunch of my thinking about Sinclair Lewis’ 1938 novel ‘It can’t happen here’ and how to approach it in this blog.  So thanks Moviebob!

‘It can’t happen here’ is a pretty remarkable book. Written as the liberal democracies, emerging from the Great Depression, struggled to come to grips with the rise of Fascism and the looming threat of another global war. Essentially ‘It can’t happen here’ is a work of speculative fiction describing a Hitler-like fascist takeover of the United States of America.  In this alternate America a crude, fascist demagogue wins the 1936 election and plunges the US into an increasingly Nazi-like distopia.

Oh yeah.  For those who thought Wolfenstein II: The New Collosus was groundbreaking, meet the old dog of the genre!

Wolfenstein II-The New Collosus-1
Wolfenstein II: The New Collosus (MachineGames & Bethesda Softworks, 2018).  Satanic techno Nazis team up with the KKK. And then you get to shoot them all up.  Hell yeah.  Source.

The novel’s protagonist Doremus Jessup is the editor of a small town newspaper, and relates the story of the fascist takeover initially as it effects his (fictional) hometown of Wessex, Vermont.  Periodically, the perspective draws back to take in a national scene and describes the rise of the Lewis’ American Hitler, Senator Buzz Windrip.

Major plot points of the story include how local Wessex residents respond to events, with some choosing to oppose the regime while others quietly comply or even embrace the new order.  One such character is Shad Ledue, a brutish, uneducated labourer who does the occasional odd jobs for the Jessup family.  Recognizing the opportunity Windrip’s ‘Forgotten Man Movement’ represents, he jumps fully onto the bandwagon, and becomes the local Minute Man commander (the novel’s version of the Nazi Brownshirts or SS).  Throughout the novel, Ledue’s story arc is the most chilling, where the local small-town bully gains the literal power of life and death over his neighbours, and gleefully uses it to full effect.[2]

In this fictional narrative, the crafty and unscrupulous Senator Windrip manages to seize the 1936 Democratic nomination from President Franklin Roosevelt and rival demagogue Huey Long.[3]  This move coincides with a particularly weak Republican opponent, and is further aided when the deposed President Roosevelt launches a third-party campaign that further splits the opposition.[3] Windrip is then able to ride a wave of Depression-inspired economic anxiety and old-school racist Nativism to become the President of the United States.

The scenes I wanted to focus on here happens during the Democratic National Convention, where Windrip has orchestrated a bit of theatre to help in his election:

[As Windrip] finished, down the center aisle came a private procession.  But this was no parade of thousands.  There were only thirty-one persons in it, and the only banners were three flags and two large placards.

Leading it, in old blue uniforms, were two [Union] veterans, and between them, arm-in-arm with them, a Confederate in gray.  They were such very little old men, all over ninety, leaning one on another and glancing timidly about in the hope that no one would laugh at them.

The Confederate carried a Virginia regimental banner, torn as by shrapnel; and one of the Union veterans lifted high a slashed flag of the First Minnesota.

The dutiful applause which the convention had given to the demonstrations of other candidates had been but rain-patter compared with the tempest which greeted the three shaky, shuffling old men…standing on his chair, midway of the auditorium, as a plain member of his state delegation, Buzz Windrip bowed-bowed-bowed and tried to smile, while tears started from his eyes and he sobbed helplessly, and the audience began to sob with him.[5]

The narrative then draws further back, showing Buzz Windrip travelling the country as his campaign begins in earnest.  In a larger passage where Lewis demonstrates Windrip’s blatant hypocrisy by deliberately playing both sides in any given conflict, we have this little gem:

Berzelius Windrip, of whom in late summer and early autumn of 1936 there were so many published photographs – showing him popping into cars and out of aeroplanes, dedicating bridges, eating corn pone and side-meat with Southerners and clam chowder and bran with Northerners…

But while Windrip presents himself as a reasonable man willing to work with all sides, two points in his manifesto make it clear that there are some people who won’t get the time of day from this rising star:

[Windrip’s manifesto] The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men:

(9) We cannot too strongly condemn the un-Christian atitude of certain otherwise progressive nations in their discriminations against the Jews…who will…be recognized as fully Americanized, though only so long as they continue to support our ideals.

(10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school.

As a writer, Sinclair Lewis had some issues with realistically portraying Black people, but he had an excellent grasp on the rationalizations used by white racists.[6]

What Windrip is doing here is an old trick.  By embracing both the Northern and Southern veterans, he is able to portray himself as a unify-er, even as he kicks Black Americans to the curb and plays to the uglier racism of both sides.  While he claims to respect all Americans, he casually disregards the reasons for the Civil War in the first place, effectively embracing the cause of the secessionist South.

Which stands to reason.  If you’re going to be a dictator, you don’t want to side with the people who fought against slavery.

This was not something that was new at the time which Gone with the Wind was made.  In fact, it was clear enough that Sinclair Lewis could use this tactic of calling for unity as a way of getting the good guys to surrender as a kind of shorthand manner that didn’t require a lot of explaining for the reader.  As much as people today try to portray Gone with the Wind as coming from a simpler time when people just wanted to tell stories without all that messy political stuff, the reality was that the film was the latest in a long running effort to rehabilitate the Southern cause.  And people at the time recognized this.[7]

I’m probably going to revisit Lewis’ book again as I continue with this blog.  Although it’s definitely got some seriously problematic elements, it’s still an excellent read and even the bad stuff is instructive.  Plus the whole ‘ugly ideas don’t really change’ theme is something I’m probably going to want to revisit as I resume this deconstruction (here’s hoping).  The main point I wanted to make here is that these ideas are old.  They’ve been trotted out again and again over the years, and the only reason they still seem to have any effect is that we tend to forget how bad they were the first time around.

Also, check out Moviebob.

***Featured image from the National Book Review.***

____________________________

[1] This is not to say that Gone with the Wind isn’t a beautifully made film filled with remarkable performances.  Most notably, it was the first Oscar awarded to a Black woman (Hattie McDaniel…and the next one went to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990, which should tell you something).  But much like other films like The Battleship Potemkin or Olympia,[1.1] it’s important to keep the source material in your mind when you watch.

[1.1] It’s an interesting irony that the Nazi film Olympia gave more credit to Black American sprinter Jesse Owens than most of the American media did, at the time.

[2] There’s also a kind of grim amusement to be found later in the novel as the character plateaus in his climb up the Minute Man ladder.  For all his zeal, Shad Ledue slowly realizes that his limited education and skill set means he is unlikely to advance beyond ‘local goon’ in the MM hierarchy, leaving him the same bitter, small time loser he was at the beginning of the story.

[3] This was back in day when the American Democratic Party was still (in part) the party of the South and segregation, while the Republicans were (to a certain extent) the standard bearers of civil rights.  The transformation into their current incarnations wouldn’t occur until Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy took advantage of southern Democrats’ anger of the Civil Rights Act to peel them away to form a newer, angrier Republican Party.

[4] It’s an important thing to point out here that there were a handful of Civil War veterans still alive in America at this time.  They would have all been old men by then, but the last known veteran died in 1956.  There were also many more people who were children during the war, and directly remembered it.  Still more were born in the late 1860s and early 70s and had memories of the War’s aftermath (and the violence that followed).  The point is, the Civil War was still living memory on the eve of World War Two.

[5] There is a brief side note later on where Lee Sarason – journalist, mystic pseudo-intellectual, and Windrip’s chief propagandist – mentions that the flags used in the procession were both theatre props.

[6] In this respect, he’s a lot like sci-fi author David Weber writing about women and sexual assault.

[7] This is why historical films work on multiple levels, presenting not just a vision of the past (in what’s being portrayed on the screen) but also a vision of the time period in which the film is made (a meta-textual story that centres around how and why what’s on the screen is being portrayed).  This is why the liberal arts are important, and film studies is legitimate, and watching YouTube movie critics really does qualify as serious research, dammit!

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