It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 29

The propaganda throughout the country was not all to the New Underground; not even most of it; and though the pamphleteers for the N.U., at home and exiled abroad, included hundreds of the most capable professional journalists of America, they were cramped by a certain respect for facts which never enfeebled the press agents for Corpoism. And the Corpos had a notable staff. It included college presidents, some of the most renowned among the radio announcers who aforetime had crooned their affection for mouth washes and noninsomniac coffee, famous ex-war-correspondents, ex-governors, former vice-presidents of the American Federation of Labor, and no less an artist than the public relations counsel of a princely corporation of electrical-goods manufacturers.

The newspapers everywhere might no longer be so wishily-washily liberal as to print the opinions of non-Corpos; they might give but little news from those old-fashioned and democratic countries, Great Britain, France, and the Scandinavian states; might indeed print almost no foreign news, except as regards the triumphs of Italy in giving Ethiopia good roads, trains on time, freedom from beggars and from men of honor, and all the other spiritual benefactions of Roman civilization. But, on the other hand, never had newspapers shown so many comic strips — the most popular was a very funny one about a preposterous New Underground crank, who wore mortuary black with a high hat decorated with crêpe and who was always being comically beaten up by M.M.‘s. Never had there been, even in the days when Mr. Hearst was freeing Cuba, so many large red headlines. Never so many dramatic drawings of murders — the murderers were always notorious anti-Corpos. Never such a wealth of literature, worthy its twenty-four-hour immortality, as the articles proving, and proving by figures, that American wages were universally higher, commodities universally lower-priced, war budgets smaller but the army and its equipment much larger, than ever in history. Never such righteous polemics as the proofs that all non-Corpos were Communists.

Almost daily, Windrip, Sarason, Dr. Macgoblin, Secretary of War Luthorne, or Vice–President Perley Beecroft humbly addressed their Masters, the great General Public, on the radio, and congratulated them on making a new world by their example of American solidarity — marching shoulder to shoulder under the Grand Old Flag, comrades in the blessings of peace and comrades in the joys of war to come.

Much-heralded movies, subsidized by the government (and could there be any better proof of the attention paid by Dr. Macgoblin and the other Nazi leaders to the arts than the fact that movie actors who before the days of the Chief were receiving only fifteen hundred gold dollars a week were now getting five thousand?), showed the M.M.‘s driving armored motors at eighty miles an hour, piloting a fleet of one thousand planes, and being very tender to a little girl with a kitten.

Everyone, including Doremus Jessup, had said in 1935, “If there ever is a Fascist dictatorship here, American humor and pioneer independence are so marked that it will be absolutely different from anything in Europe.”

For almost a year after Windrip came in, this seemed true. The Chief was photographed playing poker, in shirtsleeves and with a derby on the back of his head, with a newspaperman, a chauffeur, and a pair of rugged steel-workers. Dr. Macgoblin in person led an Elks’ brass band and dived in competition with the Atlantic City bathing-beauties. It was reputably reported that M.M.‘s apologized to political prisoners for having to arrest them, and that the prisoners joked amiably with the guards . . . at first.

All that was gone, within a year after the inauguration, and surprised scientists discovered that whips and handcuffs hurt just as sorely in the clear American air as in the miasmic fogs of Prussia.

Doremus, reading the authors he had concealed in the horsehair sofa — the gallant Communist, Karl Billinger, the gallant anti-Communist, Tchernavin, and the gallant neutral, Lorant — began to see something like a biology of dictatorships, all dictatorships. The universal apprehension, the timorous denials of faith, the same methods of arrest — sudden pounding on the door late at night, the squad of police pushing in, the blows, the search, the obscene oaths at the frightened women, the third degree by young snipe of officials, the accompanying blows and then the formal beatings, when the prisoner is forced to count the strokes until he faints, the leprous beds and the sour stew, guards jokingly shooting round and round a prisoner who believes he is being executed, the waiting in solitude to know what will happen, till men go mad and hang themselves —

Thus had things gone in Germany, exactly thus in Soviet Russia, in Italy and Hungary and Poland, Spain and Cuba and Japan and China. Not very different had it been under the blessings of liberty and fraternity in the French Revolution. All dictators followed the same routine of torture, as if they had all read the same manual of sadistic etiquette. And now, in the humorous, friendly, happy-go-lucky land of Mark Twain, Doremus saw the homicidal maniacs having just as good a time as they had had in central Europe.

America followed, too, the same ingenious finances as Europe. Windrip had promised to make everybody richer, and had contrived to make everybody, except for a few hundred bankers and industrialists and soldiers, much poorer. He needed no higher mathematicians to produce his financial statements: any ordinary press agent could do them. To show a 100 per cent economy in military expenditures, while increasing the establishment 700 per cent, it had been necessary only to charge up all expenditures for the Minute Men to non-military departments, so that their training in the art of bayonet-sticking was debited to the Department of Education. To show an increase in average wages one did tricks with “categories of labor” and “required minimum wages,” and forgot to state how many workers ever did become entitled to the “minimum,” and how much was charged as wages, on the books, for food and shelter for the millions in the labor camps.

It all made dazzling reading. There had never been more elegant and romantic fiction.

Even loyal Corpos began to wonder why the armed forces, army and M.M.‘s together, were being so increased. Was a frightened Windrip getting ready to defend himself against a rising of the whole nation? Did he plan to attack all of North and South America and make himself an emperor? Or both? In any case, the forces were so swollen that even with its despotic power of taxation, the Corpo government never had enough. They began to force exports, to practice the “dumping” of wheat, corn, timber, copper, oil, machinery. They increased production, forced it by fines and threats, then stripped the farmer of all he had, for export at depreciated prices. But at home the prices were not depreciated but increased, so that the more we exported, the less the industrial worker in America had to eat. And really zealous County Commissioners took from the farmer (after the patriotic manner of many Mid–Western counties in 1918) even his seed grain, so that he could grow no more, and on the very acres where once he had raised superfluous wheat he now starved for bread. And while he was starving, the Commissioners continued to try to make him pay for the Corpo bonds which he had been made to buy on the instalment plan.

But still, when he did finally starve to death, none of these things worried him.

There were bread lines now in Fort Beulah, once or twice a week.

The hardest phenomenon of dictatorship for a Doremus to understand, even when he saw it daily in his own street, was the steady diminution of gayety among the people.

America, like England and Scotland, had never really been a gay nation. Rather it had been heavily and noisily jocular, with a substratum of worry and insecurity, in the image of its patron saint, Lincoln of the rollicking stories and the tragic heart. But at least there had been hearty greetings, man to man; there had been clamorous jazz for dancing, and the lively, slangy catcalls of young people, and the nervous blatting of tremendous traffic.

All that false cheerfulness lessened now, day by day.

The Corpos found nothing more convenient to milk than public pleasures. After the bread had molded, the circuses were closed. There were taxes or increased taxes on motorcars, movies, theaters, dances, and ice-cream sodas. There was a tax on playing a phonograph or radio in any restaurant. Lee Sarason, himself a bachelor, conceived of super-taxing bachelors and spinsters, and contrariwise of taxing all weddings at which more than five persons were present.

Even the most reckless youngsters went less and less to public entertainments, because no one not ostentatiously in uniform cared to be noticed, these days. It was impossible to sit in a public place without wondering which spies were watching you. So all the world stayed home — and jumped anxiously at every passing footstep, every telephone ring, every tap of an ivy sprig on the window.

The score of people definitely pledged to the New Underground were the only persons to whom Doremus dared talk about anything more incriminating than whether it was likely to rain, though he had been the friendliest gossip in town. Always it had taken ten minutes longer than was humanly possible for him to walk to the Informer office, because he stopped on every corner to ask after someone’s sick wife, politics, potato crop, opinions about Deism, or luck at fishing.

As he read of rebels against the régime who worked in Rome, in Berlin, he envied them. They had thousands of government agents, unknown by sight and thus the more dangerous, to watch them; but also they had thousands of comrades from whom to seek encouragement, exciting personal tattle, shop talk, and the assurance that they were not altogether idiotic to risk their lives for a mistress so ungrateful as Revolution. Those secret flats in great cities — perhaps some of them really were filled with the rosy glow they had in fiction. But the Fort Beulahs, anywhere in the world, were so isolated, the conspirators so uninspiringly familiar one to another, that only by inexplicable faith could one go on.

Now that Lorinda was gone, there certainly was nothing very diverting in sneaking round corners, trying to look like somebody else, merely to meet Buck and Dan Wilgus and that good woman, Sissy!

Buck and he and the rest — they were such amateurs. They needed the guidance of veteran agitators like Mr. Ailey and Mr. Bailey and Mr. Cailey.

Their feeble pamphlets, their smearily printed newspaper, seemed futile against the enormous blare of Corpo propaganda. It seemed worse than futile, it seemed insane, to risk martyrdom in a world where Fascists persecuted Communists, Communists persecuted Social–Democrats, Social–Democrats persecuted everybody who would stand for it; where “Aryans” who looked like Jews persecuted Jews who looked like Aryans and Jews persecuted their debtors; where every statesman and clergyman praised Peace and brightly asserted that the only way to get Peace was to get ready for War.

What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness? Why do anything except eat and read and make love and provide for sleep that should be secure against disturbance by armed policemen?

He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.

In June, when the Fort Beulah cell of the New Underground had been carrying on for some three months, Mr. Francis Tasbrough, the golden quarryman, called on his neighbor, Doremus.

“How are you, Frank?”

“Fine, Remus. How’s the old carping critic?”

“Fine, Frank. Still carping. Fine carping weather, at that. Have a cigar?”

“Thanks. Got a match? Thanks. Saw Sissy yesterday. She looks fine.”

“Yes, she’s fine. I saw Malcolm driving by yesterday. How did he like it in the Provincial University, at New York?”

“Oh, fine — fine. He says the athletics are grand. They’re getting Primo Carnera over to coach in tennis next year — I think it’s Carnera — I think it’s tennis — but anyway, the athletics are fine there, Malcolm says. Say, uh, Remus, there’s something I been meaning to ask you. I, uh — The fact is — I want you to be sure and not repeat this to anybody. I know you can be trusted with a secret, even if you are a newspaperman — or used to be, I mean, but — The fact is (and this is inside stuff; official), there’s going to be some governmental promotions all along the line — this is confidential, and it comes to me straight from the Provincial Commissioner, Colonel Haik. Luthorne is finished as Secretary of War — he’s a nice fellow, but he hasn’t got as much publicity for the Corpos out of his office as the Chief expected him to. Haik is to have his job, and also take over the position of High Marshal of the Minute Men from Lee Sarason — I suppose Sarason has too much to do. Well then, John Sullivan Reek is slated to be Provincial Commissioner; that leaves the office of District Commissioner for Vermont–New Hampshire empty, and I’m one of the people being seriously considered. I’ve done a lot of speaking for the Corpos, and I know Dewey Haik very well — I was able to advise him about erecting public buildings. Of course there’s none of the County Commissioners around here that measure up to a district commissionership — not even Dr. Staubmeyer — certainly not Shad Ledue. Now if you could see your way clear to throw in with me, your influence would help —”

“Good heavens, Frank, the worst thing you could have happen, if you want the job, is to have me favor you! The Corpos don’t like me. Oh, of course they know I’m loyal, not one of these dirty, sneaking anti-Corpos, but I never made enough noise in the paper to please ’em.”

“That’s just it, Remus! I’ve got a really striking idea. Even if they don’t like you, the Corpos respect you, and they know how long you’ve been important in the State. We’d all be greatly pleased if you came out and joined us. Now just suppose you did so and let people know that it was my influence that converted you to Corpoism. That might give me quite a leg-up. And between old friends like us, Remus, I can tell you that this job of District Commissioner would be useful to me in the quarry business, aside from the social advantages. And if I got the position, I can promise you that I’d either get the Informer taken away from Staubmeyer and that dirty little stinker, Itchitt, and given back to you to run absolutely as you pleased — providing, of course, you had the sense to keep from criticizing the Chief and the State. Or, if you’d rather, I think I could probably wangle a job for you as military judge (they don’t necessarily have to be lawyers) or maybe President Peaseley’s job as District Director of Education — you’d have a lot of fun out of that! — awfully amusing the way all the teachers kiss the Director’s foot! Come on, old man! Think of all the fun we used to have in the old days! Come to your senses and face the inevitable and join us and fix up some good publicity for me. How about it — huh, huh?”

Doremus reflected that the worst trial of a revolutionary propagandist was not risking his life, but having to be civil to people like Future–Commissioner Tasbrough.

He supposed that his voice was polite as he muttered, “Afraid I’m too old to try it, Frank,” but apparently Tasbrough was offended. He sprang up and tramped away grumbling, “Oh, very well then!”

“And I didn’t give him a chance to say anything about being realistic or breaking eggs to make an omelet,” regretted Doremus.

The next day Malcolm Tasbrough, meeting Sissy on the street, made his beefy most of cutting her. At the time the Jessups thought that was very amusing. They thought the occasion less amusing when Malcolm chased little David out of the Tasbrough apple orchard, which he had been wont to use as the Great Western Forest where at any time one was rather more than likely to meet Kit Carson, Robin Hood, and Colonel Lindbergh hunting together.

Having only Frank’s word for it, Doremus could do no more than hint in Vermont Vigilance that Colonel Dewey Haik was to be made Secretary of War, and give Haik’s actual military record, which included the facts that as a first lieutenant in France in 1918, he had been under fire for less than fifteen minutes, and that his one real triumph had been commanding state militia during a strike in Oregon, when eleven strikers had been shot down, five of them in the back.

Then Doremus forgot Tasbrough completely and happily.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38