Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Heard the One About the Literate Rabbi & the Dipso Nobel Laureate?

History is replete with odd couples.  Besides the eponymously obvious - Felix and Oscar, consider John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot, and Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe . . . to name but a few.  One of my very favorites, who shared a most productive - and financially rewarding - partnership were Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and rabbi/author Lewis Browne. The Lewis/Browne friendship was about as odd as that between composers Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On the one side was Sinclair Lewis, the Midwestern atheistic drunk who, whenever he included a Jew in one of his novels, resorted to base stereotypes; on the other side was Lewis Browne, the scholarly  London-born, Portland, Oregon-raised rabbi who, before turning to novel-writing, was one of the nation's premier religious writers and lecturers. 

In the early 1940s, the two joined together and went out on the national lecture circuit, where they were accustomed to speaking before crowds of 3,000 and more, each attendee paying anywhere from 55¢ and $1.10.  Without fail, their lecture topic was entitled "Can It Happen Here?" The Lewis/Browne lecture debates were based on novels they had published in the years between 1935 and 1943: Sinclair Lewis' far more famous (and bestselling) It Can't Happen Here, and Rabbi Browne's regrettably long-forgotten See What I Mean? Both novels dealt with the same topic: the scary prospect of America being taken over by Fascists.  In Nobelist Lewis' dystopian work, the weak-kneed, highly malleable protagonist, a mild-mannered nobody named Buzz Windrip, is led to create a "League of Forgotten Men," and manages to get himself elected POTUS as head of a benign "Share the Wealth League" movement.  Then, with breathless abandon - and before any but the most civically-engaged realizes it, has turned America in a Fascist Corporatist state.  Likewise, Lewis Browne's See What I Mean?" centers around one Clem Smullet, a failed Hollywood p.r. guy who, needing a job, joins forces with the leader of a fledgling anti-Semitic movement called "The Crusade."  Imprisoned, Smullet reveals The Crusades' true intention: to rouse anger and fear, and designate enemies of the state.  One of the things that Lewis and Browne found most troubling and dangerous, was the "America First" movement. 

Sound familiar?

Both It Can't Happen Here and See What I Mean? are available for reading.  I cannot strongly enough urge everyone to read these two classics for, truth to tell, they are as important and hauntingly prescient today as they were more than eighty year ago.  And while I am sorry to offend anyone who really, truly believes #45 has already shown himself to being well on the road to becoming the best POTUS in all American history;  of being the one President who in his first month has kept all his campaign promises and even more, I must strongly, stringently and sonorously declare that they are wrong, wrong, wrong. Like Sinclair Lewis' "Corpos," (the group which brutally and systematically carry out their leader's orders) #45's bare-bones administration has set the wheels in motion for a government that is of, for and about the truly wealthy. Their overarching concern and purpose, as so clearly announced by #45's chief political strategist/amanuensis Steve Bannon, is "the deconstruction of the administrative state."  What in the hell does that mean?  Basically. the dismemberment of the entireFederal Government; especially when it comes to any regulations dealing with the rights and perquisites of big business, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the medicines we take,  the jobs we work at, the social safety net we have long relied upon or the myriad other protections which have tended to keep the "haves" from swallowing up the "have-nots." 

One thing you've got to give Steve Bannon: he is direct and deadly honest.  Speaking this past week before the Conservative Political Action Conference, he described himself as a "Leninist," saying that the Soviet leader “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” In other words, Steve Bannon, late of Breitbart News - the godfathers of "alternative facts" - wants to take the Federal Government back to the days before Theodore Roosevelt, when the government first began adopting the role of defender of the defenseless, the one entity whose job it would be to protect the rights and privileges, the health and safety, of the common clay.  To Steve Bannon, the opposite is the case. As he told the perfervidly right-wing gathering at CPAC, “If you look at [our] Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction." In other words, to eliminate the very cabinet departments they were selected to head.

What makes Steve Bannon far, far more dangerous than #45, is that unlike his putative boss, he is an ideologue who really, truly believes what he says and does.  #45, on the other hand, seems to believe precious little; his main joy comes from applause and the certain knowledge that he is loved by the people to whom he speaks.  I do not believe #45 is an anti-Semite.  But Steve Bannon is.  I do not believe that #45 has given much thought or consideration to what badmouthing Mexico, Germany, Britain or Australia means in the long run.  But Steven Bannon has.  I cannot see #45 giving a tinker's what bathroom an LGBT youngster uses.  But Steve Bannon certainly does. Simply stated, Steve Bannon is #45's puppet master; the maniac who pulls the strings and puts the words into the mouth of his creation.  #45 wants to be loved, admired and venerated; Bannon wants to change the course of human history.  This is both frightening and potentially fatal. It smacks of fascism. And this is precisely why people who oppose this administration cannot let their guard down.  We are not paid agitators; we are patriots.

I cannot tell you how many people have justified their supreme trust and support for #45's whims and flights of Twitter fantasy, by the simple statement "He's fabulously wealthy; he's single-handedly created a fabulous international business empire; he obviously knows how to get things done."  Well my friends, let me remind you that for many decades, the person who single-handedly ran the most successful, most lucrative business empire in America was Al Capone.  (His reputed $129,000,000 income in 1929 would be worth more than $1,820,000,000.00 in today's dollars.) What #45 and his henchmen are steering us toward is the world feared by the "odd couple," Sinclair Lewis & Lewis Browne; a world in which the press is "the enemy of the people"; tax breaks for the rich are precisely what the middle- and lower-classes must support; a gross increase in military spending precisely what the nation needs; and good old fashioned hypertensive fear the currency which will purchase the future so devoutly craved by the few.

Do read It Can't Happen Here. Likewise, if you can find it, do read See What I Mean? The two will give you that uncomfortable feeling which in the long run, is a far, far more valuable currency than anything #45, Bannon or their gaggle of amateur billionaires could possibly imagine. 

Sinclair and Browne may well have been the odd couple, but their fears and worries should be our fears and worries. 

37 days down, 1,423 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone