It Can’t Happen Here.
It’s a book, which the publisher of the 2014 paperback edition, Signet Classics, calls “a shockingly prescient novel.” First published in 1935, it is a “cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy,” and “an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression,” it tells of “the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and the liberal press.”
Sinclair Lewis [1885-1957], its author—a liberal humanist, he, in 1930, became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—upends the title: in his imagining, it could happen in America, and it does. Free speech is disdained, freedom of the press curtailed, books are burned. And worse.
Far-fetched? Not at all. In the paperback edition’s introduction, it’s explained that, given “the stormy economic and social climate of the early 1930s…there was widespread concern that the country could be taken over by a fascist dictatorship. […] Fascism was becoming fashionable.” [Back to the future, or so headlines over U.S. stories nowadays seem to suggest, do they not?]
While it’s true that Lewis “successfully aroused a generation of Americans to the dangers that swirled around them”—this is pointed up in an afterword—it’s also true that, in his writing, he “failed, or refused, to sketch a solution to the threat of fascism”. Except for this, a single sentence in the novel: “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 sorts of things he conjures in his admonitory book couldn’t happen here, and now, in Canada, in our land of “peace, order, and good government”. Right?
“U.S.-style book bans could happen in Canada, too, if we’re not careful.” Ominously, this bold banner appears over the lead story in The Globe and Mail’s “Opinion” section on May 27. A quote lifted from the article itself, the subhead explains, “Censorship is not going to be contained in the United States by an imaginary line of a map. How could Canada not be affected? Infected?”
“The culture wars are taking place on sacred ground: my happy place—books,” Marsha Lederman regrets. In her most-of-three-pages-long essay, she, an award-winning journalist who’s now The Globe’s full-time columnist, explains, “I have watched draconian bans enacted one after another after another,” adding, “We are in a future I could never have imagined, even just a few years ago.” So, yes, here and now.
“‘There’s literally been an explosion of challenges to intellectual freedom, to books, to programs in Canada,’ affirms James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University. ‘I think it’s been significantly inspired by what’s happening in the United States.’”
He’s hardly alone in his apprehension: “’We’re seeing it all over Canada,’ publisher and author S. Bear Bergman told me. ‘It’s terrifying. And it’s dangerous.’” Why, when Lederman asked author Raziel Reid “whether Canadians should feel safe from this U.S. wave of book banning, he answered before I could finish my question. ‘All of my experiences with book bans and censorship have taken place in Canada.’”
Still, for now, at least, the “number of formal challenges in Canada is nowhere near what the U.S. is experiencing,” she reports. Even so, Lederman was able to cite efforts at book banning, censorship, cancellation, across the country, from PEI to Chilliwack. And it’s not just books that deal with sex education, gender identity, or contain LGBTQ content, that are targeted: “Among the publications challenged in Canadian public libraries in 2021-22, according to Freedom to Read, was a COVID-19 information guide.”
So what? “‘People who are raising objections are…entitled to express their views,’” she quotes Turk as saying. “‘What they’re not entitled to do is to censor and prevent other people from seeing different views.’”
For still greater insight, Lederman turns to Canadian laureate Margaret Atwood, who, because of her writings—think The Handmaid’s Tale—is only too familiar with suppression. [Addressing the goings-on in Florida nowadays, Lederman writes: “I experienced what has become a familiar sense of the surreal. Like I have stepped into some sort of re-creation of a puritanical, or fascist past. Or been punted into a near-future dystopia. Where is my bonnet? […] Did Margaret Atwood write this script?”]
What we’re experiencing, according to Atwood, is “’a well-known pattern…. It has to do with who gets to say who does, and reads, and thinks, what.’” She worries, what if “’a ruthless regime’” were to “’find every single copy’” of any “‘particular book, and burn them. That’s what happens next.’” It’s enough to have Lederman declare, “[T]hings have reached a new, alarming state.”
So it is that she ends her writing with a plea: “It’s a cliche to say that books have never been more important. But I’m going to say it anyway. In an increasingly dumbed-down society where anyone can publish anything on social media, mis- and disinformation is a click away, and the halls of power are populated with ignorance, books can provide a refuge of intellectual sanity. Not always, sure. But access—true freedom—must be protected. Because it isn’t going away.”
Lederman, notes that “pleasant, passive advocacy may not be enough to turn the page on this scary moment,” and cites as an example attendance in February at “Freedom to Read Week” events. She quotes Bergman: “‘This campaign of hate can only be countered by people, who are not hateful, also getting loud….’” What he’s saying—she paraphrases him—is, “It’s time to make a fuss.” She calls on avid readers, on bookworms, to rise to the occasion …and tells how:
✏️ “Go to the library, take out books, buy books. Read challenged books.“
✏️ “Want to help others see for themselves? Read banned titles with your book club. Put copies in little free libraries.”
✏️ “Tell a librarian you love them? Seriously—an e-mail or word of gratitude goes a long way when you’re being called a groomer and pedophile.”
✏️ “Contact government officials, write to your school board. Pre-emptively, express your support for libraries, and for freedom of intellectual freedom.”
✏️ “Consider not just contacting your school board, but running yourself.”