It CAN Happen Here


I preached a sermon on Fascism this morning. It was my last sermon in the church I am currently serving before I move on. This seemed to be an appropriate parting shot so to speak.

I tried to leave them with more hope than I really have. But that's my job.

More so than usual my brain is feeling overloaded with information. I’ve been reading a lot lately and a good deal of what I’ve been reading both scares me and comforts me. One of the books I’ve read—along with a lot of other people— is Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 Novel, It Can’t Happen Here. You know that something is happening the world when a lot of people are reading and writing about a novel that was written 70 years ago about a totalitarian take over of the US Government. Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, is elected President in 1936 on a platform championing the Common Man while opposing welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press. He’s the Compassionate Conservative of the day with a strong dose of populism following the Great Depression and his platform is very appealing. His greatest supporter is a radio preacher, Bishop Prang. Yes, a lot of people have been reading and writing about a 70 year old book. Joe Conason has a book out titled It Can Happen Here. Chris Hedges has one out called American Fascists, The Christian Right and the War on America. It is hard to imagine the events that Lewis wrote about actually happening in our beloved democracy. Or is it?

Many of you know that Maria Harris was one of my all time greatest teachers. When I recently learned of her death I went to my file cabinet and pulled out the files from the classes I took from her. I found in one of the files a story called the
Third Wave written by a teacher named Ron Jones in 1972. I remembered it well. The article was in an education journal so I presume it was telling a true story. It was a chilling tale about a teacher who, in the midst of teaching about the Second World War found a strange way of answering a question posed by one of his students. The question was this:

“How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people. How could the townspeople, railroad conductors, teachers, doctors, claim they knew nothing about concentration camps and human carnage. How can people who were neighbors and maybe even friends of the Jewish citizen say they weren't there when it happened.”

Rather than try to answer the question directly Mr. Jones began an experiment that quickly spiraled out of hand. He began extolling the virtues of Strength through Discipline and taught the students how to sit with proper posture, how to answer a question promptly and courteously, how to behave in class. The discipline oddly appealed to them. Next was Strength through Community, then Action, and then Pride. Within the period of a week the students had come up with slogans, salutes, their own “elect” and the teacher had them thinking that they were part of a greater secret youth movement. They began spying on one another, deciding who was in and who was out, An idea that started as an answer to a question turned into a monster. Jones wrote:

“The school was alive with conjecture and curiosity. It affected everyone. The school cook asked what a Third Wave cookie looked like. I said chocolate chip of course. Our principal came into an afternoon faculty meeting and gave me the Third Wave salute. I saluted back. The Librarian thanked me for the 30' banner on learning which she placed above the library entrance. By the end of the day over two hundred students were admitted into the order. I felt very alone and a little scared.

Most of my fear emanated from the incidence of "tattletaling". Though I formally appointed only three students to report deviate behavior, approximately twenty students came to me with reports about how Allan didn't salute, or Georgine was talking critically about our experiment. This incidence of monitoring meant that half the class now considered it their duty to observe and report on members of their class. Within this avalanche of reporting one legitimate conspiracy did seem underway .…

Three women in the class had told their parents all about our classroom activities. These three young women were by far the most intelligent students in the class. As friends they chummed together. They possessed a silent confidence and took pleasure in a school setting that gave them academic and leadership opportunity. During the days of the experiment I was curious how they would respond to the equalitarian and physical reshaping of the class. The rewards they were accustomed to winning just didn't exist in the experiment. The intellectual skills of questioning and reasoning were non existent. . .

In telling their parents of the experiment they set up a brief chain of events. The rabbi for one of the parents called me at home. He was polite and condescending. I told him we were merely studying the German personality. He seemed delighted and told me not to worry. He would talk to the parents and calm their concern. In concluding this conversation I envisioned similar conversations throughout history in which the clergy accepted and apologized for untenable conditions. If only he would have raged in anger or simply investigated the situation I could point the students to an example of righteous rebellion. But no. The rabbi became a part of the experiment. In remaining ignorant of the oppression in the experiment he became an accomplice and advocate.

By the end of the third day I was exhausted. I was tearing apart. The balance between role playing and directed behavior became indistinguishable. Many of the students were completely into being Third Wave Members. They demanded strict obedience of the rules from other students and bullied those that took the experiment lightly.”

A classroom experiment in the early 1970’s. No, it can’t happen here. Or can it? Two years ago I remember listening to “Morning Sedition” which was my favorite show on the Air America radio network. Marc Maron, the host, was talking about a sermon that had been given by one of our Unitarian Universalist ministers, Rev. Davidson Loehr called “Living Under Fascism.” It was all over the internet. I looked it up and read it and it was chilling. I’m sure it has brought him a lot of publicity both good and bad. He used the “f” word. Right from the pulpit. It has more power in today’s world than the other “f” word which is also not used from the pulpit. It is a word we don’t want to use for obvious reasons. It inflames fear and passions. It conjures up images of concentration camps and thuggery and the abandonment of the democratic rule of law. It is a frightening word. It is meant to be and we don’t use it lightly, ever.

I’ve been with you for a year and a half now. This is my final sermon. Some of you will not at all miss my rhetorical ventures into our political system preferring topics of a more spiritual nature. Others of you will miss my rants having found them affirming and perhaps even motivating. I have felt the need to venture into the territory of denouncing the “f” word from the pulpit for a while and as my parting shot, so to speak, I wish to leave you with a heightened awareness of both the fears and hopes I have for our country. If nothing else, I want to leave you with your eyes wide open and paying attention to the world around us. In his sermon Loehr lists the fourteen identifying characteristics of fascism gleaned from D. Lawrence Britt, a political scientist. I abbreviate them here:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
. . constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights 
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc. 
4. Supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. . .
5. Rampant Sexism
. . .Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.
6. Controlled Mass Media
Sometimes the media are directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media are indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.
7. Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government's policies or actions.
9. Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy . . often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
10. Labor Power is Suppressed
Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed. 
11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested.
12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. . .
13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. . .
14. Fraudulent Elections
Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections. 

Naomi Wolf with a forthcoming book titled
The End of America wrote an essay that appeared in the Guardian UK last month titled “Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps.” She lists the easy steps as follows:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
2. Create a gulag
3. Develop a thug caste
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
5. Harass citizens' groups
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7. Target key individuals
8. Control the press
9. Dissent equals treason
10. Suspend the rule of law

Does any of this sound at all familiar? It does to me. You might be questioning at this point what this all has to do with religion, at least with our religion. Historically religion has been used either to manipulate a population in order to enable fascist regimes, or minority religious people have been branded as the enemy or scapegoat. Also religious leaders have been singled out for persecution when they stood up against such regimes. When we look to our bedrock core Unitarian Universalist Principles, everything about such regimes or administrations goes against what we stand for. Our faith is nothing if it is not about freedom. Constant vigilance is the price we pay to hold on to our democracy. In Ron Jones’ classroom, in Sinclair Lewis’ America, in our time in this place there are signs that should give us pause.
Naomi Wolf explains her sense of alarm:

. . . what I need to convey is that a 'fascist shift' in a democracy is incremental.
It does not progress like a diagonal line going straight across a chart; it progresses in a buildup of many acts assaulting democracy simultaneously that then form a critical mass, that suddenly erupts the nation into a different kind of reality; the nation `stablizes'; then this process begins again at that elevated level of suppression; and eventually there is no turning back. It is more like a series of `tipping point' progressions than an arithmetic one. If you mapped it on a chart it would look more like a series of steps.
Each critical turning point marks a vertical line in a 'step'.
Historian Richard Evans points out that the Nazi ascension to power came about in a series of tactics, and that there were many points early on at which the German people could have said, 'enough!' and together derailed the escalation. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Evans also points out that part of this passivity had to do with the fact that no one in the Germany of 1933 could see what was coming later in the decade.”

Whether or not you know it, we are in the midst of a Constitutional Crisis. Fortunately, we have dedicated legislators who are beginning to wield the power of the majority to do oversight. Henry Waxman and John Conyers have been holding hearings in the House. Patrick Leahy has been holding hearings in the Senate. This appeared in Think Progress on Friday:

“Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has announced a series of hearings titled “The Constitution in Crisis: The State of Civil Liberties in America.” Topics to be covered by the hearings include:

– The
National Security Agency’s wiretapping program and proposed expansions;
– The erosion of Habeas Corpus through the Military Commissions Act;
– The sanctioning of torture through the Military Commissions Act and other government policies;
– The practice of “extraordinary rendition,” or government sponsored kidnapping;
PATRIOT Act threats to privacy rights, including the FBI’s abuses of the National Security Letter authority and intrusions into Americans’ “Freedom to Read”;
Government surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities; and
– The gutting of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights and Voting Rights Divisions.“

Where is the hope you ask, since we are nothing if not a hopeful people? The first sign of hope was the election in 2006 where the country decided it had had enough of this misbegotten war and “compassionate conservatism.“ Because of the last election cycle I have hope. Because of the integrity and bravery of a new crop of whistle-blowers I have hope. Because of the internet and citizen activism I have hope. We are lucky to have Charlie Savage writing for the Boston Globe about warrentless wire taps, about presidential signing statements, and just yesterday about the White House’s new plan to maintain government in case of an attack or natural disaster. How sinister the plan is, we don’t know—most of it is classified. But we have Charlie Savage writing about it which gives me hope. Because of congregations filled with passion for freedom and human rights I have hope. Because of the support for my wild-eyed activism that I have been given by you and other congregations I have served, I have hope.

But hope is not enough. This fragile democracy has been entrusted to us. If we wish to maintain the freedoms that we cherish, we must be aware of what is going on around us. We must be vigilant and lift up our voices to defend democracy. I hope you will keep up your vigilance long after I have left you. If we, the citizens of this great country do not, then ”It” CAN happen here. It is up to us to see to it that “It” doesn’t happen here.


as I mentioned at the top, I have less hope than I expressed in church. Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists, The Christian Right and the War on America appeared on the Book Salon at Firedoglake today. I asked him where to find the hope. Here's the answer he gave:

Hope must come not with what we can do, but with continued resistence. We must, onthe one hand, face the gravity of the moment and not sugar coat it with false hope. It is not good. But to give up is to be defated, not just in a material sense, but a spiritual sense. For me real spirituality comes with resistence, even when times are bleak. This is what gives life meaning and integrity. Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer wrote about this eloquently. To fight, no matter what the odds, is to win, to give hope, so sustain the divine spark which is love and compassion and tolerance. Chris