“The Power of Ideas” by Mark W. Harris
April 14, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words from Leslie Takahashi
Here in this place of peace
May we find hope.
Here in this place of connection,
May we find life-giving community.
Here in this place of rest,
Let the unrest of our hearts turn us toward justice.
Here in this space made sacred by memories of connection,
Let us each feel ourselves part of the new that grows from the old in the spiraling unity of
Reading – from It Can’t Happen Hereby Sinclair Lewis
(In 1935 Sinclair Lewis was very concerned about the rise of fascism around the world, and wrote It Can’t Happen Herein response.)[The scene is the Ft. Beulah, Vermont Rotary Club annual ladies dinner. The program began with Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, from the D.A.R. . . . she poured out her oration on “How You Boys Can Help Us Girls.”
“Women, she pointed out, had done nothing with the vote. . . . Woman must resume her place in the Home and: “As that great author and scientist, Mr. Arthur Brisbane, has pointed out, what every woman ought to do is to have six children.”
At this second there was a shocking, an appalling interruption.
One Lorinda Pike, widow of a notorious Unitarian preacher, was the manager of a country super-boarding-house that called itself “The Beulah Valley Tavern.” She was a deceptively Madonna-like, youngish woman, with calm eyes, smooth chestnut hair parted in the middle, and a soft voice often colored with laughter. But on a public platform her voice became brassy, her eyes filled with embarrassing fury. She was the village scold, the village crank. She was constantly poking into things that were none of her business, and at town meetings she criticized every substantial interest in the whole county: the electric company’s rates, the salaries of the schoolteachers, the Ministerial Association’s high-minded censorship of books for the public library. Now, at this moment when everything should have been all Service and Sunshine, Mrs. Lorinda Pike cracked the spell by jeering:
“Three cheers for Brisbane! But what if a poor gal can’t hook a man? Have her six kids out of wedlock?”
Then the good old war horse, Gimmitch, veteran of a hundred campaigns against subversive Reds, trained to ridicule out of existence the cant of Socialist hecklers and turn the laugh against them, swung into gallant action:
“My dear good woman, if a gal, as you call it, has any real charm and womanliness, she won’t have to ‘hook’ a man–she’ll find ’em lined up ten deep on her doorstep!” . . .
The lady hoodlum had merely stirred Mrs. Gimmitch into noble passion. She did not cuddle at them now. She tore into it:
“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with ninety-five per cent of ’em only thinking ofself, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure–now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline–Will Power– Character!”
She turned . . . toward General Edgeways [who said]. . .
“Well, sir!” he guffawed, on his feet, shaking a chummy forefinger at Mrs. Gimmitch, “since you folks are bound and determined to drag the secrets out of a poor soldier, I better confess that while I do abhor war, yet there are worse things. Ah, my friends, far worse! A state of so-called peace, in which labor organizations are riddled, as by plague germs, with insane notions out of anarchistic Red Russia! A state in which college professors, newspapermen, and notorious authors are secretly promulgating these same seditious attacks on the grand old Constitution! A state in which, as a result of being fed with these mental drugs, the People are flabby, cowardly, grasping, and lacking in the fierce pride of the warrior! No, such a state is far worse than war at its most monstrous! . . .
What I’d really like us to do would be to come out and tell the whole world: ‘Now you boys never mind about the moral side of this. We have power, and power is its own excuse!’
“I don’t altogether admire everything Germany and Italy have done, but you’ve got to hand it to ’em, they’ve been honest enough and realistic enough to say to the other nations, ‘Just tend to your own business, will you? We’ve got strength and will, and for whomever has those divine qualities it’s not only a right, it’s a duty, to use ’em!’ Nobody in God’s world ever loved a weakling–including that weakling himself!
“And I’ve got good news for you! This gospel of clean and aggressive strength is spreading everywhere in this country among the finest type of youth.
As the General sat down, amid ecstasies of applause, the village trouble maker, Mrs. Lorinda Pike, leaped up and again interrupted the love feast:
“Look here, Mr. Edgeways, if you think you can get away with this sadistic nonsense without–” but she was silenced . . . by the quarry owner Mr. Tabrough . . .
Lorinda Pike had slumped into her chair with her fuse still burning. . .
One of the banes of my existence is passwords to online accounts. I know some people use the same one for every account, and others just click on, “I forgot my password,” each time. I have developed a list of all my passwords, and so I have to look each one up every time I try to access what seems like a countless number of accounts. Some of these accounts have security questions, too, such as, what is your mother’s maiden name?, or maybe, where were you born? One of the ones I chose for a certain account is, what is your favorite book? These are not passwords that are part of my document list, and so recently when I was trying to access this account, I had to ask myself, what did I tell them was my favorite book? What would you say? It is kind of a fun exercise. . In my case, I guessed correctly as to what I said, which was The Great Gatsby. What were my criteria? It’s short, well-written, and has some amazing descriptive scenes, such as when Daisy buries her face in the dress shirts, and cries how beautiful they are. I thought briefly that I might have said To Kill a Mockingbird, or 1984. There are the tense courtroom scenes in one, and the ominous beginning of the other, “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” But I always come back to Fitzgerald’s classic look at the end of the American dream, Nick noting how we are all a little like Gatsby, boats moving up a river, going forward but continually feeling the pull of the past.
How we deal with our past, both our personal histories, and that of our nation have always been abiding interests of mine. When we understand our history and where we have come from, I believe we are better able to deal with the issues that confront us now, and of course, I recall that famous passage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” which the philosopher Santayana modified from Edmund Burke. This came to mind when I first learned about Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts a frightening populist candidate for the Presidency, Berzelius Windrip, who shows the potential for “a real fascist dictatorship” in America. People scoff at this concern. And say “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly!” It does, even as Doremus Jessup, a small-town Vermont newspaper editor worries and writes about the potential devastation ahead. Yet his editorials are not successful and the election of Windrip results in a descent into the predicted fascist America. As he describes a nightmare journey into labor camps and torture chambers and martial law. We experience some of this populist rhetoric in the passage I read from the DAR meeting in Vermont, and can, at least momentarily cheer on the one voice of sanity the widow of the Unitarian minister.
There was an essay in the New York Timesby Beverly Gage in 2017 stating that this was a novel that had predicted Trump. Not one of Lewis’ enduring works like Babbitt or Main Street,or even the ministerial favorite, Elmer Gantry, It Can’t Happen Hereis not great literature, and would probably never be anybody’s favorite book security question. Yet after the election, the book sold out on Amazon as an analogy of what had happened here. It is more than a blustery populist rising against all odds to the presidency, it is the depiction of an office holder who rails against the lies of the mainstream press, and highbrow intellectuality.
We are deeply concerned at the con job in Washington, the loss of our moral compass, outrage at the unwillingness to reveal the truth, and the potential loss of the rule of law. We have people leading governmental departments whose sole task seems to be destroying the very department they are leading. We have the invention of national emergencies where there are none. We have immigrants being forced into cages. And soon we will have an attorney general who will not seek justice in the land for all, but will seek to underscore the Trump agenda of destroying health care for all, and outlawing abortion. Lewis’ hope in 1935 was to induce Americans to pay attention before it was too late. In the novel, the President insists on absolute obedience from everybody about him, and if anything we see that from a President who has few substantive ideas or thought beyond self-aggrandizement and making money. His favorite people seem to be authoritarian dictators who specialize in torture and murder. Lewis writes: People will think they’re electing him to create more economic security. Then watch the Terror! God knows there’s been enough indication that we can have tyranny in America . . .”
There is a passage in George Orwell’s 1984 where it says “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” That is the way we must live in these times. Truth to me is related to ideas that can and do govern the way we perceive and act in the world, such as what principles do we live by, or how do we together create a better world for all? Yet we are all subject to prejudices, as we attempt to protect ourselves, and our way of life. I think it is important that we have ideas and values that inform our way of living. I heard a story about a cabinet meeting that happened some months back. President Trump and others were gathered around a group of experts who were speaking about infrastructure in the USA. What were the best ways to deal with our crumbling roads and bridges? They were presenting lots of valuable ideas about what could be done to formulate a plan and act to save our highways. The President was madly taking notes, and others in the room presumed that he was actually listening to the presentation and thinking seriously what to do about this national crisis. It turns out that he was furiously writing down notes on how he could bash Steve Bannon. If a person does not have any ideas, and only wants to win or destroy others and assert his authority, or create crises to make everyone insane, then we have the possibility that ideas don’t matter anymore. In It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis writes,The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.” I would like to say that I think ideas do matter, and I pray that together we can find truths that we all agree upon.
As I said in my sermon description I have long been fascinated by the power of ideas, and how certain “truths” get inside our heads and remain there as gospel, even if they contain only a kernel of truth. I suppose it is a kind of “fake news,” but it is also the source of many of our prejudices Think how socialism has been associated with totalitarianism, making it easier for most people to dismiss it as subversive. How much does the power of an idea have a hold on you? How do we react when we hear a word or descriptive passage about someone or something? There is a theological student of mine at BU who wanted to get together because she was worried how she might be perceived by the UUA’s Fellowship committee which is the national credentialing body. She was concerned because she identifies herself as a socialist. Perhaps she saw the members of the committee as people with money or upper middle class people who would judge someone who calls herself a socialist as too radical. I told her I thought they would be receptive to her professed socialism because it would mean she was concerned with economic injustice. I also told her of the history of a small group of socialist and pacifist Universalist ministers in the early twentieth century who were attacked because they were trying to organize workers, and respond to some of the harsh poverty and injustice that was produced by capitalism. Some lost pulpits because they were against the war.
There was even one Unitarian minister named Frederic McCarthy from Rockland, MA who became a prominent socialist, and served in the Massachusetts House, and introduced presidential candidate Debs at the socialist convention before the 1920 election. But somewhere along the line socialism became associated with communism and totalitarianism, and was labeled anti-American, and many sunshine patriots picked up on that. While many of us benefit from the socialism of social security, the same beneficiaries rail against a single payer universal health care, and we hear it is a dangerous political policy to affirm in the 2020 election. While those of us who have money in the stock market benefit from the American capitalist system, we also are concerned about the outrageous salaries of executives, income inequality, and the behavior of companies like Boeing who monitor their own safety standards, and banks like JP Morgan Chase who fund fossil fuel companies building more pipe lines to create climate change.
Socialism then is an idea that we could all benefit from a system that produced jobs, goods and services on a more equitable basis. Perhaps it is progress that a major Democratic candidate for President could openly call himself a socialist. There are many examples of these ideas about how the world should be ordered, and what ideas mean, and how the meaning is often perverted by misinformation. Think back to the 1960’s and 1970’s when the Black Panther Party was active in our country. If you said Black Panther, people immediately thought of a violent overthrow of the government, and an unlawful use of weapons. They were depicted as violent thugs who deserved to be locked away forever. Little did we learn or hear about their programs which helped the poor, or Free Breakfast programs for children. Yet they were trying to address food injustice and create health clinics to deal with diseases such as Sickle Cell anemia
Words affect and infect our understanding of truth. They provide ideas about the world and the people who inhabit it that may not be truthful at all, but simply be reflective of our prejudices towards our enemies, or attempt to promote a false understanding of what is true. The other day I was in a department store and saw a display of lipstick, which proudly declared organic colors. Now what makes a color organic? Is earthy brown or grassy green somehow healthier for our lips than ravishing red. Of course it was simply another example of misleading advertising in a consumer product. There is nothing organic about these colors, but I guess the oils and fats which went into the creation of these lipsticks may come from organic sources, or more likely they are just saying that because it is trendy. I’ll be staying away from lipstick myself. In It Can’t Happen Here,Lewis writes, “He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, in the especial nobility of dogs, . . . , in being chummy with all waitresses at all junction lunch rooms, and in Henry Ford (when he became President, he exulted, maybe he could get Mr. Ford to come to supper at the White House), and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded . . . caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.” Here lies the idea of the superiority of the white race, and their supremacy and thus the now classic campaign rhetoric of the real demagogue thatMexicans are all rapists and drug dealers.
While we may recognize the absurdity and prejudice of such statements, many ideas when phrased in certain ways do infect our minds and underscore prejudice in society. We all know in theory that the correlation between race and wrongful convictions for crime is common in America. For instance here is an actual headline: “Man Shot to Death in Park Forest had Drug, Weapons Conviction.” What idea about this person is engrained in our minds as a result of such a headline? Since we are told that he previously had drug and weapons conviction we make a presumption about how he may have died. We may think there is some connection to a violent and drug consumed word. Maybe we presume that he is to blame for his own death. Yet he may well have been innocent of any wrong doing but was a victim of a senseless killing. But we make an assumption before he is proven innocent or guilty that he is somehow to blame for his own homicide. How often do we examine our own prejudices? Andrea and I often notice that a black 17 year old from Roxbury is often depicted in the media as a man, but a white 17 year old from Wellesley is a boy. Then the idea infects our mind, oh that poor boy, or conversely that criminal thug. Today as we remember Palm Sunday, and Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. We think of the words he recalled about people that reversed prejudice ideas in their minds. There was bitter hatred between the Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Because the Jews had “no dealings with the Samaritans,” Jesus purposefully made the Good Samaritan the focus of his most famous story. They were outsiders, immigrants from Babylon. Jesus entered Jerusalem to tell the authorities he would not be silenced. He would have integrity. He would stand up for the truth. He was not worried about party lines and getting elected. His belief was finding the truth, doing the right thing, and upholding justice.
In It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis writes, “More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile 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 men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” Totalitarianism was an idea that Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell both feared. Orwell’s biographer wrote that if we ever let the totalitarian mind become our common way of life, “then all the other humane values, liberty, fraternity, social justice, love of literature, love of plain . . . belief in a natural moral decency, love of nature, . . . and [even] patriotism would disappear. Orwell wanted people to know and speak the truth. I want Unitarian Universalism to be a faith that clings to the truth. And that truth is that the divine spirit is made manifest through the creation of a more compassionate world.
Ideas about the world get buried. Socialism, Orwell said meant justice and liberty, but this was buried by a Soviet oligarchy. When the meaning of ideas is twisted we lose our bearings. When hate or injustice surface in our systems of law and government, our religious calling is to speak with foundational ideas like justice and liberty. We sometimes says that America is not a land of ideas, but a land of action. But those actions have produced two great crimes – the destruction of Native populations, and slavery for abducted Africans, and ideas have been created to uphold those crimes. I think the truth is closer to the experience of there being an interplay between ideas and practical action. Free thought did not grow naturally from the individualistic spirit of settlers, but was also nurtured because the Enlightenment opened minds to new truths. It finally helped people realize that slavery was a great sin. Our faith injected the idea of a God who loves everybody, and desires their happiness, and even today we still hear the mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, assert that idea as he lives its truth, and his faith, and challenges a vice president whose God would condemn those who fail to meet his profile of who is acceptable in God’s eyes. I believe in the idea of justice so that we create states that operate under the rule of law to reveal the truth, and not protect the criminal. There is a tendency these days to say truth comes from feeling. What I feel is justice makes it so. But the feelings any of us have must be tested with ideas that have proven their validity in community and history. In our lifetimes, Orwell believed in the idea of truth, and he created a world where all of truth had been set aside. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, but we know the quest to live in peace means we must get along, but that too, is nurtured by ideas, not feelings alone because they are self-serving, but ideas implanted on our heart, and in our minds: Knowledge is Strength, Freedom is Liberty and Peace is Understanding. Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984worked for the Ministry of Truth, and may we, in our way, also work for the Ministry of Truth.
Closing Words – “Words” by Emily Kennedy
I have a horror of my words,
And yet I love them.
They seize me and shape my thought,
Make reality their plaything
There seems no end to their size or shape
or acrobatic skill.
They tumble forth,
Laughing or crying as they will,
And survive in the belief
That they are something new under the sun.