It Can’t Happen Here—But It Is

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis drew upon his prominence as the first American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature to issue a national warning against the dangers of fascism. Huey Long was emerging as a likely candidate in the 1936 presidential election, and in the satiric novel It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis provided an extended expose of the political career of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a demagogue with great populist appeal who costumed his ruthless, personal pursuit of power in endless, hokey appeals to patriotism and “core American values,” which then as now was a euphemism for distracting poor WASPs from their own miserable lives by heightening their abhorrence of racial, ethnic, and religious groups that might be opportunistically scapegoated for being less truly “American.” Of course, Long was assassinated in the same year that the novel was published, and despite attracting much literary and political attention in the years immediately following its publication, the novel faded into obscurity as quickly as Isolationist sentiments after the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Now you might be thinking that this discussion of Lewis’s novel is going to provide a prelude to some discussion of the appeal and dangers of Far-Right ideology. But, although it could provide a nice introduction to such a discussion, what this post is about is toilet paper. I’m not saying that it has nothing to do with politics, but it’s primarily about toilet paper.

Once Fidel Castro became too frail to be demonized convincingly and once Daniel Ortega showed a willingness to honor the will of the electorate and did not turn Nicaragua into a Communist dictatorship, Hugo Chavez became the main American bogeyman in Latin America. I am not suggesting that Chavez didn’t relish the role or that he wasn’t often as unhinged as those desperate to vilify everything that he did. I am simply suggesting that once we have a villain in a certain part of the world, we don’t seem all that willing to give up having a villain in that part of the world, even if circumstances change and the longstanding villain no longer seems to fit the bill.

Chavez came to power in Venezuela as the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s led to rampant inflation, dramatic increases in income inequality and endemic poverty, and escalating violence related both to urban crime waves and to political oppression. Chavez headed a Leftist coalition led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and its chief opposition has come from a Right-wing coalition of parties known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable. Chavez remained popular by linking his animosity toward the United States to some degree of steady improvement in Venezuela’s economy, but the 2009 worldwide recession undid many of the economic gains for which Chavez claimed credit. His successor, Nicolas Maduro has faced an extremely volatile economic and political situation. Shortages of even very basic consumer goods have become commonplace, and hopefulness has degenerated into a deepening dissatisfaction that erupts into broadly or arbitrarily focused rage.

The mainstream U.S. media does not pay a great deal of attention to Venezuela or any other nations in Latin America—unless, of course, the news concerns the criminal violence of the drug cartels, some sort of massive natural or man-made disaster, spectacles of societal dysfunction such as urban riots or police sweeps against urban gangs, or the actions or statements of political leaders that seem either to justify their being caricatured as anti-American or to confirm American hegemony in the hemisphere. But the Right-wing media has continued to follow events in Venezuela more closely, even after Chavez’s death, as if to re-confirm to their viewers and readers that they were right about Chavez all along.

Not surprisingly, although the following story was reported in the mainstream media, such as CNN and in major newspapers such as the New York Times, it received much more exhaustive play in the Right-wing media.

Things have gotten so bad in Venezuela that there has been a chronic shortage of toilet paper. Predictably, the shortage was exacerbated by hoarding. So, photojournalists have had a field day taking shorts of people in check-out lines with their arms full of packages of toilet paper or violence breaking out in store aisles over new deliveries of toilet paper.

The situation has become so dire that the government has had to formally intervene. Here’s what CNN reported earlier this year:

“Vice President Jorge Arreaza announced the ‘temporary occupation’ of the Paper Manufacturing Company’s plant in the state of Aragua. The aim, he explained, is to review the ‘production, marketing and distribution [of] toilet paper.’

“’The People’s Defense from the Economy will not allow hoarding or failures in the production and distribution of essential commodities,’ the vice president said.

“By the ‘People’s Defense,’ Arreaza was referring to a government agency created . . .  by President Nicolas Maduro to ‘defeat the economic war that has been declared in the country,” according to a report from state-run ATV. This group is charged with looking at inefficiencies across various industries in the nation, including foods and other products, and taking action presumably in the South American nation’s best interests.

“Toilet paper is very much a part of the war.”

So, we in the United States can presumably console ourselves that no matter how bad things seem to be here, at least we aren’t fighting over toilet paper.

And we aren’t.

But we aren’t quite as removed from the possibility as we might think.

The fiscal crisis in Detroit became so desperate earlier this year that the police and fire departments highlighted the strangulated funding that was preventing them from providing credible service to the community by identifying the basic items that police officers and firefighters were bringing from home to try to make up for some of the supplies no longer being provided to police and fire stations.

It turns out that the fire department had run out of toilet paper, and the contracted suppliers of toilet paper and other basic supplies were refusing to schedule deliveries because they had not yet been paid for previous orders.

Once the story went public, other departments across the nation and some public-spirited companies stepped up to meet the needs. Specifically, P&G Brands in Green Bay, Wisconsin, delivered a load of 70,752 rolls of toilet tissue to the Detroit Fire Department’s warehouse.

As much as the firefighters have appreciated the outside support, one veteran firefighter pointed out that “the next step is to address the lack of working equipment in the fire stations. ‘We don’t even have apparatus to replace the apparatus that’s broken down,’ [he] said. ‘Those are things we deal with on a daily basis.’”

So here are several photos from Venezuela:

Venezuelans buy toilet rolls

Venezuelan Toilet Paper Shortage 2

And here are several photos from Detroit:

Detroit Toilet Paper Delivery 1

Detroit Toilet Paper Delivery 2

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether one is more illustrative and/or disheartening than the other.

And in case you’re wondering what any of this has to do with education, consider this question: If the Detroit police and fire departments can’t afford toilet paper, what sort of shortages do you think are endemic in the Detroit school system?

And in many other poor school districts across this country?

And in such a context, how illuminating are any measures of performance and accountability?

What might they illuminate other than the fact that we as a nation have no remedies to our failure to continue to provide quality public education? No remedies, that is, other than to suggest that we ought to divert funding to corporate-run charter schools, which have even higher administrative overhead and extra-instructional costs and therefore  spend even less per student on instruction. No remedies, that is, other than a willingness to devote more revenues to the pursuit of technological “quick fixes” than to provide basic resources to our teachers and to make basic improvements to our dilapidated school buildings.

Perhaps it is not just our once great cities that are bankrupt. Perhaps our once shared sense of national priorities, of national pride, and of moral necessity has become equally bankrupt.

2 thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here—But It Is

  1. If you are interested in the workings of the Long administration and what was happening from the 1920s through to 1940, you may be interested in “I Called Him Grand Dad. the Lost Political Papers of Harvey G. Fields.” Covers not only Long but interactions with the FDR administration.

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