In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here — a satire showing it sure can. With incredible ambition, Joan Dempsey follows Lewis’ example to illustrate urgent truths at a time of crisis. This Is How It Begins unites the “it” of the past with the “it” of today in ways people on the wrong side of history vigorously dispute.
Most of the story is told by three generations of a remarkable family. The grandparents are Polish immigrants, a Catholic art professor and a Jewish lawyer who became the Massachusetts Attorney General. Their sons are a Chief of Police and the President of the Massachusetts Senate. Their grandson is a teacher, one who has been fired, along with ten other teachers, for infringing on their students’ religious expression.
This reflects the current anti-gay movement opposing anti-bullying laws because not bullying infringes on students’ expression. Bigotry and intolerance are claimed as protected religious expression. It’s not fiction. The other main character is a religious radio personality who is part of the inner circle organizing a push to establish or, as they falsely claim, restore, America as a Christian Nation. It’s not hyperbole, look who won his election Tuesday night, Roy Moore, a man who defied the Supreme Court twice, elevating his religious dogma over the Constitution and the Rule of Law.
The grandmother recalls her past in Warsaw, revealing her secrets if only to herself. At first, she does not recognize how very much homophobia echoes anti-Semitism, but as the campaign gains ground, with an attack on her son, threatening phone calls, graffiti, and even arson, the similarities are unmistakable. She knows from her own experience that the Nazis did not start out with death camps, they started out by firing teachers.
This Is How It Begins makes an earnest and high-minded effort to be fair-minded. Warren Meck, the radio host is sincere in his compassion for the teachers and their families. He is worried someone is directing the violence and the real love that motivates him is lost in the malice. However, if your religion requires you to be “resilient in the face of empathy” – if empathy is something you struggle against, then the problem is you.
I want to mention one quality of This Is How It Begins I appreciate more than any other. Dempsey avoids the cheap cynicism of modern writers who assume anyone who is in politics is necessarily corrupted by it. Nearly everyone is sincere, the retired Attorney General, the Senate President, even the homophobe Meck is sincere.
This story tackles the big question for people who value freedom and humanity. How does a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? Karl Popper argues tolerating intolerance ultimately leads to the eradication of tolerance by the intolerant. I think Ludka, the family matriach would agree.
This Is How It Begins will be released October 1st. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher, She Writes Press, through NetGalley.