The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

For most of my life Philip Roth’s novels have existed in an environment just beyond my radar. I knew about them in a general sense and was aware that he was held in high esteem as a literary author, but that is as far as it went. Then he died. After several podcasts I listen to did retrospectives of his career I decided I should change that.

The Plot Against America, Roth’s 2004 novel, is a grim alternate history that explores the issue of antisemitism in America.

The story takes place in the narrator’s (young Philip Roth) youth in Newark when Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise appearance at a deadlocked 1940 Republican National Convention and sweeps his way to the nomination. Lindbergh’s campaign frames the choice as between Roosevelt’s warmongering and American First, as he hops from city to city in his personal plane giving speeches on the airfield. Roosevelt, by contrast, is old-fashioned and traditional. Failing to appreciate the threat posed by Lindbergh, Roosevelt loses the election and retires from public life to his estate in New York.

For Roth’s Jewish family, the election is a disaster. Around every corner are people with anti-semitic opinions now empowered by the president and America-Firsters who regard Roosevelt’s globalist supporters as traitors. With the US committed to non-intervention, Philip’s cousin Alvin runs away from home to join the Canadian army to fight Hitler. Roth’s father begins listening exclusively to the left-wing demagogic radio personality Walt Winchell who loudly denounces Lindbergh as a fascist. Every action taken by the government is tinged with bigotry, he believes, the first step toward a pogrom.

The “Just Folks” program sends Jewish youths from urban areas to farms in the heartland. Philip’s older brother Sandy ends up in Kentucky for a summer working on a tobacco farm and returns a convert to the mission of the OAA—the Organization of American Absorption. Then Alvin returns, having lost a leg in combat. Further exacerbating tensions in the family is that Philip’s aunt Evelyn goes to work for Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, the head of the OAA office in New Jersey.

The Plot Against America is presented as a retrospective of a dark episode in American history that both reveals a psychic scar in the country’s collective conscience and ends as abruptly as it began. Roth’s youth during the events described and the nature of conspiracy leaves it unclear what happened to bring Lindbergh to office, let alone what happened while he was there that leads to a bloody climax.

The national and historical developments create the backdrop for what is, ultimately, a family drama. The Lindbergh administration works to break up Jewish enclaves in cities like Newark, and the Roth family is split between those who hold to their convictions, such as his father, those who want to ignore politics, and the collaborators, whether out of naked opportunism or youthful naivete. The characters are vividly drawn, frequently in the graphic detail and sharp colors of youthful memory. There are good gentiles in The Plot Against America, much as there are bad Jews. In both cases Roth captures something fundamental to and fundamentally fragile in the soul of America.

Although it was published in 2004, The Plot Against America was an eerie read for 2018, right down to a Scandinavian summit where an American president with a fervent base is openly condemned for fawning behavior toward another foreign leader, leading commentators to ask what that leader has on the President. Similarly, American prejudices are papered over by a tradition of constitutionalism, but only barely, and there is a preference for collective amnesia rather than for resolution.

The Plot Against America> was hard to read, but rather than being a book that lost its edge since its publication, it is one that has only become sharper. That is probably too lofty a standard to set for when I get to Roth’s other books, but I can now say with certainty that I am going to be reading more.

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Next up, I just started reading A Brave New World. I read it in high school but remember nothing except a general sense of distaste. Like with Fahrenheit 451, I want to give it a fair shake.

Assorted Links

  1. Wojtek: The Bear that Joined the Polish Army and Fought the Nazis– A piece in Der Spiegel’s history portal about a bear that a number of Polish soldiers ended up enrolling into the Polish Army so that they could get it through military bureaucracy and have it participate in the invasion of Sicily. Supposedly the bear was able to carry mortar shells for the unit in Italy.
  2. Latest Word on the Campaign Trail? I Take It Back– A story in the New York times that looks at one of the developments in campaigning coming about in this 2012 election cycle, namely that campaigns are giving quotes to reporters on the condition that they are allowed to review and veto usage of the quotes.
  3. World’s Greatest Athlete Forced Back Into Diamond Mine at Gunpoint – Comic and depressing.
  4. Brian Shaw, the Strongest Man in the World– A profile in the New Yorker of Brian Shaw and the sport of strongest man competitions. The main disappointment is that the article hints at discussion of forces acting on the body, but that is more of background in the article, rather than its purpose.
  5. ProLife For Congress 2012 -This man actually changed his name to Pro-Life, lost a gubernatorial race and is now running for Congress. Regardless of political orientation, we should all be able to agree that this is rather extreme. Thanks to Joe for bringing this to my attention.

What else is out there?

There are even fewer edges than there were before

It is the price of civilization and, perhaps, safety. Some people would even characterize this as “good.” I would rather get lost in a strange place where I do not speak the language. Provided, anyway that I see a very small number of guns and those that I do see are being responsibly handled and not pointed at me.1 Sure, getting dropped off at a stoplight in the middle of nowhere in August in Greece is a little bit nerve-wracking (particularly if you had already spent hours lost and aren’t sure how to get back onto a bus), but there is also something exhilarating about it. The same goes for sitting in a rural town square surrounded by children on bicycles, or sleeping beneath the Blue Mosque, or on a bench in Delphi where you learn about the multiple uses for your towel. Wandering in forests holds much of the same thrill, but city parks where the nature is “tamed” hardly counts.

According to Stephen Pinker organized violence is at an all-time low (based on percentages), though individual homicide may be up. I would hope, anyway, that the latter is largely preventable. I have not read Pinker’s latest book, but I do understand the logic behind his argument.2 The idea is the civilization limits people. In theory the government will regulate businesses so that the rich and powerful do not prey upon the weak. The rule of law, and the law for the people seems to be spreading around the world as technology brings people closer together and brings people closer together than ever before. Imagine. Anne Frank’s diary run through multiple routers to mask her location and the tribulations of being a Jew in Europe during world broadcast daily via a blog or twitter. Photos posted to Facebook, and a series of innocuous cameras broadcasting Nazi activity from Paris, Brussels, and Munich around the clock. A contraband cellphone into Auschwitz. It is likely a false hope, but I would hope this would stir the world to outrage.

In no way do I want a repeat of World War Two. I reflect on it now in large part because of the historians (in particular) who fought and died during the war. Marc Bloch fought in both World Wars and after joining the French Resistance was caught, tortured, and killed. Nicholas Hammond served as a commando in Greece. War is terrible and it certainly cannot make someone into something he is not. Nonetheless there is no motivation like necessity. People have phenomenal capacity, but I feel that many are not tested. When they are, the tests are muted.

I do not mean to insult anyone with this statement. People need to find their own way in life and do what is fulfilling for them. Raising children is a monumental task and one that (at the moment) I do not wish to undertake. That is because I can and want to do more. Yet we are trained to be interchangeable parts in a factory or business setting. Slaves to the clock, move with the bell, travel in a pack largely passive to the leadership figure at the front. Sometimes this is for the best. In a factory, or a business meeting, or the military. Survival in many instances requires knowing how to follow the leader. It also requires knowing how and when to take control and that is not something that schools teach. In fairness to the schools, though, leadership is not something that can be taught–only encouraged. Certain aspects, techniques, and ideas can be taught, but when it comes to actual leadership, the only way to teach it is to experience it. The opportunities to lead need to be provided, the same way as opportunities to think, problem solve, and, yes, memorize. The validity of the sole authority figure does need to be challenged to some extent, at least. I don’t think revolution is the answer, but placing more responsibility on the pack is a must.

Of course the problem with this demand is that the institution is designed to turn out a particular model of human being–a trained, if not entirely mindless, automaton. And by making it a requirement for people to attend school, there is an institutional imperative to make sure that people will not, ultimately, fail. Nor do I want them to. Not truly. The problem with edges is that sometimes you fall off. You may not ever reach your full potential without them, without the push, the adrenaline, the challenge. Edges still exist, they are just harder to find. So go, find one. Look down.

There is always that danger, the chance of falling. Depending on translation for both Suleiman and Ivan, their honorific may mean “terrible” or “great.” Awesome and Awful may as well mean the same thing. Mr. Kurz did not reach his full ability until he was loosed of the bounds of civilization, but simultaneously lost everything. Civilization is supposed to be safety, and perhaps it is. But there is a price.3


1 When I was in Istanbul and lost in a neighborhood I did see a kid with a gun, but he was using it for target practice under the supervision, it seemed, of adult relatives.
2 My only logical quibble is that if the percentage overall is down, the population has risen exponentially in the last century, while the crowded nature of the world makes it easier to kill the same total number of people. Furthermore, technology makes genocide ever more possible in limited situations. I suppose I could add to this that it may be the calm before the storm as we are beginning to see more and more unrest with governments around the world and more people scrambling for dwindling resources. If people are willing to literally fight for an x-box on special, what will they do for the last bag of flour? But it has not come to that yet. Not here, anyway.
3 This post serves no real purpose. It is collected thoughts about an issue that is very, very old. For my part, I find myself needing to find some more edges. I can do more, I know it, but only by breaking free of the institutional restraints, even just a little and for a little while. Periodically I made a few unnamed references. They include: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and one episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.