The Plot Against
America takes place in a world in which the famous aviator and Nazi sympathizer
Charles Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Now,
there's a lot of alternate-history fiction out there, so much that it's actually its own
thriving subgenre within SF. Once I even wrote a seminar paper on
"Nazis won WWII" stories. The difference is that Philip Roth is a fixture of modern American
literature, one of the most highly decorated US writers currently living, and not some pudgy
hack with eccentric facial hair grinding out paperbacks for ammo money. Not coincidentally,
whereas most alternate history fiction has all the depth of a transcript of a Risk game,
Roth's novel feels as authentic as an actual memoir. I had planned to read this over the
course of three weeks and I ended up reading the last 200 pages straight through. It's
I wasn't sure what else I wanted to say about The Plot Against America until I started
poking around to see what sorts of reactions others had had. A lot of people liked it, but
a lot of people didn't. Some simply didn't like the pacing, finding the ending rushed and a
bit of a deus ex machina to boot. I dunno — it struck me as very similar to events
in Russia in 1991 and Venezuela in 2002. Also, many right-wingers objected to it because they
read it as a roman à clef about the Bush Administration, with Lindbergh as Bush,
Burton Wheeler as Cheney, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Walter
Winchell as Michael Moore and so forth. Roth, I have read, denies that this was his intention,
but the fact that the parallels seem so obvious to these critics without any prompting on Roth's
part speaks for itself.
The complaint that actually got me thinking, though, was the charge that Roth is insufficiently
inclusive: that he doesn't seem to care to relate what a Lindbergh Administration would be like
for the vast majority of Americans but focuses solely on urban, northeastern Jews. In fact,
the book explicitly treats Middle America as a frightening hinterland, with a trip to Kentucky
cast as a journey into the heart of darkness. This has left some hinterlanders rather irked.
The Plot Against America isn't about America suffering under fascism, they argue. It's
about a small Jewish enclave suffering under fascism. The book is an exercise in elites talking
to elites about elites. Show how fascism would afflict the real America!
This seems to me to be wildly missing the point. I get the sense that these people saw the
swastika on the front cover of the novel and expected to read about Germans goose-stepping
across the countryside shoving cornfed Midwesterners into ovens. The thing is, fascism
wouldn't afflict Middle America. Fascism would be perpetrated by Middle
America. Fascism is little more than the tyranny of the majority. It is the 90%
attempting to become the 100%.
There are several ways to achieve this aim and most of them don't involve death camps.
In retrospect, I might argue that The Plot Against America is, to a great extent, a
novel about assimilation. Reading history, we learn of the Jews who fled the Nazis in time
and of those who stayed too long because they thought of themselves as German and assumed that
others did as well; most of Plot takes place at a similar moment in American history,
and a lot of the early action of the novel involves the Roth family trying to stake a claim
to America equal to that of any Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But the Roths aren't treated as if
they have such a claim. Accepting and indeed fervently believing in American political and
economic institutions isn't enough so long as they are culturally Other.
One of the first acts of the Lindbergh Administration is to establish a program to send Jewish
kids "out of the ghetto" and into Middle America to live as Middle Americans. The narrator's
older brother Sandy takes part in this program, spending a summer in Kentucky and returning
with the accent, attitudes, and penchant for pork of the tobacco farmers he stayed with. He
starts referring to Jews as "you people" and becomes a regional representative for the Office
of American Absorption and in particular this program, called Just Folks. Roth gives his
audience enough credit for intelligence that he doesn't feel compelled to explicitly point
out that the name of this program implies that those who don't act like white Christian
Republicans don't count as "folks." We later learn that Lindbergh's circle is rather
pleased with itself for having devised a much more humane solution to the "Jewish Problem"
than that suggested by its friends in Berlin. Silly Nazis! You don't need to eradicate
the Jews to eradicate Jewishness! You just need to stir the ol' melting pot!
I've read a few travelogues written by Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries that marvel at what an amazing melting pot America is. Not only is it astonishing
how quickly ethnicity disappears in America, they report, but you wind up with all sorts
of crazily scrambled mongrels. "Why, just yesterday I was talking to a fellow who was
English and French — and Dutch!" ...and so forth. I remember someone in one
of my classes at Cal relating how in elementary school she'd been shown an old movie on
behalf of the melting pot that depicted it as a machine: the people of the world fell into
a funnel up top, and at the bottom a conveyor belt churned out a steady supply of white men
in suits and fedoras. I don't know whether the idea was that the people of the world all
came from western Europe or whether it was that America's melting pot is so powerful that
it'll turn even a Zulu into Ward Cleaver. But the more I have heard about the melting pot
the more I have become disenchanted with it. As a guy who went by Adam instead of Muhammad
and wore a California Angels cap rather than a keffiyeh I started off entirely pro-melting.
But that is because I saw the melting pot as a sort of miscegenation writ large, a process
in which immigrant groups changed America every bit as much as they were changed by it.
I thought of the melting pot as a way to fight the culture of piling five kids into a Ford
Explorer with a "Support Our Troops" magnet on the back and then driving past the
JESUS IS COMING!
RU READY signs and Ten Commandments displays on the way to church on Sunday and then
to Applebee's for lunch. Once it became clear that most melting pot advocates just wanted
to change a few of the faces in the SUV, I stopped identifying with that particular camp.
That doesn't mean I've switched to the "salad bowl," though. When I was in college,
Berkeley was a focal point of the multicultural movement (witness the city
logo), and identity politics
were all the rage. It was the type of place that brought in guys named Ruben from suburban
Sacramento and soon had them talking in fake Mexican accents about La Raza and demanding
to be called hhhrru-BAIN. On the flip side, you had professors giving speeches about
how it was the UNI-versity of California, not the DI-versity of California, and decrying how
after decades of working for integration they were now watching our generation voluntary
re-segregate itself. Integration or the lack thereof factors heavily into The Plot Against
America as well. A lot of the storyline revolves around the Roths' efforts to stay in
their 95% Jewish community, and when the Lindbergh Administration starts relocating Italian
families there it's considered a nefarious anti-Semitic scheme. Bleah. I can definitely
relate to not wanting to be the only minority in town the way Herman and Bess Roth were as
kids; I was seriously creeped out when I moved to Illinois for grad school and found on my
first day of classes that I was the only one in the room who wasn't white. But I can't really
endorse solving the problem of living in an ethnically monolithic culture in which you are in
the minority by forming an ethnically monolithic microculture in which you are in the majority.
I guess part of this is that I can't even really imagine the latter, as it would be hard to
scrape together a town full of Indo-Celto-Semites. But even if I could, the idea doesn't
appeal. The communities where I feel most comfortable are those with the most diversity,
ones that belong neither to Middle America nor to any particular ethnic enclave, ones where
no two neighboring households share the same ancestry.
And then you prevent future ethnic persecution by having them all interbreed for generations
until everybody's everything.
Return to the Calendar page!