BY MITCH WEBBER
1. A couple years ago, Yale professor David Gelernter wrote that today’s political divide in America is between those who draw competing historical analogies. Half the country thinks of our current war as a Vietnam Moment (racist American imperialists indiscriminately bombing darker-skinned foreigners, motivated by war profiteering, absent all hope of victory) and those who see it as a World War II Moment (freedom and democracy threatened by totalitarian-terrorist states, the Jewish nation demonized worldwide, French collaboration).
Set aside John Kerry, who by the way served in Vietnam, and everyone else whose foreign policy vocabulary consists entirely of tired slogans about American colonialism, hegemony, and quagmires. My interest is in those whose own collective history instructs a more forgiving, even exultant, view of American interventions. My interest is in Mr. and Mrs. Jewish America, from coast to coast and all the ships at sea, who overwhelmingly oppose the President’s foreign policy. Let’s go to press.
2. In Philip Roth’s new novel, The Plot Against America, Roth tracks his own family at a moment in which the U.S. President, whom many consider naively subservient to the influence of a sinister cabal of unduly influential Jews, flaunts international law in order to bring America to war against an enemy who poses no real threat to our nation security. This is the summer of 1940.
The parallels to today’s conflict are apparent. Substitute Nazis for Ba’athist, Roosevelt for Bush, accusations of Jewish “dual-allegiance” for conspiracy theories about Jewish neoconservative cabals, and international law for, well, international law, and you’re left with a clean historical parable. Bizarrely, Roth doesn’t see it that way.
Philip Roth disproves the Gelernter dichotomy. While World War II’s lessons consistently inform Roth’s writing, and never more obviously than in The Plot Against America, Roth departs radically from the obvious moral of his own book and unrestrainedly criticizes every aspect of the Bush Administration. In an article recently published in The New York Times outlining Roth’s research methods, the author abruptly digresses from the issue at hand in order to call President Bush “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else’s.” Were Roth to think otherwise, according to the logic of his book, he would have no choice but to identify his own story’s villains Ñ Charles Lindbergh and his America First Committee Ñ with today’s premier see-no-evil isolationist movement, the Democratic Party. And in Philip Roth’s world, every Democrat is FDR, every Republican Richard Nixon, and every Jew under siege from the political right.
3. I hope I’m not reading too much into Roth’s book. A novel isn’t a political pamphlet, and most good novelists would deny an explicit political agenda. But The Plot Against America is an expressly political book, overwhelmingly populated by politicians, political activists, and journalists. Nor is there any room for ambiguity in The Plot Against America’s account of the isolationist-interventionist divide in 1940 America. The good guy / bad guy distinction is transparent. Roth rages against the apologists and the appeasers, from Henry Ford to Charles Lindbergh, Senator Wheeler to Yale Law School (whose students founded the AFC). He sneers at those who don’t realize that tyranny abroad imperils freedom everywhere, and at those who think representative governance and basic human rights are “western” or “American” values that we have no right imposing on the unwilling. Roth reserves his most brutal attacks on those who believe that madmen can be contained through diplomatic channels.
You can see why it’s surprising, then, that Roth hates the President so unreservedly. After all, say what you will about the Bush Administration, not many people would accuse it of apologizing for and appeasing dictator-aggressors, nor of being too fond of the whole diplomacy thing.
4. So why the antipathy? It’s not apparent in Roth’s harsh but vague condemnations. We can look further back. Commenting on his newest book isn’t Roth’s first occasion to swipe at the United States in general, and Republicans in particular. Before The Plot Against America, Roth completed a trilogy of books meant, in his own words, to expose the “indigenous American berserk.” Especially troubling to Roth, it seems, is the sanctimony and hypocrisy he perceives in religious figures. In a blurb for Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, Roth decried the fact that Americans are currently living “in the fourth year of the ministry of George W. Bush.” Is that what Roth is afraid of Ñ American religiosity?
Again, Roth’s own book undermines this fear. I wonder, where is the American berserk in The Plot Against America? Is it “indigenous” in the immigrant Italian-Catholic family, conscripted by the government to break up a Jewish voting district, who risk their own safety to take the Roths into their home to protect them from street riots? Is it “indigenous” in the family of Southern Baptist Kentucky tobacco farmers, so feared by Roth’s mother, who at her pleading drive through the night to comfort a young boy whose mother is missing? Certainly, Roth at least implicitly understands that the prayers and affection of America’s conservative Christian community are far less of a threat to Jews than European and Middle Eastern communities that, let’s just say, have been historically less sanguine about a minority Jewish presence.
5. This is the Rothian dilemma: how to remain a socially-aware, secular, internationally-considerate people in a country whose traditionally conservative party has appropriated policies and attitudes most amenable to Jewish survival and acceptance. Roth’s answer, it seems, is to write books implying one thing Ñ that this is a World War II Moment we’re in Ñ while issuing public remarks suggesting just the opposite Ñ no, this is Nixon’s Vietnam all over again. After indicting the country for McCarthyism (I Married a Communist), radicalism (American Pastoral), and sexual Puritanism (The Human Stain), Roth now imagines an all-out fictionalized national dystopia, but one populated by the Righteous Among the Nations! Again, Roth shows better political instincts in his novels than in his extra-literary outbursts. His cognitive dissonance is astounding, reconcilable only when understood in terms of its antiquity.
I’m grateful to Philip Roth for narrating my grandparents’ anxieties about assimilation, anti-Semitism, and national identity. But Father Coughlin is off the air, and I’m not afraid of America. Jews are right to resolve “never again” when confronted with tyranny abroad, but when it comes to America, we might more aptly reflect on Roth’s own construction: “Never Before.”
Mitch Webber is a 2L from Rochester, NY.