The Plot Against America Part II

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I don't much care for Philip Roth's work. Usually it is too obsessed with sex and with certain unsavory aspects of the human reproductive urge. And those elements occasionally intrude here. But intrude is the correct word--they show up, spend a sentence or two churning about, and vanish. They don't help the book along, but they also don't seriously damage it as they do in others of Roth's works.

This is a book about anti-Semitism. While set in the 1940s, it is about how easily hatred takes hold given a chance and how terrible it is to live in the shadow of that hatred. It isn't a cautionary tale, on the other hand, it is a kind of plea and warning.

We meet the Roth family--an extended family of Father, Mother, two sons and cousin Alvin. At the beginning of the book we are in the sunny reign of FDR (yes, I know, a supremely debatable point). And then along comes Lindbergh. Yes, Charles. Apparently a supreme isolationist and anti-Semite. And he wins the Republican nomination and he wins the presidency. And soon we have "Just Folks," a program designed to show the "emigrant" children (read "children of Jews") what real American life is all about. It separates these children from their parents and places them in "real" American homes to have breakfast of sausage and ham and bacon and dinner of pork chops, and further undermine whatever cultural identity they might have. And one of our protagonists is subsumed into this program and eventually spends time lecturing and telling others about it. He is eventually invited to the White House to meet von Ribbentrop. You get the drift. Basically, the whole family is under attack, and eventually the whole nation.

At the end of the book, Roth offers a reasonable "explanation" for all that has happened, and almost, almost lets Lindbergh off the hook. IF you buy the explanation. There is sufficient ambiguity that it is difficult to tell what story to follow.

The book is well constructed, AND, in a rare event for me engaged my emotions forcefully. When the elder son is rude to his parents because they won't allow him to continue to support the Nazi propaganda machine, I found myself wanting to take and shake some sense into the boy.

What I was very cognizant of throughout the reading is the "motivation" of the Jews who did not trust the Christian society around them. There was little enough cause to do so, and a great deal of reason not to. I was also cognizant of those same elements in society today.

A year ago there was much agonizing over the question of whether or not The Passion of the Christ were anti-Semitic. I happen to think the final product went out of its way to make certain that it did not appear so. So much so that the highly inflammatory line, "His blood be upon us and upon our children" never appears anywhere in the film. I think the concern was real, based in real fear, based in a memory of what has happened even in recent times.

Anti-Semitism is alive and well. Unfortunately, it is all too alive and well in certain strains of Catholic thought. While these people espouse certain intellectual abstractions, they do so largely in ignorance, I hope, of what terrible tragedy the charges of deicide have provoked throughout history. These charges are neither abstraction, nor merely intellectual or even deeply spiritual notions to be bandied about. They are a loaded gun pointed at an entire "race" of people. (I'm not entirely comfortable with the concept of "races" as there is only one--defined by the species Homo sapiens sapiens, each one a child of God.) Anti-Semitism is the same ugliness that gives us Bosnia, Rwanda, and any other variety of "ethnic" cleansing. And it little matters whether is springs from intellectual abstractions or from the deepest emotions. It is a repulsive ideology that must be strenuously opposed wherever it rears its ugly head. We are not permitted this liberty of thought, and I am thankful for the Constitutional Right we are given that it might be freely expressed. I know immediately who I do not care to associate with.

Roth's book is an indictment of Anti-Semitism. It is an explanation for those of us who do not fully understand its implications as to why it stirs up immediate, strenuous reaction. If there were elements of Mr. Gibson's film that might have supported this strain of thought, it is good that they were excised--there is certainly enough remaining that we need not fear the loss of content. And it is to Mr. Gibson's credit that he went to such lengths to excise all that he could without destroying the reality of the Gospel story.

Roth's prose is unusually lively, unusually engaging, and unusually compelling in this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough, despite some momentary lapses. It is a book that everyone owes it to him or herself to read and to internalize. It is a book that helps to explain the dynamic that often mystifies or aggravates us. And ultimately, it is a gift to all of us. It says, "Never forget what can all-too easily happen."

Oh, and did I mention that it is by turns poignant and hysterically funny?--a Roth trademark played out superbly in this novel.

Highly recommended, indeed, required.

later It didn't occur to me when I first put this together, but what an act of grace that my book group should come to read this in time for discussion on the first day of Passover! I don't believe in coincidence, and yet, I did not plan this. We were supposed to meet last week and a scheduled Carmelite meeting time changed so I had to postpone the group. That is God's hand. What a nice reminder of His constant urging us toward Him.

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This is the second time today this book has been mentioned. (a friend told me about it at lunch - her neighbor gave it to her and she started to read it just to be polite and found she could not put it down) I'll definitely have to look for it.

Dear Ellyn,

Thank you. That's really how I found it as well, and the discussion this morning was lively and everyone really loved the book--they encouraged every believing Christian to read it because the message (which is accompanied by a wonderful story) is so critically important.



I had written this book off, seeing how it was liked by all the wrong people. But now I'll be glad to revise my prejudice.

Dear TSO,

It's my guess that it was liked by all the wrong people because there is an unquestionable agenda about it. However, as I am sympathetic to the agenda (anti-anti-semitism) I didn't find it intolerable.

There are some moments that give one pause. All the adulation heaped on Roosevelt for his support of the Jews and the destruction of Nazism. Well and good, but I have three words Ship of Fools.

But if you can ignore things like that, you will find it a good, if marred read, and something that I think those of us who do not stand in precisely the same place should internalize.



It also seemed like there was an anti-George Bush agenda to it, implicitly comparing a "fascist Lindbergh" (I use quotes because I haven't read anything on Lindbergh to know if he was) to a "fascist Bush" (in quotes because it's false).

But I liked one of Roth's earlier books so I gladly added this to the Amazon shop cart.

Dear TSO,

You may well be right, but honestly, that may the knee-jerk reaction of some critics to any mention of facism, because there was absolutely no basis for that kind of comparison. I suppose it was made because it is likely that Roth does not care for Bush--but honestly, I couldn't see it at all, and the book really does center very heavily in the 1939-1942 era with nary a mention of the present in any substantive sense.

Methinks persons concerned about such may have been overly concerned without cause in this limited instance. Of course, I could have overlooked something that made for legitimate comparison.

I think Roth's main point is that anti-semitism is always simmering just below the surface and all it takes is the right combination of factors.

One of the reasons I'm uncertain about the secondary agenda is that not all republicans in the book are tarred with the same brush, and a goodly number of democrats come under the Lindbergh label.

Also, Roth offers an explanation for Lindbergh's actions that defuses some of the "facist" explanation. I can vouch for the fact that Lindbergh's WWII politics were intensely reprehensible. Also, there is some real doubt about his conduct in Hauptmann affair--but as that amounts to little more than gossip at this point, it is probably unfair to say more. It might be better to term Lindbergh isolationist and anti-semitic.



It's probably just that the book came out at the time of the election so there was probably a conscious desire to see anything that came on the marketplace in political terms.

Anti-Semitism is one of the great mysteries to me. Why a people should be so consistently hated for so long a time seems to defy natural explanation like mere jealousy.

Dear TSO,

One of the sad realities of the human condition is that for some people to feel good about themselves they must have something "lower" to compare themselves to.

I always hearken back to the hokey, and yet pointed, 1960s Star Trek episode in which two people who are half-black half-white fight to death over their hatred. The distinguishing difference was which half was black and which white.

And that takes us even further back to Dr. Suess and his Sneetches. Even when we are taught very early and very long, we seem not to get the point. It is wrong to hate anyone for any reason. Antisemitism is the problem we see in our society with its European background, but around the world there is Antitutsism, and antizuluism and anti just about everything ism. It is a tragedy.

And you're correct, it goes far beyond mere jealousy to the very heart of the human condition itself. I suppose it is one reason why I try very hard to avoid labelling any person. I can hate a label, I can't allow myself to hate a person. Depersonalize and all I'm doing is hating a label--perfectly valid, perfectly reasonable.

I go on too long--sorry. I just puzzle over the problem the same as you have noted, and this is my partial answer, one of the reasons for my eccectricities.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 22, 2005 7:00 AM.

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