Friday, October 31, 2008

The Plot Against America

This past Wednesday, the Diane Rehm Show featured Philip Roth's The Plot Against America for its October's Readers' Review. Since the Rehm Team sees fit to ignore each and every of my constant emails and I'm afraid of restraining orders, I've decided to relegate my complaints about the book to Tome.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Plot, it's Roth's attempt at alternative history. Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator, national hero, and reputed anti-Semite, beats FDR in his re-election bid of 1940. So, instead of the U.S. entering the war with Hitler, Lindbergh (a fan of the Fuhrer) signs a peace treaty. As a result, we never enter the war and anti-Semitism crashes upon our shores. Roth fictionalizes his family and talks about what it would've been like being a Jew in this harrowing time for the Jews.

My problems with Plot were twofold. While I'll admit that anti-Semitism has been a problem in America, it has paled in comparison to the racial strife that America has suffered throughout its history. The war years were indeed turbulent on the home front, but it wasn't anti-Semitism that rocked the country to its foundations. It was racial strife.

In 1943, Los Angeles erupted in bloodshed with the Zoot Suit Riots, where thousands of sailors and Marines targeted Latinos (but also blacks and Filipinos). The police escorted the servicemen during the melee and arrested over 500 Latinos for "rioting." Some 500 people were injured during the riots, and the local press heralded our boys in uniform for the riot's "cleansing effect." They even went so far as accusing Eleanor Roosevelt of stirring racial discord when she spoke out against the riots and claime she had Communist leanings.

There, of course, was the internment of mainland Japanese Americans during the war. There was the Jim Crow South, and race riots in Mobile when the wartime industries were desegregated as well as other race riots in Chicago, Harlem, and Detroit (so much for Americans banding together to beat the bad guy).

My point being, if one were to write an alternative history about prosecuted minorities during the war, it seems that race was the overarching conflict--not religion. Even as allegory, I thought that Plot dodged the real story to make it more Eurocentric than it really was. Hollywood does much the same thing with Civil Rights movies like Mississippi Burning or Long Walk Home and this latest batch of Civil Rights/Sports films (Hurrican, The Express), conflating the roles of white mentors to diminish black heroics.

My other problem with Plot was simply the cartoonish ending. Charles Lindbergh is defeated in his own re-election bid, everybody sees the light, and America instantly goes back to becoming the great nation it was destined to be. The gripe I have with this ending is the same I have, as a science-fiction writer and fan, with dystopian Hollywood SF films.

Dystopias don't happen overnight. The Holocaust didn't either. It's not as though the Germans just woke up one day and decided to kill all the Jews. The Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism, Jewish persecution, and progroms. The Nazis built upon a framework that existed way before they mass-produced murder.

Hollywood routinely ignores this--all in attempt to blame dystopias on one, reeeeaaallly evil bastard. As I said, these things don't happen overnight. Philosophies are developed, attitudes are changed and cemented, institutions are built. Dystopias are systems. One person's never responsible for this. They may capitalize on these existing strains, but they don't create them out of the ether. Therefore, getting rid of the person does not get rid of the system. Strange Days, Minority Report, and a slew of other films always relies on the trope of the Bad Guy (actually, Strange Days blamed an entire police state on two "rogue" cops).

The Plot Against America does the same thing. It's an understandable trope for movies. If one concedes that dystopias are systems, we can't really have a happy ending. You can't just kill one person and have an entire society wipe away its entire history (ya hear that, W.?) and become paradise on Earth. That's far too unwieldy for a movie to tackle.

However, I would expect that type of scrutiny from a novel--especially from a novel from Philip Roth. If America had gotten to the point of flirting with its own holocaust of the Jews, simply defeating Charles Lindbergh at the polls would not have stopped it. America would've been a fundamentally different place. Would Jews really have been granted full citizenship afterwards? And what about the blacks, Latinos, and Asians who were roundly ignored in the book?

These are exactly the questions alternative histories are written to address or at least ruminate over. Roth completely ignored his responsibilities in writing such a speculative work. And since he did ignore them, I ultimately couldn't figure out his point in writing the book and found it all too wanting.


Grant said...

Good points. I read the book a couple of years ago. In truth, I just accepted the premise and enjoyed the read. It's the only Roth that I've read.

Hollywood: +++
Alt History: ---

grinder said...

My Republican Friends, this is really a victory. SOMEONE TELL FOX NEWS!!

grinder said...

Aside from promoting my update to The Secret Squirrel, I wanted to comment on your posting. I liked it, especially the part about dystopias not happening overnight.

The rise of antisemitism in Germany is a case in point. That was very much a product of the massive social and political upheaval in Europe between 1875 and 1920.

If there's one book that really provides an insight into it that had never occurred to me until I read it, the book is Hitler's Vienna: Apprenticeship of a Dictator, by Brigitte Hamann. I also read a short history of 19th Century Germany, published by the Modern Library, whose name I can't recall, and found it very useful.

A bunch of things were going on at that time:

1. Nations were turning into nation-states. This is unfamiliar to Americans, who can't conceive of a difference between a "nation" and a political entity. In Europe, there were political entities, but there were also overlapping nationalities, and identites were as much national as state-based.

2. Both Russia and the Austria-Hungarian empire, which controlled most of Central Europe, were collapsing. Nations were on the move. The Russians expelled millions of Jews westward and southward. The Czechs were on the move, and so were Poles. The German nation, which was spread well beyond Germany's borders, was feeling increasingly insecure.

3. Germany itself had undergone a big transformation from a decentralized collection of states, fiefdoms, principalities, and city-states into a single state. Remember the Nazi hymn, Deutschland Uber Alles? It was the song of mid-19th Century German progressives who sought to overturn the centuries-old entrenched power of monarchs and princes and replace it with a modern state.

4. German reorganization was accompanied by brutality, not so much against people, but in terms of the discourse. Bismarck was the "Iron Chancellor" who ruthlessly overrode his opponents. The term "annihiliation" made its way into the German political lexicon in the late 1800s.

5. The Ottoman Empire, which bordered Austria-Hungary to the south, was also collapsing. The Arabs were fighting the Turks, and the Balkans (which were not called by that term at the time) were going up in flames. Recall that World War I started when a Serbian separatist shot the Archduke Ferdinand, an Austria-Hungarian, in Sarajevo.

6. Everything I've just mentioned pressed in on Vienna. The city was 25% Jewish, and the Jews of Vienna were long-assimiliated and well-established. Much to the chagrin of everyone, including the local Jews, refugee Jews were arriving from Russia and Poland in droves. That caused the Germans to form an Anti-Semite Party. The Czechs were moving west and south, and that contributed to a feeling of "encirclement" on the part of the Germans.

7. Communism was on the rise, and threatening the old order in a huge way. Capitalism had also been a huge challenge. Neither one of those systems was indigenous to Europe, which had long been feudal or semi-feudal in character.

8. World War I was completely chaotic. Millions of people died for obscure reasons. Nothing was settled, but in the aftermath the economy was flattened. In Vienna, for example, people would rent their sleeping quarters in shifts. You'd literally have eight hours of shelter at a time. Hitler spent several years in a homeless shelter. He made spare change by selling illustrated postcards on the street. He also sold small paintings to a Jewish art dealer who he later saved from the Holocaust.

It was a chaotic situation. Between 1850 and 1950, Europe was grabbed by the ankles and shaken. Every single certainty was set on its head. I don't think the average American has a single clue as to how crazy things were. This isn't an excuse for anything, but an explanation, and a very long way of agreeing with your critique of the simplicity of The Plot Against America.

When the Europeans call Americans hopelessly naive, they've got a good point. Yet, notice that they don't reject us for it. They wish their history was as smooth as ours, slavery and the genocide of the natives notwithstanding. I think they'd prefer it, though, if Americans weren't quite so ignorant on these matters.

grinder said...

The history of Germany is called, The German Empire: A Short History, by Michael Sturmer. Also, a very interesting book is Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, by Robert D. Kaplan. (Kaplan is a neocon, but he doesn't flog it AT ALL in Balkan Ghosts. In fact, I didn't learn of his neocon side until after I read the book, and I was shocked.)

Finally, an interesting (but frankly, not as readable as the others) supplement is The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1933, by Thomas Childers. The Germans kept meticulous records, so this book tells you exactly who supported the Nazis as they grew. It's like a long election-night statistical analysis.

The other books, though, give a more sweeping narrative understanding of the undercurrents. I never set out to study the Holocaust, but found that by reading those books I wound up with a deeper understanding that I never see reflected in even the "advanced" discussions I see in high-end periodicals.

I guess that's why we read books, huh?

grinder said...

I hope you don't mind me rattling on here a bit, but I wanted to add something. The Childers book about the electoral rise of the Nazis does carry what I think is a critically important insight.

As the economic depression of the 1920s deepened in Germany, the center dropped out, and the public migrated more toward the extreme right and the extreme left. As I look at the Republican Party's lurch to the right since Reagan, and especially since Gingrich, I worry about the loss of the center.

The Democrats have remained a center-left party. I think it would be good for this country if the Republicans could somehow be coaxed back to the center. If Obama can manage that one, and be a steward of economic recovery, then he will go down in history as one of our great presidents.

I am one of these people who thinks that greatness in presidents is as much a matter of the times as the man. I think the times are such that there's now room for greatness. So, we'll see how it goes.

boukman70 said...


I actually think these times are ripe for greatness. If it doesn't happen this time around, we'll suffer a round of mediocrity like we did from the end of the Civil War until the turn of the century. I thin there's actually going to be a civil war within the GOP for the next few years. They'll go harder to the right (portended by Romney's convention speech--that damned liberal Roberts Court--the crackhead), they'll lose a few more elections, and then regain their sanity around 2020.

You should definitely read _Hitler's Beneficiaries_. Talk about meticulous records, the author goes through the Nazis' financials. Basically, he argues, the Nazis didn't want the German people to have to pay for the war. So they ran up huge debts and bled the occupied countries dry. Poland, the Netherlands, etc., literally starved while the Germans lived better than they had in a long time. And whenever times got a little tight, they'd just round up more Jews, sent them off to concentration camps, confiscated their goods, and sold them off for rock-bottom prices to the citizenry. Whenever the concentration camps were under threat of attack, they'd just massacre all the Jews because they were too expensive to move. The book was truly an eye-opener.