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.