Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Drumbeat Disguised as a Heartbeat

In his latest novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines a country watching the rise of the Third Reich across a great ocean and through a scrim of isolationism. The Republicans draft aviation hero Charles Lindbergh to stop Roosevelt's try for a third term. A man of few words, Lindbergh stays on message and, after conducting a personal, barnstorming tour around the country and promising to keep America out of a pointless war, he wins in a landslide.

Before long, he has negotiated a peace pact with Hitler, and Jews start receiving opportunities to become better integrated into mainstream American life, starting with an offer to send urban-dwelling Jewish children into the heartland. (The narrator's brother goes to live with a Kentucky farm family and comes back an advocate for the program.) Next, large corporations transfer their Jewish employees to new assignments. There are no rabid rallies and screaming Fuhrers. We watch the country's inexorable slide toward fascism in small steps. While you would be horrified at the conclusion, it's easy to see yourself agreeing with one statement at a time.

On its face, the novel would be easy to read as a commentary on our current leader and his party, but it is deeper than that. Instead of drawing hateful positions broadly, Roth makes them appear utterly reasonable as he persuasively sets forth the Lindbergh government's evolving policy. This duality is personified so appealingly by the president and his wife, an American archetypal couple, made all the more empathetic through the loss of their infant son in the nation's most notorious kidnapping.

Roth's primary effect is to enrich our understanding of how any nation could become complicit in infamy — and to sharpen awareness of how the call to join in evil is more likely to come forth under the guise of piety, peace and following the will of the majority.

Could it really happen here — marginalizing a minority of America's most highly productive citizens? Some will disbelieve, like The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who says the tale "takes place in a political landscape that remains cartoony in the extreme." She must have forgotten internment of Japanese citizens during the real World War Two, and perhaps New York is too isolated to hear a certain national drumbeat disguised as a heartbeat.

Lesbians and gays aren't bad people. (But they threaten the foundation of our society.) We are just defending marriage and family. (And to do so, we must deny the same benefits to them.)

Read The Plot Against America and then listen for yourself.


Blogger betsy said...

Hey Charlie-
Great blog, haven't had a chance to read it all yet, but so far so good!

Though I've read about this book, I haven't yet picked it up. Your discussion of it makes me think of a book I read during Reagan's first term: "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1939. It tells the tale of a charismatic U.S. presidental candidate, inexperienced, considered incompetent by some, backed by ingenious handlers. He wins by a landslide, and bit by bit, very rationally, dismantles the Constitution. The story's narrator is a small town New England newspaper editor who, through his editorials about what's going on in the government, becomes a target. It scared the hell out of me then, and 2004 found me talking about it again & again. Roth's Lindbergh as hero is certainly more imaginable than what we have now...

And holy Moses, I just listened to your state senator. I had no idea that the foundation of our society was as simple as marriage to a man, any man, in the great state of Minnesota! Is a couple weeks long enough to add my mortar to the foundation? I guess a ten year, happy, healthy, constructive, supportive relationship doesn't mean much without, well, you know.

9:52 PM  

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