For a book club this weekend, I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The book is set in an alternate version of 1940s America, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt for the presidency on the platform of keeping the US out of WWII. The Lindbergh presidency sympathizes with Germany and Japan, and takes the US down a suspicious path of isolating Jews.
The book combines effective, memoir-style fiction about the role of fear in growing up, with a rather clunky and self-indulgent political thriller. The effective parts of the book to me were the anecdotes of about scary experiences made more terrifying by imagination. A kid is trapped by a stuck bathroom door; the basement haunted by feral cats and ghosts; a neighbor’s father is found dead from cancer or suicide.
The political plot takes instances of discrimination that really happened to other groups — being kept out of hotels (African-Americans); kids being taken far away for education and assimilation (Native Americans); families being relocated (Japanese) — and applies them to Jews. The plot plays effectively on the Jewish fear of persecution. It works — it’s scary. But it also feels manipulative, like a Holocaust theme park ride.
There was one aspect of the political plot that was thought-provoking and effective. In the novel, the programs taking urban Jewish kids to summer camps on farms and moving urban families out to rural communities are presented as sunny and patriotic. It’s hard to tell if the anti-semitic rhetoric, Nazi alliances, and building of a capo-style structure of Jewish adminstration of the transfer programs is truly as creepy as it looks, or whether Jews worried about the trends are having paranoid fantasies fueled by their ghetto life, as the adminstration insists.
In contemporary politics, one of the tough questions is figuring out when and how much to worry. The religious right’s rhetoric damning Democrats as being “against people of faith” is worrisome. The support for this message by the Republican leadership is more worrisome.
As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as “against people of faith” for blocking President Bush’s nominees. Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day “Justice Sunday” and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading “the filibuster against people of faith,” it reads: “The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith.”
The issue itself — changing the Senate’s rules for confirming judges — is basic procedural politics. The political slant — casting one party for God, and one party against God — is really disturbing. It’s reassuring to watch conservatives who aren’t buying it