The Terror of the Unforeseen
Though on the morning after the election disbelief prevailed, especially among the pollsters, by the day after that everybody seemed to understand everything... . It turned out, the experts concluded, that twentieth-century Americans, weary of confronting a new crisis every decade, were starving for normalcy... .
-- The Plot Against America p. 53
With some trepidation that it might not be the right nostrum for my Election Eve wounds, I picked up The Plot Against America by Philip Roth this week and finished it in two sittings. The novel, narrated in the voice of an adult Philip Roth looking back on imagined events as seen by his 9 year old self --
begins in 1940 when, having campaigned to keep America out of the new European war, the aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency. Plenty of folk are horrified by the election of a known Nazi sympathizer. But in the face of Lindbergh's success in keeping America peaceful and prosperous, opposition dwindles. Roosevelt retires to lick his wounds. The first laws targeting Jews are passed, and evoke no outcry.
What resistance there is crystallizes around an unlikely center. Week after week the journalist Walter Winchell uses his radio program to lambaste Lindbergh. Outside the Jewish community there is little support for Winchell. The New York Times criticizes him for "questionable taste" and commends the advertisers who have him removed from the airwaves. Winchell responds by denouncing the proprietors of the Times as "ultracivilized Jewish Quislings."
As Roth explained in The New York Times six weeks ago, it would be a "mistake" to read the book "as a roman à clef to the present moment in America."
I set out to do exactly what I've done: reconstruct the years 1940-42 as they might have been if Lindbergh, instead of Roosevelt, had been elected president in the 1940 election. I am not pretending to be interested in those two years -- I am interested in those two years. They were turbulent in America because they were catastrophic in Europe. My every imaginative effort was directed toward making the effect of that reality as strong as I could, and not so as to illuminate the present through the past but to illuminate the past through the past. I wanted my family to be up against it precisely as they would have been up against it had history turned out as I've skewed it in this book and they were overpowered by the forces I have arrayed against them. Forces arrayed against them then, not now.
Yet, the fictional device Roth has chosen inherently asks the reader to suspend disbelief and assume an alternate history in which a Lindberg presidency in the orbit of Nazi ideology captures the electoral support of a majority of American voters. As readers contemplate this 'what if' almost inevitably they will find themselves wondering over the next logical question: could it happen here, now?
Reviewing the book in the current issue of the New York Review of Book, for example, J.M. Coetzee writes --
A volatile and fickle voting public captivated by surface rather than substance -- Tocqueville foresaw the danger long ago -- might in 1940 as easily have gone for the aviator hero with the simple message as for the incumbent with the proven record. In this sense, the fantasy of a Lindbergh presidency is only a concretization, a realization for poetic ends, of a certain potential in American political life.
Similarly, at Slate Nicholas Lehman is inspired to review the book, in a manner of speaking, via a love letter to his wife:
It's this deep-seated, not quite consciously articulated sense that anti-intellectualism, and personal rather than rational forms of authority, are always lurking outside the Jewish world that Philip Roth activates with surgical skill and efficiency in The Plot Against America. Emotionally, it could happen here. It could happen anywhere, any time. It has happened practically everywhere.
* * *
Still: Could it happen here? ... I think you think it could, and I think it couldn't. It may sound strange coming from someone who has spent so much time writing about problems in American life, but I do believe that America is exceptional, and in mostly good ways. That has a lot to do with its democratic and constitutional traditions and, despite everything, its relatively greater success than just about anywhere else at operating a multi-ethnic society. The idea that every person has worth and potential seems especially deeply rooted here—and, to be chauvinistic, that idea is in turn rooted in the, um, Judeo-Christian tradition. On the other hand, being married to someone whose alarm sensors about America are turned up a bit higher than my own makes for a nice psychological insurance policy.
Roth's dystopic story is informed by the reality that history unfolds to us as a series of largely unexpected, often seemingly random events. We cannot ever know with certainty where today's events will lead us tomorrow; yet from the distant perspective of some future time, it will all appear to be seamlessly stitched together as a coherent narrative with the strong sense of inevitably to it.
As Roth has explained one theme of his book --
"[A]ll the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history. May I conclude with a quotation from my book? ''Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.''
Will the reelection of George Bush eventually be seen as the triumph of Americans' good sense? The key event leading to the nation's eventual victory over international violence and domestic economic malaise, as we must hope? Or, will it come to be viewed as a watershed event when it finally "happened here"? When evangelical moralists and naive warmongers triumphantly severed the United States from the principles of our founding fathers, impoverished the nation, and plunged us into a new Dark Age of moralistic intolerance, persecution, corporate cupidity, and international conflagration?
Such are the questions Roth's novel inevitably raises in the reader's mind. Not because he intended the book as commentary on the Bush administration, but because we are reading it during the era of Bush. I found no answers for our present political problem, I am sorry to report, except perhaps for the simple example of personal courage set by Herman and Bess Roth, the narrator's parents. Though "ghetto Jews', as the ungrateful oldest son accuses, the parents clearly see the catastrophe posed by the fascist Lindbergh administration. While they oppose it in the small ways open to them, they also struggle day by day to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the family and with friends.
Under even the most extreme political regimes, life must go on. And our true future, as history will write it some day, remains unknowable.