Thursday, September 18, 2008

What If?

The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth

Sometimes it is really terrifying to meander down the "what if" trail when we consider scenarios that were historically possible but did not happen. Of course, sometimes it is is equally hideous to contemplate the things that actually did happen, or that are happening right now. But we won't go there. The Plot Against America takes us on a journey of what could have happened if Charles Lindbergh (of aviation, isolationist, and anti-Semitic fame) had run against Roosevelt for POTUS in 1940 and won.

The narrator of the story is a young Jewish boy named after the author himself. It is just wrenching to experience those fearful times through the eyes and ears of a child - we probably all remember overhearing conversations between adults when we were kids, only understanding portions of what we were hearing, and feeling scared. We all try to shield our children from scary things that might be too much for them, but sometimes it's even worse when they are piecing together snatches of information based on what they can glean by eavesdropping. Sadly, little Philip's fears are well-founded and real. Within a few weeks of his inauguration, Lindbergh reaches an "understanding" with Adolph Hitler and promises to keep the United States out of the war. Suddenly, voicing concern for Europe's Jewish population is viewed as disloyal and possibly even treasonous.

Philip takes us through the first couple of years of Lindbergh's presidency, and he does an incredible job of depicting the climate of fear and suspicion that permeates the Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey. Lindbergh's policies and programs starts out seemingly innocuous, such as service opportunities for Jewish boys on rural farms, ostensibly to "assimilate" them into American culture. The anti-Semitism is couched in rhetoric about "national unity" and "America first," and for a time is even praised and sanctioned by prominent rabbis and other people in the upper echelons of Jewish society. It does not take long, however, before corporate America is colluding with the federal government's relocation programs for the Jewish people, and Jews begin to be scapegoated for numerous national problems. A terrifying outbreak of pogroms about two year's into Lindbergh's term erases any doubt about his intentions or those of the advisers who surround him.

The end of the book gets a little far fetched, with a conspiracy theory that Lindbergh was cooperating with the Nazis because they were behind the kidnapping of his infant son in the early 1930s, and were still holding the boy hostage. But who is to say anymore what is far fetched? There's a lot of crazy and sinister stuff that goes on. Some of it you can't make up because no one would believe it.

Roth's book is a cautionary tale against "going along to get along," and a reminder of the necessity for critical thinking. What is really frightening about it is that the scenario sounds so plausible. We are wrong if we think prejudice against our Jewish neighbors is over. Just a couple of weeks ago, swastikas were painted on the property of a synagogue right here in Rockville. Shudder. Makes you realize that anything can happen. We have to pay attention.

Reverent Reader


At 9/20/08, 7:03 PM , Blogger TET said...

this was actually the first Roth novel I've ever read. I enjoyed it, but it was definitely scary.

Scary what happened at that synogogue! oy.


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