"Fear presides over these memories": Philip Roth's The Plot Against America

[cross-posted at The Valve]

I have two responses to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which are overlapping but distinct. One is my admiration for Roth's allegory for today's America. Alongside the entertaining (and sometimes uncanny) comparison between the real President Bush and the imagined President Lindbergh, there is a distinctly American politics of fear that maps quite directly to the crackdown on Muslim immigrants taking place in the U.S. today under the USA Patriot Act.

Secondly, I am surprised at how closely this book mirrors some of the issues in my dissertation/book project on secularism. In the second half of this post, I'll briefly compare Roth's novel to George Eliot's 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, which I think of as the most serious and nuanced exploration the idea of "Jewishness" as a racial/religious category written during the Victorian era. In both novels I see a logic of what I call "Jewish recognition" in play. Jewish recognition is a way of identifying (and stigmatizing) a religious minority, but it also, I find, operates within the community through a specifically Jewish version of DuBois-ian double-consciousness.

1. The Politics of Fear

I won't give away the ending of Roth's novel (indeed, I'll ignore it), but suffice it to say that one of the most intriguing subtleties of The Plot Against America is the ominous change in American society that doesn't quite amount to fascism. Roth's two clever inventions -- government programs created by the fictitious Lindbergh presidency -- are the "Office of American Absorption" and a new "Homestead Act of 1942." Both are voluntary programs, designed to assimilate specifically Jewish immigrants into mainstream American society. Both have the whiff of Nazism, without its ugly sting. The word "absorption" is particularly terrifying, as it suggests deracination by force.

But as I mentioned, the two programs instituted by the Lindbergh Presidency are voluntary ones, and the Jewish community in Roth's novel is divided internally about whether to support them. Many do, and they find good reasons for doing so (aren't the perils of ghettoization real, after all? isn't the difference between "assimilation" and "absorption" trivial?). Others -- like "Philip's" father -- don't support the measures, and find themselves constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall. They seem paranoid, and the expectation is that they are right to be so.

However, in Roth's novel, the excesses conjured by the specter of a Nazi sympathizer as an American President never quite materialize. Which is a little like the present moment and the maddening Presidency of George W. Bush, is it not? We have gotten somewhat used to some anti-democratic practices -- specifically the routine use of torture (or something approximating it) against non-citizens in detention facilities located offshore. We have also gotten used to aggressive pursuit of radicalized Muslims; the government has a policy of aggressive deportation against Muslim non-citizens in the U.S., subjecting large segments of the immigrant population in the U.S. to life in a state of fear.

As with Roth's novel, there is nothing illegal about what the government has done and is doing with these deportations. In every case, there has been shown to be something amiss with the deportee's immigration status -- an overstayed student visa being the most common culprit. But take the case of two teenager girls in New York who were detained this past April (see this Times story). The FBI held them for six weeks in detention while questioning them, based on a) an essay one of the girls had written for a school assignment, and b) some statements one of the girls had made in an Islamic chatroom. It took six weeks in a holding cell, but it was finally decided that, chatroom Jihad notwithstanding, they weren't terrorists. Nevertheless, the Bangladeshi girl (Tashnuba) and her family were all deported in June. They had been in the U.S. for thirteen years (thirteen out of Tashnuba's sixteen years), but they were illegal, so... what's there to complain about? (I blogged about it here.)

As I said, the deportation of this family cannot be construed as 'wrong', but the conditions in which it occurred raise the question of whether the deportation is itself a form of punishment for Tashnuba's strong views on Islam. Either way, the FBI's extremely aggressive tactics produce a climate of fear in the immigrant community; people have to watch what they say, or run the risk of detainment and/or deportation.

To me, it all seems quite similar to the paranoid vision of America in Roth's novel.

2. Secularism and Jewish Recognition

The debate within the Jewish community over assimilation is as important in George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda as it is in Roth's Plot Against America. It is most intense in the latter chapters of the novel in the long dialogues between the devout Mordecai and the novel's eponymous hero, who only discovers that he's of Jewish descent after having been raised as an "English" (Christian) gentleman.

The novel makes a statement against assimilationism and ends with Deronda leaving England (for Palestine) to do nation-building work on behalf of European Jewry as a whole. Some aspects of Eliot's approach to Judaism now seem to be a little naive, but the framing of Deronda's choice, as one that is playing out within ethnic and religious groups as well as in the mainstream, is both sensitive and prescient. Ultimately, the demonization of the English Jews -- as seen in the anti-Semitism of Dickens' Fagin, or Trollope's "Prime Minister" -- is often accompanied by a measure of complicity amongst members of the targeted community. Eliot's Deronda is secularized and acculturated to English, liberal norms by dint of his gentlemanly upbringing in the Mallinger household. The idea that he of all people might resist absorption on principled lines upends the majority's assumption that English Jews will consent to be assimilated.

In my chapter on Eliot, I make a great deal of hay out of the following passage from the novel. Deronda is in a secondhand clothing store in the Jewish neighborhood in London. He is still unclear about his parentage, though curiosity has drawn him to develop an interest in the Jews and Judaism. The proprietor of the shop (Mordecai) grabs him by the shoulder:

'You are perhaps of our race?'

Deronda coloured deeply, not liking the grasp, and then answered with a slight shake of the head, 'No.' The grasp was relaxed, the hand withdrawn, the eagerness of the face collapsed into uninterested melancholy, as if some possessing spirit which had leaped into the eyes and gestures had sunk back again to the inmost recesses of the frame; and moving further off as he held out the little book, the stranger said in a tone of distant civility, 'I believe Mr Ram will be satisfied with half-a-crown, sir.'

The effect of this change on Deronda -- he afterwards smiled when he recalled it -- was oddly embarrassing and humiliating, as if some high dignitary had found him deficient and given him his congé.

I'll spare you the nitty gritties, and say only that I'm interested in Deronda's physical response to being recognized as a Jew before he has fully recognized it in himself. I'm particularly intrigued by Eliot's phrasing here -- the word "coloured" as a figure of speech for a blush, which I see as referring to Judaism as a matter of blood (racial difference) without actually saying so. I'm also intrigued by the turn in the last paragraph to Deronda's envisioning "some high dignitary" -- the English gentleman's superego, when he is merely in the presence of the considerably less 'dignitaried' Mordecai. When one is embarrassed by being recognized as a member of a stigmatized group, the fear and humiliation is oriented to the scrutiny of the presumably Christian master, not to the stigmatized group itself.

There are scenes of Jewish recognition in The Plot Against America as well, especially in the "Loudmouth Jew" chapter early in the novel. In the scene that I found really disturbing, the Roth family are away from their predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Newark, NJ, on a trip to the nation's capital. Everywhere they go, they are seemingly recognized as Jews by mainstream/Christian Americans, and it's often unclear what is behind it. Perhaps it's partly the name "Roth," though if so one wonders why the hotel that eventually turns them out ever booked them to begin with. It might also be in their appearance; one of the most painful passages in the entire book is the nine-year old Philip's recognition that both he and his mother definitely "look Jewish":

I began to pretend that I was following somebody on our bus who didn't look Jewish. It was then that I realized . . . that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes--my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn't known.

Philip has learned to see himself the way non-Jews see him. With that realization, however, comes pain, as implicit in the capacity for Jewish recognition is the assumption that the difference that is suddenly unmistakable to Philip is something to be ashamed of.

This brings us back to the scene where the Roth family visit the Washington Monument, and get into an argument with a stranger who admires President Lindbergh:

The stranger took a long, gaping look at my father, then my mother, then Sandy, then me. And what did he see? A trim, neatly muscled, broad-chested man five feet nine inches tall, handsome in a minor key, with soft grayish-green eyes and thinning brown hair clipped close at the temples and presenting his two ears to the world a little more comically than was necessary. The woman was slender but strong and she was tidily dressed, with a lock of her wavy dark hair over one eyebrow and roundish cheeks a little rouged and a prominent nose and chunky arms and shapely legs and slimp hips and the lively eyes of a girl half her age. In both adults a surfeit of prudence and a surfeit of energy, and with the couple two boys still pretty much all soft surfaces, young children of youthful parents, keenly attentive and in good healt and incorrigible only in their optimism.

And the conclusion the stranger drew from his observations he demonstrated with a mocking movement of the head. Then, hissing noisily so as to mislead no one about his assessment of us, he returned to the elderly lady and their sightseeing party, walking slowly off with a rolling gait that seemed, along with the silhouette of his broad back, intended to register a warning. It was from there that we heard him refer to my father as a "loudmouth Jew," followed a moment later by the elderly lady declaring, "I'd give anything to slap his face." (64-65)

The moment of recognition is physical again; the stranger looks over the Roth family for a hard minute before drawing a conclusion. It's interesting to me that Roth's narrator here disregards what the stranger probably sees, and gives us his own 'look' at the family -- with tenderness and sympathy rather then prejudice. However, when the stranger finally throws down his slur, he doesn't single out the differences in the Roth's family's appearance, but rather the "loudmouth" voice. It's the voice he can't stand; he doesn't quite know how to shut it up.