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  • Plots Against America:Neoliberalism and Antiracism
  • Walter Benn Michaels (bio)

The most powerful scene in Philip Roth's recent and very well-received novel The Plot Against America (2004) takes place in a Washington hotel. The novel, as even those who haven't read it are likely to know, is an alternative or counterfactual history, one that imagines the American past along the same lines that Sinclair Lewis imagined the future in his 1935 It Can't Happen Here: the central conceit of both books is a US that follows in Nazi Germany's footsteps. But where anti-Semitism is only one weapon in the arsenal of Lewis's dictator, it's absolutely central to Roth's President Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Roth's alternative history is, after all, post Holocaust. And so the scene I'm referring to involves the fictional Roth family's experience first at the Lincoln Memorial where, reading aloud the words "All men are created equal," Mr. Roth is called "a loudmouth Jew" (65) and, second, at the hotel where he and his family are told their reservations are no good and are refused a room. When the police are called, rather than setting things right, they throw the family out. "What happened?" whispers the fictional little Philip to his brother; "Anti-Semitism," (69) the brother whispers back.

Roth's idea, of course, is that it very easily could have happened here—if, say, the antiwar as well as anti-Semitic Lindbergh had been pushed to run for the presidency in 1940 by his friend and fellow anti-Semite Henry Ford and if the popularity of Lindbergh's antiwar platform had helped to legitimate his anti-Semitism. So, part of the book's power derives from its realism, the fact that it feels like the truth—one reviewer called it Roth's "most believable book in years" (Miller)—while another part derives from the fact that, of course, it's not true—when the police come to remove the Jews from the hotel, it's scary but, like a horror movie, pleasurably scary because its history is counterfactual—it didn't happen here. And both these facts—the fact that it could have happened here and the fact that it didn't—are given additional power by a third fact, the fact that, of course, it did happen here, only not to the Jews. It has [End Page 288] surely occurred to every reader of this novel that its distinctive set pieces—above all, the scene in which the Roths are denied rooms at the hotel—were a standard feature of American life at least from 1896 (when Plessy legalized segregation) until the early 1960s. But, of course, it happened to black people, almost never to Jews. Which doesn't mean that there was no discrimination against Jews. Roth reminds us, for example, of the "quotas" that kept "Jewish admissions to a minimum in colleges and professional schools" (11), not to mention country clubs. (And the memory of these quotas has usefully functioned to keep universities today from imposing limits on Asian American students.) But, of course, you didn't then (and you don't now) need quotas to keep down the numbers of black people in those institutions. The effects of several centuries of slavery and a half century of apartheid have made artificial limits entirely supererogatory. And, on the other side, no American Jews have ever been forced to ride in the Jew car on railroad trains, or use the restrooms and drinking fountains set aside for Jews, or attend the separate (grossly underfunded) schools for Jews. So when Mr. Roth reminds the desk clerk that he and his family have spent the afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial and quotes to him from the Gettysburg Address—"All men are created equal"—the meaning of his (not to mention his author son's) outrage is clear, but the author's expectation that we will share it is a little opaque. Why should we be outraged by what didn't happen rather than outraged by what did?

Not that Roth is the only writer in recent years to imagine an America divided not into blacks and...


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pp. 288-302
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