Blowing the Shofar


Stanley Crouch last week got some hubbub going with this Salon article taking the piss out of his "friend" Philip Roth, and Roth's celebrated new book The Plot Against America. Crouch, the columnist who puts the "rasc" in "irrascible," criticizes Roth for his counterfactual novel in which the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and confirms the USA in its isolationist course. In Crouch's view, this fantasia ignores a GOP-sized elephant in the American living room:

Roth expects us to believe that the very deep hostility that white Southerners had toward black Americans, a hostility that had been supported by white Northerners either after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 or soon thereafter, would suddenly dissolve and transform itself into anti-Semitism because Lucky Lindy defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.

The article has some great flights of jazzy, barely-holding-it-together Crouchiana:

How could this book pass everyone at Roth's publisher without the unmentioned smell of burning flesh filling room after room until someone raised a question about the stench for which the novel had cut off its nose in order to avoid acknowledging?

In the end, Crouch channels his inner Cosby to blame the whole thing on disrespectful gangstas and Bush apparatchiks:

There may be an understandable—however unacceptable!—reason for this that goes far beyond the limitations of "The Plot Against America." Could it be that because Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the bad sportsmanship of too many millionaire black athletes, black street-gang violence, the bullshit scholarship of the worst of black studies, and the decadent, dehumanizing minstrelsy of gangster rap have created such quiet animus in our intellectual community that it is preferable to forget the savage racial history of our nation?

Testify! Crouch, not for the first time, has brought a mini-shitstorm on himself, but the book itself continues to attract heat from all sides (one Amazon reviewer calls the author "a half-dim, bald guy who thinks that he's actually an author"), and continues the reputational renaissance Roth has been enjoying ever since ex-wife Claire Bloom kickstarted his late career.

The Plot fallout has been interesting to watch—more interesting, I'm guessing, than the actual book. I've been unenthusiastic about Roth's '90s-'00s renaissance because I was never a big fan of his naissance: Portnoy's Complaint, generally considered his signature work, has aged about as well as a glass of milk, and as one of the three people who have read the Nixon satire Our Gang, I can say that Roth deserves to do time in a literary jail. Besides, everybody knows that African scientists were crossing the Atlantic in solar airships when Lindbergh's ancestors were still worshipping porcupines.

Here, Slate's David Greenberg gives some historical context for the book's conceit:

Although the quasi-fascist American right—the Coughlinites, the Henry Ford admirers, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty Lobby, even elements of the Republican Party's Midwestern, isolationist "Old Guard"—were certainly a minority after being routed by FDR in 1932, his victory also made them more strident, vocal, and fearsome. Spouting conspiracy theories that ascribed great power to FDR's Jewish advisers, such as Bernard Baruch and Henry Morgenthau, these reactionaries saw the New Deal as a step on the road to socialism. When Roosevelt broke precedent to seek a third presidential term in 1940, they grew convinced that it was he who aspired to be a dictator…

The last half-century validated [American Jews'] heady expectations. And if their liberal vision has seemed imperiled of late, The Plot Against America, though dark and unsettling, turns out to be surprisingly reassuring. For it returns us to an era when those seen as America's enemies were not only leftists but also fascists, bigots, and their sympathizers on the right—and in the end, Roth has FDR and his supporters turn back their "plot."

I hate to bash a fellow Rutgers man (that's the last acceptable prejudice), but there's some deep doodoo in Greenberg's analysis. Herbert Hoover was a "quasi-fascist"? Only rightwing loonies found Roosevelt's third term a cause for concern?

The really interesting political context here has more to do with 2004 than 1940. Roth's admirers have been twisting themselves into pretzels to show how the book provides insights into contemporary America (read: shows that George W. Bush is a budding fascist). Somehow, a strongly interventionist President who has gone far beyond any previous U.S. commitments to Israel has become an isolationist anti-Semite from days of yore, all through the magic of fiction. For sheer historical counternarrative, Roth is bested by his own readers, who see The Plot Against America the way they see everything else—as a stick they can use to hit Bush.

Reason's Kerry Howley stood up to Crouch during his Jazz Times controversy last year.