12 October 2011

The Plot Against Americans

In 2004, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, a harrowing alternate historical novel describing a family's downfall as America is overrun by Nazi-aligned fascism.  In light of Hitler's phoenix-like ascension, a noticeable contingent of public figures feared inevitable conflict a mere two decades after the devastation of The Great War.  In Europe, this was highlighted by appeasement.  In America, isolationism suddenly became the cause du jour, led by none other than by a bona fide American hero, Charles Lindbergh.  Roth imagined a nightmare:  what if in 1940prior to Pearl Harbor, prior to American military engagementLindbergh ran for President on an anti-war, isolationist platform and roundly defeated Roosevelt?

Within days of his inauguration, Lindbergh signs an "understanding" with Hitler essentially guaranteeing America's non-involvement in the "European War."  Japan, in turn, is given free reign in the Pacific theater as long it doesn't attack US interests.  Slowly but most assuredly, mirroring its newfound Third Reich cousin, the Lindbergh administration begins to implement anti-Semitic policies which incrementally undermine and marginalize America's Jewish community.  Those brave enough to protest against President Lindbergh and his anti-Semitic policies are mocked as paranoid, and if they persist, shamed by epithets like, "Loudmouth Jew!"  America is hijacked by fascism.

Roth's conceit is a nightmare, a far-fetched one for sure, but its core elements are grounded in feasible reality.  It is precisely these apparatuses of a coup d'état which Roth capitalizes on to craft his frightening tale, and against which the participants of the Occupy Movement are now protesting.  I heard an interview last week where one protestor was asked, "Are you here because you believe the American Dream is dead?"  The 20-something ingénue with a 20-dollar bill taped over his mouth answered affirmatively.  The American Dream is not dead, it has just been hijacked by avarice.  If I had to put a name to it, I'd call it financialism. 

One of the more fascinating aspects of Plot is that since his first novel Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Roth has cultivated an illustrious career out of ridiculing old-world Jewish paranoia, openly ridiculing mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and grandfathers who are convinced pogrom-minded goyyim are around every corner.  America is the land of opportunity and liberty, of secular egalitarianism.  In Plot, however, he proffers a horrifying reality where all those fears are not just hinted upon, but fully realized.  

In recent times, the onus of public derision falls upon the government.  Condemning the government has become the trendy political move by candidates in a bid to garner support.  For many, the government is the enemy of the people.  It's true, government acquiescence to big business plays a major role in this crisis.  But it's not government using your grandmother's retirement fund to bet against toxic derivatives, it's the greedheads, the captains of the financial industry, characterized by the umbrella term, Wall Street.  Wall Street, to borrow one of my favorite Dylan lines, philosophizes disgrace and criticizes our fears.  They tell us that without them the whole world economy will fall apart; they tell us they shouldn't be punished for their own success (or their failures either, apparently); they tell us what they do is too complicated and convoluted for us to understand; they tell us to stop whining and get a job; they tell us to trust them.  

What Wall Street has done, in actuality, is wage an all-out war on the middle class, directly attacking the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness this country was founded upon.  Instead of sacrificing, they've doubled-down.  Instead of compromise, they've inculcated themselves even deeper.  Wall Street's utter intransigence to any view but their own belies their antisocial agenda.  This generation will be the first generation in American history who will be less affluent than their parents. There is something insidiously repugnant about that: collective financial filicide.  For most, the concepts of empathy, acceptance, community, compassion, are virtues to be celebrated, for Wall Street, they are contemptible objects of scorn meant to be ridiculed.

Opponents of the Occupy Movement deride it as a rabble of stoners, losers, lazies, and wannabe hippies nostalgic for a bygone protest era, who have nothing better to do with their time.  They criticize the movement for having no stated goals or demands.  What those critics fail to understand is the lack of definitive goals is the entire point of the whole thing.  This isn't a protest for racial or gender equality, this is a general protest against a corrupt system; financial repression doesn't discriminate.  This is a protest against the denigration of American morality, of the subversion of American culture.  If this were Shakespeare, the protestors would be Hamlet and Wall Street would be Claudius, the villainous uncle muscling in on the throne.  The protesters are protesting not because they are envious of those who are successful, like Herman Cain would have you believe, but because they earned an education (incurring massive debt in the process), they went through all the motions, the believed in the inherent rectitude of the system, and now they're being cruelly shut out from their American Dream.  Wall Street has taken the ultimate meritocracy, usurped it, and created the ultimate plutocracy.  You can fool some people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

The titans of the financial industry think we're all just as selfish as they are.  They think eventually the natural inertia of apathy and complacency will take hold and the Occupy Movement will recede into faded memory.  They think we're all extremely stupid.  What they don't realize is that they've left us with nothing, and when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! Mr. Freaking Katz. I read Plot Against America when it first came out and you know it was not one of my favorites by The Beast. (That would have to be 'The Ghost Writer') So I was interested to read a blogpost with your thoughts on the novel. I thought you were dead on when you say it does an really ironic Rothian trick when it takes the extreme paranoia of Jews (often mocked in many of Roth's very novels for great comic affect) and realizes it to an extreme almost beyond belief (but not entirely since no imagination of the suffering of a people can be beyond belief when they have faced an attempt at genocide) and uses this extremity to dissect an essential true and undeniable (if not often - thankfully - realized) facet of the American character: fascism. One can say fascism never took hold in America but its hard to deny The Native American solution, Slavery, McCarthyism, etc, etc have similarities with fascism. A few controlling the many through guns, imprisonment, fear.

    And then you just go crazy with such an eloquent defense of occupy wallstreet. WTF. Your adrenaline must have been pumping like crazy when writing this. You nail so many sentences. The dylan references. I loved this. And I loved how you brought The Plot Against America into it. The slurs used against Jews warning and fighting the coming american flirtation with genocide in that novel are almost identical to the slurs used against occupy wall street. Damn, a toast to you, my friend.