My Harvard colleague Prof. Samuel Huntington asserts in his recent book Who Are We? that non-Christians legitimately may not feel at home in this country. Pat Buchanan's charge that a cabal of neo-cons controls the White House and is acting in Israel’s, not America's interests, is pure America First rhetoric -- and it is not limited to right-wing cranks like Buchanan. As Frank Rich pointed out in an essay about Roth in the Times recently, a Democrat in Congress from South Carolina says it, too. Follow Michael Moore’s statements to German audiences on Israel, or George W. Bush’s pronouncements that Jews cannot go to heaven or his administration’s theocratic efforts to render America a “Christian nation” in law as well as morality. Is Roth’s novel a warning about the present, then, despite its setting sixty years ago?
Should we follow Ariel Sharon’s advice to the French Jewish community, and move to Israel as soon as possible? The author predictably insists, in an essay in The New York Times Book Review (“The Story Behind ‘The Plot Against America,’” Sept. 19, 2004), that his book is not intended to be a roman à clef about the present time. It’s not about contemporary antisemitism, Roth says, nor about the creeping statism, nativism, and jingoism of the ‘war on terror’ regime. Rather, the novel is about the two early years of the War, and its intention is general: to make the reader perceive the precariousness of all life’s arrangements. Roth strives to make his reader understand history as something experienced and suffered as the “relentless unforeseen;” not as a set of past agitations remembered in tranquility and endowed by hindsight with a rhyme and reason it did not have for those who lived through it. Catharsis is all very well for Aristotle, and the sense of history as a cunning way whose bends are treacherous reminds one of T.S. Eliot's poem “Gerontion” (preferably as Delmore Schwartz has his hero recite it in Screeno, with the Jew-baiting parts excised). But this novel isn't about the House of Atreus. These are folks in Newark with Russian-Jewish names like Wishnow. It is legitimate to demand the tokhlis, the practical point, and to ask the archetypal Russian question: Chto delat’? What Is To Be Done? To do that requires a detour into the shadow of another genocide, another life shadowed by perpetual fear, though still in Roth's Newark, NJ.
The Plot Against America is equipped with appendices: a very impressive array of bibliographies, biographical sketches, chronologies, and texts documenting what really happened and who really said what before and during World War II. Lindbergh's antisemitic peroration in the novel is genuine. So are many of the home-grown fascists. Perhaps, because the author has constructed so convincing a fiction, he is at pains to distinguish his invention from reality; and he does this with meticulous scholarly thoroughness. One book, however, is missing from his list. In 1938, Fortune magazine hired a man using the name John Roy Carlson to infiltrate pro-Nazi groups in America and report on their activities. His book Under Cover, published in 1943, was a bestseller; and his work alerted Americans to the true character of those fascist-leaning isolationists such as the America Firsters, who masqueraded as patriotic defenders of the American way of life. After the War, Carlson went to the Middle East, and in 1951 Knopf published his Cairo to Damascus. In that book, he showed how many key figures in the Arab effort to exterminate the newly-created State of Israel were escaped Nazis and other fascists who were continuing Hitler’s Final Solution on a new battlefield. He predicted (and this was at the start of the Cold War, in the chill of the McCarthy era) that Communism would not prove a mortal danger to America, but would itself be eclipsed and overcome by a more pernicious and deeply fascistic ideology, that of Muslim fanaticism. This has come to pass.
John Roy Carlson was the pen name of an Armenian immigrant named Avedis Derounian. His family survived the Genocide of 1915 and immigrated to America, settling in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan. I'm from Washington Heights, too, and I learned Armenian from a teacher at the Sunday school of the Holy Cross Church of Armenia on West 187th Street. In 1933 Derounian was one of hundreds attending the Divine Liturgy of Christmas at that that church when suddenly, in plain view of the worshippers, several men rushed up, seized, and disemboweled the celebrant, Archbishop Tourian. The grotesque murder was front-page news in the Times for weeks; and it was immediately established that the culprits were regional leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaks (“Confederates”). The latter are a political party whose original left-socialist leanings had given way to ultra-nationalism in the years following the Bolshevik conquest of Armenia. Through the 1930’s their paper Hayrenik, still published in Boston, praised Adolf Hitler and his racial policies; and the party's “Race Worship Society” marched in Boston. Two ARF leaders, Dro Kanayan and Garegin Nzhdeh, still heroes of the party, became officers of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and their Armenian Legion participated in the North Caucasian campaign.
Derounian was horrified that fascist ideology and terrorism existed at all amongst a people that had itself been the victim of the world’s first genocide scarcely a generation earlier. In 1933 the question, “Can it happen here?” was answered for Armenians: it just did. He resolved to expose and fight fascism in all its guises, for the sake of the Armenian people and in defense of his beloved new country.
Another Armenian New York kid fought fascism with a gun instead of a pen: Ashod Antreassian joined our Lincoln Brigade and died a hero, defending Republican Spain from Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. Many Lincoln veterans arrived home crippled, only to be harassed and blacklisted for their “premature” anti-fascism. Perhaps their experience was Roth’s model for Phil's cousin Alvin.
Who remembers these men today? Ashod Antreassian’s brother founded an Armenian publishing house in the City and named it after Ashod: only long after I'd first handled volumes from the press did I learn what the imprint meant. And Derounian? Search for him on the Internet and you'll find sites of America First (yes, the beast is not dead) reviling him. Nestled amongst them is a Dashnak site on which the interview of a former colleague of mine, Dr. B. Vaux, one of the organizers of the Harvard/MIT petition to boycott Israel in Spring 2002, stigmatizes a local Armenian educational group's founder as a fellow-traveler of Avedis Derounian. But surely these heroes deserve a nobler memorial than electronic slander by fascists and antisemites.
This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
Am I Religious?
Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Our 580 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
How Jewish is Modigliani?
Sex and the Golem