One reason Lindbergh, or somebody like him, did not win in 1940 is that anti-fascists of many ethnic backgrounds united in this country to expose and fight an evil that, even though it threatened only some at first, spelled doom in the end for all. When I was a boy, I was told that a relative of mine by marriage, John Armstrong (a kinsman of General Custer), helped rip down the swastika flag from the Bremen when it was docked in New York harbor in 1935. John, the quiet blond publisher married to cousin Willa? Yes. He had not been much older than me when he did it. Richard Puette (Uncle Dick), son of a North Carolina family of Protestant preachers, organized sailors for the National Maritime Union, and volunteered for the dangerous Murmansk convoys to help our Soviet allies. When he and Aunt Sophie were blacklisted and nearly destitute, they often found a bag of food on their doorstep early in the morning: the gift of Finnish fishermen who said little but saw everything.
These are just small examples of how people fought fascism by uniting and organizing to fight for civil rights, fair wages and working conditions and to oppose fascist aggression, racism and antisemitism: in Nazi Germany, in invaded Ethiopia, in the American South, and in New York City. That struggle is not over: there’s a straight line from the genteel Nazism on that Wyoming ranch to the fag jokes to Prof. Harvey Mansfield of Harvard telling the Colorado legislature that gays are inherently criminal to Matt Shepard’s blood a year later on a Laramie fence to Samuel Huntington telling us who does and doesn't belong in America. The hellish core of Roth’s nightmare is this fear: We don't belong, and we are alone. Jews have been maneuvered into such isolation too often. Progressive movement politics in America, in the 1930's and the 1960's, united diverse groups under common causes. They became a bulwark against fascism here before the War; and after it they effected vast social change that liberated and benefited millions of the disfranchised and dispossessed. The Movement had more than its fair share of faults, but at its best, no one was alone.
Let us return to Roth's native Newark. In the 1960's, a cheerful American-Armenian student and star athlete named Peter Balakian from suburban New Jersey experimented with radical politics and free sex, read voraciously, met Allen Ginsberg, wrote poetry, and became a scholar. The Movement led him to examine a family past cloaked in sorrow, almost shame, something of Roth's “perpetual fear.” He learned about the Genocide from his grandmother, who had survived it. He discovered that, as a new immigrant to the USA, she had tried to file suit against Turkey, more or less inventing along the way concepts of international law and human rights that she formulated in the unfamiliar English of her new home. But her life was shadowed, “shattered by the malicious indignities” of Turkey, and her grandson, a poet living in the rich, confident, high noon of American pleasure and success, dreamed:
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:
The Virtue of Mediocrity
Four Israeli Intelligence Directors