The Plot Against America

America Is Exceptional
All about fiction.
Oct. 15 2004 5:09 AM

The Plot Against America

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Dear Judith,

When I started regularly attending Saturday morning services (with you), I came across the "Prayer for Our Country," which comes at the end of the Torah service. As you well know, it's a peculiarly generic-sounding declaration of patriotic loyalty, usually delivered in English. Somebody, maybe you, once told me that the "Prayer for Our Country" was inserted in the service centuries ago as a kind of self-protective device. Since Jews are always under suspicion of "dual loyalty," if any goyim representing the holders of political power happened to spy on services, that prayer would reassure them. That may explain its uncharacteristically dutiful tone, compared to the rest of the service.

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I mention this by way of raising the question you have, in effect, served up to me: Could it happen here? One of the sources of Jewish paranoia/watchfulness/whatever, as I said in my last post, is fear, but another is pride. At a service in a synagogue, one inhabits a world in which, by ironclad guarantee, books, study, learning, disputation, and inquiry will be honored, and where ancient and carefully promulgated laws will have a force far greater than personal whim. One of the major items in the Jewish psyche is an unsureness that those guarantees apply quite so firmly and reliably outside the Jewish world. It's this deep-seated, not quite consciously articulated sense that anti-intellectualism, and personal rather than rational forms of authority, are always lurking outside the Jewish world that Philip Roth activates with surgical skill and efficiency in The Plot Against America. Emotionally, it could happen here. It could happen anywhere, any time. It has happened practically everywhere. It's also the case that President Bush activates in many Jews the same emotions that Roth activates in The Plot Against America. He may have activated them in Roth himself.

Still: Could it happen here? Let's revert to our sub-group stereotypes: I think you think it could, and I think it couldn't. It may sound strange coming from someone who has spent so much time writing about problems in American life, but I do believe that America is exceptional, and in mostly good ways. That has a lot to do with its democratic and constitutional traditions and, despite everything, its relatively greater success than just about anywhere else at operating a multi-ethnic society. The idea that every person has worth and potential seems especially deeply rooted here—and, to be chauvinistic, that idea is in turn rooted in the, um, Judeo-Christian tradition. On the other hand, being married to someone whose alarm sensors about America are turned up a bit higher than my own makes for a nice psychological insurance policy.

Love,
Nick

Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Judith Shulevitz, former culture editor ofSlateand former columnist for the New York Times Book Review, is working on a book about the Sabbath.

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