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Fischer, Joan (ed.) / Wisconsin people & ideas
Volume 52, Number 2 (Spring 2006)

Werner, Craig
Diversity and our defense,   pp. 43-46


Page 46

I                                    U 
IsconsIn LnumianIIii 
oth cautions us not to accept 
hetorical slogans and a charismatic 
nage as a substitute for 
erious discussion of issues. 
I what was actually going on. The situation was particularly 
ute for black soldiers, especially after the assassination of 
artin Luther King Jr. As Yusef Komunyakaa, whose book Dien 
ai Dau is the most powerful literary engagement with 
etnam, told Appy, the North Vietnamese openly addressed 
.e reality of black GI double consciousness: "There was a 
hole racial divide in Vietnam that hasn't really been talked 
)out that much. It was intense. At the clubs in the rear, once 
eople started drinking, there was a lot of name-calling. And of 
i)urse Hanoi Hannah would talk about race. It was as if she 
ere talking directly to you. She'd say things like 'Soul Brother, 
hat are you dying for?' It was like a knife in the gut. And she 
so had some idea of the popular culture of black Americans. 
st the mention of a singer like Ray Charles or B. B. King sort 
legitimized her voice. You felt a momentary hesitation. It 
opped you in your tracks. And sometimes that's enough to 
't you killed-that moment of doubt. Most of us didn't have 
.e privilege of doubt." 
As a whole, then, Patriots provides a prince's eye view of 
etnam, which cycles around the profound problems with the 
merican understanding and conduct of the war. Several of 
ie "lessons" emerging from the story-the dangers of 
ducing the "enemy" to a monolithic entity and failing to 
Dnsider the deep history of the place in question-have clear 
levance to our more recent forays into Kuwait, Afghanistan, 
nd Iraq. 
This does not mean, however, that asking such questions 
evitably leads to an anti-war approach. In Philip Roth's 
ouble-conscious masterpiece, The Plot Against America, the 
merican people's willingness to simplify their own 
omplexity and embrace a pacifist agenda puts democracy 
self at risk. Set in the first years of the 1940s, the novel chron- 
les the sudden rise to political power of Charles Lindbergh. 
ected to the presidency on an anti-war platform, Lindbergh, 
ho Roth's Jewish characters view as a Nazi sympathizer, 
versees the nation as it drifts slowly into a kind of apple pie 
scism. Rather than advocating direct violence against Jews, 
ie Lindbergh administration initiates a series of programs 
med at assimilating Jews into an increasingly homogenous 
merican "mainstream." The "Just Folks" program sends
ewish children to live with "American" families; the Office of
merican Absorption relocates families into areas where they 
re the only Jews. Bit by bit, anti-Semitic violence increases. 
ndbergh's approach, at least in the early stages, differs from 
itler's, but the end result threatens to be the same. Moreover, 
merica's refusal to enter the war allows Hitler to consolidate 
a  c ouncil 
his European victories and makes a Nazi victory over Britain 
seem nearly inevitable. 
In spinning out his alternative historical fable, Roth makes 
several points relevant to our understanding of the "common 
defence." First, and most important, he insists that war is 
sometimes necessary. If we take James Madison's emphasis on 
protecting the rights of minority factions seriously and 
imagine ourselves in the position of the prince striving to see 
the whole elephant rather than as members of a single faction, 
we can't simply say "It's not our problem." The barely 
concealed subtext of Lindbergh's campaign against FDR is 
"Why should American-which is to say white Christian- 
boys die to save Jews?" The Plot Against America models the 
consequences of making that choice and calls on us to recon- 
sider the limits of pacifism. Second, Roth cautions us not to 
accept rhetorical slogans and a charismatic image as a substi- 
tute for serious discussion of issues. Roth's Lindbergh runs a 
sound bite campaign based on PR stunts and "character." 
Casting himself as a barnstorming individualist in contrast to 
FDR's moody intellectual, he convinces huge numbers of 
Americans to abandon their factions and sign on with a mono- 
lithic idea of Americanism. The novel dramatizes Madison's 
warning. If we reduce our politics to either/or choices, oppres- 
sion is the inevitable result. Diversity is the key to our 
common defense. 
Craig Werner is the Evelyn and Michael Howe Professor of Afro- 
American Studies and Integrated Liberal Studies at the University 
of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A Change Is Gonna 
Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America (Penguin) and 
Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis 
Mayfield and the Rise and Fall of American Soul 
(Crown/Random House), among other books. He has won 
numerous teaching awards and is a member of the nominating 
committee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. A member of "The 
Deadly Writers Patrol," a writing group composed primarily of 
Vietnam veterans, he is currently working on a book, in collabo- 
ration with Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley, on music and the 
experience of Vietnam veterans. 
READING            AND       TALKING 
Get with the program! 
Interested in reading and discussing these books? The 
Wisconsin Humanities Council lends up to 15 copies of each 
title in its book discussion series, A More Perfect Union. It 
also provides discussion guides and can even help pay for a 
visiting scholar to speak with your group. To learn more 
about A More Perfect Union, visit the Wisconsin Humanities 
Council's website, www.wisconsinhumanities.org, or call 
608/262-0706. 
46  SPRI NG  2006  WI S CONSIN  PEOP LE  &  IDEAS 
J 


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