The Plot Against America
“History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man — that’ll be history too someday.” — The Plot Against America, page 180.
In part five of The Plot Against America, young Philip Levin takes a bus from Weequahic to downtown Newark to visit his aunt Evelyn at her job at the Office of American Absorption. When he gets off the bus, director Thomas Schlamme films actor Azhy Robertson from a low angle, emphasizing his relatively small stature compared to the large scale of the city. Schlamme’s camera follows him from behind as he carefully walks down the street among unfamiliar strangers and buildings. He’s but one small child in a still unfamiliar world that’s rapidly devolving before his eyes.
This very brief scene neatly captures the historical heft of The Plot Against America, a story of how high-level political machinations trickle down to the lowest social rungs, how the face of a nation and its smallest communities change at parallel rates. Philip Roth in the novel, and David Simon and Ed Burns in the miniseries, exposes the convenient lie that politics are abstract, that it happens to other people. The Lindbergh administration makes decisions that directly impact the Levins’ health and safety as Jews in America. But similarly, the Levins make decisions that have rippling consequences. When Herman decided to help his nephew Alvin by sheltering him in their home after he loses a leg in the war, he didn’t know that it would draw the FBI’s attention and eventually lead to the loss of his job. Evelyn didn’t know that her relationship with Rabbi Bengelsdorf would estrange her from her sister and nephews. Sandy most likely just wanted to spend a summer in Kentucky; he didn’t know that his positive experience would put him at odds with his mother and father. Actions have consequences, from the White House to the Levin home.
This week, both Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Philip make deliberate choices, born from relative powerlessness, that end up hurting the people closest to them. In a meeting with Lindbergh associates, Rabbi Bengelsdorf expresses concern that Homestead 42, an act that would relocate “urban dwellers,” i.e., Jewish families, from the East Coast to the western parts of the country, isn’t exactly voluntary and doesn’t provide those affected with genuine economic incentives. Secretary Henry Ford, an avowed anti-Semite, dismisses Bengelsdorf’s concerns, arguing that Jewish families indeed have a choice: relocate or choose another line of work. Following the semi-chilly reception Bengelsdorf and Evelyn received at the state dinner, it’s another indication that the Lindbergh administration’s respect for the rabbi and his wife only goes so far. They are still tools that will be used when necessary and cast aside when not.
So Bengelsdorf, permanently adjacent to power but having little of his own, lashes out in his particular way, flexing his might against a smaller enemy: Walter Winchell, who openly criticizes Homestead 42 in his radio address. He writes a sermon that gets published in the paper, which leads to Winchell losing his job and subsequently jump-starting a presidential campaign. Bengelsdorf and his fellow conservative countrymen dismiss Winchell’s chances as a publicity stunt, but that doesn’t mean his voice doesn’t spark hate among certain factions in the country, like the police and the Bund.
Enter Herman Levin, a man who continues to futilely fight for a country that barely recognizes him anymore. Initially, he takes the news of his family’s relocation to Danville, Kentucky, in sarcastic stride — “I’m sure there isn’t a minyan,” Herman contemptuously responds to Bess’s query about whether Danville has a synagogue — but soon he and his fellow Jewish workers at Metropolitan Life try to sue the government for discrimination. They hire a lawyer who tells them that their case might take over a year and that he can’t protect them against retaliation from either the government or Metropolitan Life. So Herman makes the only move afforded to him, the one that Secretary Ford delineates for the Jews: He quits his well-paying job so that his family doesn’t have to relocate to Kentucky and goes to work as a laborer for his brother Monty.
But despite all of the subjugation Herman faces from the Lindbergh regime, from the forced evacuation of his profession to harassment from the FBI, he still believes in America. He believes that the Levins have rights and that a strongly worded letter to Winchell can highlight the discrimination he faces. (“How can you see what these people are and have so little sense of what they are capable of?” Bess yells at him when she raises the concern that the Lindbergh administration monitors the mail.) It’s what sends him out the door to a Winchell rally, but it’s also what blinds him to the high potential for state-sanctioned violence. Not long after Winchell begins to speak, members of the Bund start brutalizing the crowd while the cops gleefully watch from the sidelines. Schlamme intimately films the brawl, emphasizing close-ups of frightened faces and swirling masses of fists and bottles. Herman makes it home with a battered face as a souvenir of his idealism.
Then there’s poor Philip, whose innocent eyes have witnessed his family’s oppression, from the sneers at the German beer garden in Union to the FBI agent pestering him about Alvin. He knows enough about Homestead 42 to realize that their relocation to Kentucky would be bad news, especially since the Ku Klux Klan is there. So Philip takes the bus to downtown Newark to beg his Aunt Evelyn not to send their family to Danville. Philip doesn’t know that Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf recommend the Levins for relocation partly to get the FBI off their backs. He just doesn’t want to move. “Can’t Seldon and his mother go instead of us? How come we have to go to Kentucky and they don’t?” Philip asks his aunt, speaking in adolescent terms of fairness. Why can’t you ship off the annoying kid from downstairs who wants to play chess all the time? Why us, not them?
Philip had no idea that he was dooming Seldon and his mother to a life as lonely Jews in Danville. He couldn’t have predicted that his father would quit his job, keeping him and Sandy safely in Newark. Even Evelyn, whose status obsession has caused more harm than good, was only trying to ensure that Philip had a friend in Danville when she drafted a relocation letter to Mrs. Wishnow. But Philip’s wish came true: He gets to stay, and poor, lonely Seldon, whose only crime was wanting to be Philip’s friend, has to move away. As Seldon sits in his mother’s car, unaware that his friend was responsible for his fate, Philip’s guilt becomes too much to bear. Face streaked with tears, and almost on the brink of hyperventilation by the accidental weight of his actions, Philip gives away his stamp collection to Seldon, instinctually knowing that he also must lose something dear to him in recompense.
“Our family is an experiment to you?” Bess asks Rabbi Bengelsdorf, after he explains to her the reasoning behind Homestead 42, how bringing Jews out of their enclaves and into the heartland evokes “the American experiment.” It’s a nationalistic cover to mask the real political strategy behind the act: By spreading Jews across the country, the act will dismantle their voting bloc and rob them of political power. To the Lindbergh administration, the Levins are an experiment in conscious alienation, and as much as they try to fight back, they’re being successfully poked and prodded by the government. The family has splintered between resisters and co-conspirators. They’ve lost professional standing. They’ve been victims of harassment and hate crimes. They’ve witnessed their friends flee across the border. The Levins are a microcosm of the effects of American fascism. It’s no wonder Philip crouches in the dark, hiding away from the world. The Cossacks are finally knocking at the door, and they look like people they’ve known their entire lives.
Other Stars & Stripes
• Meanwhile, Alvin gets in the good graces of a Philadelphia mobster who manufactures and sells pinball machines throughout the city and also acquires the attention of his daughter Minna.
• Sandy, while flirting with being an opportunistic co-conspirator of the fascist regime, has also discovered the wonders of flirting with the opposite sex by drawing and kissing a neighborhood girl.
• Shepsie finally moves to Winnipeg, which he’s mostly ambivalent about. “My brother says it’s nice. He’s an idiot, but that’s what he says.”
• Both Herman and Alvin are told to apply Epsom salts to their skin in order to toughen it up. If this were airing on network TV, Epsom might as well have sponsored the episode.
• “They do not get to win!” Herman yells at Bess when she suggests once again a move to Canada, which echoes a certain scene from another David Simon project.