Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 Walter Benn Michaels The most powerful scene in Philip Roth’s recent and very well-received novel The Plot Against America (2004) takes place in a Washington hotel. The novel, as even those who haven’t read it are likely to know, is an alternative or counterfactual history, one that imagines the American past along the same lines that Sinclair Lewis imagined the future in his 1935 It Can’t Happen Here: the central conceit of both books is a US that follows in Nazi Germany’s foot- steps. But where anti-Semitism is only one weapon in the arsenal of Lewis’s dictator, it’s absolutely central to Roth’s President Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Roth’s alternative history is, after all, post Holocaust. And so the scene I’m referring to involves the fictional Roth family’s experience first at the Lincoln Memorial where, read- ing aloud the words “All men are created equal,” Mr. Roth is called “a loudmouth Jew” (65) and, second, at the hotel where he and his family are told their reservations are no good and are refused a room. When the police are called, rather than setting things right, they throw the family out. “What happened?” whispers the fictional little Philip to his brother; “Anti-Semitism,” (69) the brother whis- pers back. Roth’s idea, of course, is that it very easily could have hap- pened here—if, say, the antiwar as well as anti-Semitic Lindbergh had been pushed to run for the presidency in 1940 by his friend and fellow anti-Semite Henry Ford and if the popularity of Lindbergh’s antiwar platform had helped to legitimate his anti-Semitism. So, part of the book’s power derives from its realism, the fact that it feels like the truth—one reviewer called it Roth’s “most believable book in years” (Miller)—while another part derives from the fact that, of course, it’s not true—when the police come to remove the Jews from the hotel, it’s scary but, like a horror movie, pleasurably scary because its history is counterfactual—it didn’t happen here. And both these facts—the fact that it could have happened here and the fact that it didn’t—are given additional power by a third fact, the fact that, of course, it did happen here, only not to the Jews. It has doi:10.1093/alh/ajj017 Advance Access publication March 15, 2006 © The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com American Literary History 289 surely occurred to every reader of this novel that its distinctive set pieces—above all, the scene in which the Roths are denied rooms at the hotel—were a standard feature of American life at least from 1896 (when Plessy legalized segregation) until the early 1960s. But, of course, it happened to black people, almost never to Jews. Which Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 doesn’t mean that there was no discrimination against Jews. Roth reminds us, for example, of the “quotas” that kept “Jewish admis- sions to a minimum in colleges and professional schools” (11), not to mention country clubs. (And the memory of these quotas has use- fully functioned to keep universities today from imposing limits on Asian American students.) But, of course, you didn’t then (and you don’t now) need quotas to keep down the numbers of black people in those institutions. The effects of several centuries of slavery and a half century of apartheid have made artificial limits entirely super- erogatory. And, on the other side, no American Jews have ever been forced to ride in the Jew car on railroad trains, or use the restrooms and drinking fountains set aside for Jews, or attend the separate (grossly underfunded) schools for Jews. So when Mr. Roth reminds the desk clerk that he and his family have spent the afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial and quotes to him from the Gettysburg Address—“All men are created equal”—the meaning of his (not to mention his author son’s) outrage is clear, but the author’s expecta- tion that we will share it is a little opaque. Why should we be out- raged by what didn’t happen rather than outraged by what did? Not that Roth is the only writer in recent years to imagine an America divided not into blacks and whites but into Jews and non- Jews. Art Spiegelman’s Maus moves back and forth between Europe under the Nazis and the US in the 1980s, famously depicting its Jews as mice, its Germans as cats, its Poles as pigs, and so on, with Americans as dogs. The picture this gives of nationality in Europe is thus a plausible one, but the picture of America is at least as counterfactual as Roth’s. In Spiegelman’s America, every immi- grant group—German cats, Polish pigs, even blacks—has been assimilated, with the exception of the Jews! Everyone else is dogs (blacks are black dogs); Jews are still mice. It’s as if not just the Holocaust itself but the racial system that produced it was an American rather than a European phenomenon. And, of course, this Americanizing of the Holocaust is not just a fictional event. Why is there a federally funded US Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC? In what sense—except the Roth/Spiegelman counterfactual one—is the Holocaust part of American history? The difficulty of coming up with a satisfactory answer to this question has produced a certain exasperation among African Americans, memorably expressed by the notorious black racist Khalid Muhammad when, in the wake of a visit to the US Holocaust 290 Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism Memorial Museum, he told an audience at Howard University on 3 April 1994 that “the black holocaust was 100 times worse than the so-called Jew Holocaust. You say you lost six million. We question that, but . . . we lost 600 million. Schindler’s List,” as Muhammad put it, “is really a swindler’s list” (Muhammad 94). The force of Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 these remarks consists not in the absurd Holocaust denial but in the point—made precisely by his visit to the Holocaust Museum—that commemoration of the Nazi murder of the Jews on the Mall was in fact another kind of Holocaust denial. Why should what the Germans did to the Jews be treated as a crucial event in American history, especially when, given the absence of any commemoration of American racism on the Mall, what Americans did to Black people is not? From this perspective, Roth’s inevitable (every American Jew knows this name) reference to the lynching of Leo Frank—“You never heard of Leo Frank? You never heard of the Jew they lynched in Georgia because of that little factory girl?” (359)—adds insult to injury. Approximately 3,500 black people were lynched in America between 1880 and 1930; Frank was one of four Jews lynched in the same period (or ever) (Davis). There were more Italians lynched than Jews; there were more generic white guys lynched than Jews. So the point here is not that Roth’s counterfactual history tells a story we know to be untrue; it is instead that it tells a story—embodied in the martyrdom of Frank and in the construction of the US Holocaust Museum—that many of us treat as if it were true. That’s why, despite what Laura Miller calls its “setting in a wholly imagi- nary history,” Roth has, as she also says, “paradoxically managed to write his most believable book in years” (Miller). What undoes the paradox, what makes the book believable, is that we think of anti- Semitism as a significant factor in American history and we think of the success of Jews in American life as a tribute to the ways in which Jews and America itself overcame that anti-Semitism. But this is false. Anti-Semitism was never a very significant factor in American life—the fact that Jews were white was almost always more important than the fact that they were Jewish, and Jewish suc- cess in America today is less an effect of the triumph over racism than it is an effect of the triumph of racism. The interesting thing about The Plot Against America, then, is that it portrays people who were in a significant degree the benefi- ciaries of American racism (American Jews) as if they were instead its victims, which, of course, Frank, at least in part, was. Tom Watson, whose newspaper, The Jeffersonian, led the attack on Frank that cul- minated in his lynching, never lost an opportunity to refer to him as the “rich Jew.” And although Watson’s anti-Semitism was much less clear than his notorious negrophobia—indeed, a few years later American Literary History 291 Watson attacked Henry Ford’s senatorial candidacy on the grounds that Ford’s anti-Semitism called into question his “fitness” to be a senator—there can be no doubt that the “Jew” part of “rich Jew” had its role to play in his polemic. But there can be no doubt either about the role played by the “rich” part. What the Frank case showed, Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 Watson claimed, was “how the capitalists of Big Money regard the poor man’s daughter” (qtd. in Lindemann 235), and although Frank was the superintendent and not the owner of the pencil factory in which Mary Phagan worked (his uncle was the owner), he earned $180 a week plus a share of the profits. Mary earned 10 cents an hour; even working her normal 55 hours a week, she would only make $5.50. (And due to a shortage of materials and a consequent cutback in her hours, the pay envelope she was going to pick up on the day she was murdered “contained just $1.20” [Oney 9].) Her stepfather earned 20 cents an hour, which Lindemann estimates would have brought about $10 for “a normal work week” (239). So Frank made about thirty-five times what Mary made and about eigh- teen times what her stepfather made. Of course, this may not sound so bad by twenty-first century standards. According to United for a Fair Economy, the “gap in pay between average workers and large company CEOs surpassed 300-to-1 in 2003. In 2002, the ratio stood at 282-to-1. In 1982, it was just 42-to-1” (United). Where Mary’s stepfather took home $10 a week, today’s average worker takes home $517; where Frank took home $180 (his uncle would have been making the real money), today’s CEO takes home $155,769. But in an era less accustomed to and acquiescent in unequal distribu- tions of wealth, Frank the capitalist was at least as much disliked as Frank the Jew. When, however, Roth says of the “Frank case” that is it “only a part of the history” he’s writing, a history that “goes back farther than that” (361), it’s the history of anti-Semitism that he means, not class antagonism, and it’s Jews, not senior management, who are the central figures in this history. Or rather, since Jews, as we have already noted, are by no means the only or even the most frequent victims of American racism, it’s Jews and blacks and Native Americans and Latinos, not workers or managers or doctors or law- yers. In American literature, the ur-text for this distinction—the dis- tinction between people who are the victims of prejudice and people whose victimization must be either understood differently or denied—is the controversial train scene in Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition. Two doctors, a black one and a white one, friends, are traveling south together. When they reach the Virginia border, the conductor tells the black doctor that the car he’s riding in is now for whites only and he is made to move to the col- ored car, where he finds himself among a group of what Chesnutt 292 Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism calls “noisy, loquacious, happy, dirty and malodorous” “farm labor- ers.” It’s true that they are “his people,” the doctor thinks—and by his people, he means, of course, that they are black like him—but, “apart” from what he calls “the mere matter of racial sympathy,” he finds them “just as offensive” as the whites back in the white only Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 car do. And he wishes that the “classification of passengers” on the trains “might be made upon some more logical and considerate basis than a mere, arbitrary, tactless, and, by the very nature of things, brutal drawing of the color line” (all quotes 61). That Chesnutt’s doctor is a victim of discrimination, there can be no doubt. And if the passage has always been controversial, it is because his response to that discrimination—in effect, I don’t want to ride with these people any more than you do—is most plausibly seen as a failure of what he himself calls racial sympathy. Even the admiring and judicious Eric Sundquist is a little critical of Chesnutt here, wishing for a “more pronounced” display of “racial solidarity” (438). Which, in some degree, the novel provides. At least one way to read The Marrow of Tradition—with its climactic race riot featur- ing the heroic death of one of the malodorous farm laborers—is as a lesson in how to build that racial sympathy up, a sort of sentimental education for blacks required to live under Jim Crow. By the end of the novel, Dr Miller’s identification with “his people” will be a lot stronger than it is at the beginning, and the color line will look at least a little less arbitrary. Indeed, we might say that the sentimental history of Jim Crow and its legacy is in general a history of the ways in which the color line has been made to look less and less arbitrary and has instead been made to look foundational, as if the most important thing about Dr Miller really is what the conductor says it is—that he is “colored.” As opposed to, say, that he’s a doctor. The doctor—as doctor—doesn’t belong to a race, and if there’s a line to be drawn between him and the other passengers it will not be the arbitrary and illogical color line, but rather the “more logical” method of classification the text hopes for.1 Indeed, that classification is the one already in place before the train arrives in Virginia (and it’s the classification that resisted Jim Crow laws the longest). Its method is economic—it divides the world not into black and white or white and Jew but into first class and coach, into rich and poor. And its logic is the logic of the market—you get what you are will- ing and able to pay for. So the color line, from this standpoint, is arbitrary because it interferes with the efficiency of the market. (And, by the same token, the state that enforces Jim Crow is criti- cized as insufficiently liberal, since its police power is invoked against rather than on behalf of what Chesnutt himself called “lib- erty of contract” .) American Literary History 293 Of course, one way to understand this substitution of money for race is as a kind of subterfuge. We all know that the poll tax, for example, was one of several devices used in the South for precisely the purpose of drawing the color line in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment. The amended Constitution made it illegal to keep Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 black people from voting because they were black, but it did not (and would not until the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964) make it illegal to charge a fee for voting and thus refuse black people the vote not (ostensibly) because they were black but because they were poor. From this standpoint, the poll tax could be understood as one of the first in over a century’s worth of color- blind efforts to draw the color line. As the civil rights movement not only undid the apparatus of state-sponsored discrimination but made serious inroads into the technologies of private discrimination as well, it became necessary (on this reading) to find other ways of enforcing the racialized hierarchies of American life. “Our prices discriminate because we can’t,” reads the sign at what an old epi- sode of the The Simpsons calls “the rich people’s mall.” What the state refuses to do, the market will do for it. But if part of the joke in The Simpsons involves the way in which the banner tells the truth about racism—unfortunately, we’re no longer allowed to discriminate against them, but by charging high prices we can still make sure that the wrong people don’t get in here—the real joke, of course, is the way in which the banner tells a quite different truth, not so much about racism, I will argue, as about antiracism. After all, it’s the rich people’s mall, not the white peo- ple’s mall, and the monetarization of the technology of discrimina- tion involves not just a new way of keeping the wrong people out, but a new description of who the wrong people are—not the blacks, not the Jews, but the poor. And when the point is put this way, we can go one step further and see that the whole idea of the wrong peo- ple is irrelevant. High prices aren’t clever ways of keeping out the poor. The point of charging high prices is not to find an indirect way of excluding those whom the law no longer allows you to exclude. People who can’t afford to ride first class, people who shop at WalMart instead of the rich people’s mall, are the victims of poverty, not of prejudice, which is what Chesnutt means when he suggests that the money line is less arbitrary, more logical than the color line. No one even needs to draw the money line—it draws itself. A way to put this in contemporary terms is just to say that pov- erty is not an identity.2 (Although another way to describe the con- temporary situation, a way to which I will return, is to say that it consists of the effort to treat poverty as if it were an identity.) By saying that poverty is not an identity I mean that we don’t, for exam- ple, think that the way to do justice to poor people is by tolerating 294 Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism them or acknowledging their otherness or celebrating their culture. We don’t worry that poor people run the risk of assimilation to the dominant society, which is to say, we don’t seek to preserve the dis- tinctive things that make poor people who they are. We don’t think it’s important to make sure that there will always be people with bad Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 educations and inadequate health care—we don’t worry that the children of poor people will cease to be poor. We don’t think that poor people who become rich are betraying their poverty, any more than we think that rich people who lose their money are disloyal to their wealth. We do think of at least some poor people as inheriting their poverty but we don’t think of their poverty as their heritage, so, for example, where it makes sense to say of some people that they are “part Jewish” or “part black’, we don’t think it makes sense to say of anyone that he or she is “part poor” or “part rich.” There may be people of mixed race but there are no people of mixed income; we don’t even have the concept of mixed income. Above all, we don’t, whether or not we are ourselves poor, think that poverty is just as good as wealth, even if—especially if—we think that poor people are just as good as rich people. At the heart of the notion of identity is my sense that my identity should be respected—I am not in any meaningful sense inferior because I am black or Jewish or a man or a woman. But inferiority is the very essence of my poverty. This is what it means to say that the poor are not the victims of prejudice, that they are not the objects of discrimination. If I am treated as an inferior because I am black or Jewish or a woman, the problem is with the way I am treated. My inferiority is produced by the discrimination. But my inferiority as a poor person does not derive from and does not require discrimination. My inferiority is my poverty, not the way people treat me because I am poor. And that’s what it means to say also that the poor are not victims of dis- crimination (that poverty is not a civil rights issue). You don’t need the state to keep people who can’t afford to shop at the rich people’s mall from shopping there. And you can’t get the state (or, anyway, you can’t get the neoliberal state, the state that’s become as com- mitted as Dr Miller to liberty of contract) to make it possible for people who can’t afford the rich people’s mall to start shopping there. Nevertheless—and this is the relevance both of Chesnutt’s fac- tual historical novel and of Roth’s counterfactual historical novel— the exemplary instance of victimization in modern American politi- cal life is the victim of discrimination. It’s the violation of peoples’ rights as citizens, the failure of the liberal state to live up to its liber- alism, that we prefer to deplore. So the problem in Chesnutt is not that the farm laborers can’t afford to ride in the clean comfortable car; it’s that some people who can afford to (like Dr Miller) aren’t American Literary History 295 allowed to. And Frank—“the Jew they lynched in Georgia because of that little factory girl” (359)—is Roth’s Dr Miller, a man whose class can’t save him from his race. Indeed, part of the attraction of the Frank story is no doubt the way in which it testifies to the tri- umph of racial prejudice over class privilege, which is to say, of the Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 way in which it demonstrates the irrelevance of wealth and (from the standpoint of the racist) turns class warfare into white supremacism while (from the standpoint of the antiracist) turning class warfare into bigotry. Thus, to say that The Plot Against America ends with the rescue of a Jewish boy from the Ku Klux Klan, identifying Roth as a kind of Watson but from the other side, is not to say that Roth is somehow racist. Just the opposite. He is, instead, resolutely antiracist, and the point of his antiracism is that—just as reliably as racism—it too turns the hostility between rich and poor into the hostility between Christian and Jew. In analogizing Roth’s antiracism to Chesnutts’s, I don’t, of course, mean to suggest that they are in every way the same. At least one obvious and crucial difference between them is the fact that The Marrow of Tradition was written in 1901, at a time when public fig- ures were competing with each other to announce their racism. The Populist Watson ran successfully for office on a rabidly Negrophobic platform, and Rebecca Felton, who when she was appointed in 1922 to serve out Watson’s term in the Senate became the first woman ever to serve in that body, had first made herself famous some 25 years before by opposing “the negro vote” and by passionately defending mob action against what she called “the black fiend;” “if it takes lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts,” she famously declared, “then I say lynch a thousand a week” (qtd. in Williamson, Crucible 128). (Indeed, it was Felton’s article that began the chain of events that culminated in the actual Wilmington riot on which The Marrow of Tradition is based.) Nobody made such recommendations about American Jews in the period, but the difference between the Chesnutt and the Roth that I want to stress here is not the difference between the place of Negrophobia in American life and the place of anti-Semitism, as fundamental as that difference has been. The difference I want to stress is that Chesnutt’s antiracism was in 1901 a distinctly minority view, whereas Roth’s antiracism is what in 2005 we all believe or at least profess to believe. By which I don’t mean that there is no rac- ism in America today or that white supremacism has disappeared—I mean instead that it has been either privatized or pushed to the fringes of American public life and that politicians today are more likely to apologize for their racist remarks than they are to turn them into planks of their campaign platforms. So where The Marrow of Tradition was, in its time, not only a brave gesture, but a critical and 296 Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism commercial failure, The Plot Against America has been just the opposite. And the world that has welcomed Roth’s attack on anti- Semitism has become at least equally welcoming of Chesnutt’s anti- Negrophobia; if no one wanted to read The Marrow of Tradition at the time it was written, lots of people read it now; no doubt every Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 university in the country has at least three or four courses a year in which it gets assigned. But while the replacement of public racism by public antira- cism is certainly a good thing and the success of novels like the ones I have been discussing is no doubt gratifying, it is also a little puz- zling. It’s like the emergence as a significant political position of anti-Semitism in countries where there are almost no Jews. The question there is, what’s the meaning of anti-Semitism without Jews? The question here is, what’s the meaning of antiracism with- out racists? Why in a world where most of us are not avowedly rac- ist (where, on the humanities faculties at our universities, we might more plausibly say not that racist ideology is rare but that it is extinct) do we take so much pleasure in reading attacks on racism? Why do we like it so much that we not only read books that attack a racism that (at least among the liberal intelligentsia) no longer exists but we also make bestsellers out of books that attack a racism that never existed? What—to put the question in its most general form— is the meaning of antiracism today? One way to begin to answer this question with respect to its lit- erary manifestations might be to suggest that The Plot Against America succeeds by activating a certain nostalgia for anti-Semitism. Kenneth Warren’s remarks on the recent nostalgia for Jim Crow among some black intellectuals are helpful here. What they’re nostalgic for, according to Warren, is black culture. They’re nostalgic, in other words, not exactly for racism but for the distinctive social practices (what Cornell West calls the “cultural armor” ) that the resis- tance to racism helped create. And if we push this line of analysis a little further, we can see that what Warren calls the “cultural turn” in African-American political life involves not just nostalgia for black culture but a continuing commitment to the primacy of culture that is structural as well as historical. As Adolph Reed puts it in his anal- ysis of the results of the recent Presidential election, “Culture has swallowed or displaced class as an analytical category in American political debate, across the ideological spectrum” (4). In the human- ities, of course, we have tended to think of class and culture as complementary concepts, subsumed under the broader category of identity and aligned with other complementary terms such as race and gender. The sophistication of the analysis takes the form of pointing out that people occupy not just one but multiple subject positions and suggesting that there may be tensions between them. American Literary History 297 But as Rita Felski has correctly insisted, the difference between class and the other forms of identity is a fundamental one, since “class is essentially, rather than contingently, a hierarchical concept’ (42) and, as Reed suggests—and as my account above of why pov- erty is not an identity is meant also to show—the critique of racial Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 inequality and the critique of economic inequality follow very dif- ferent logics. Being rich or poor is not like being black or white or gay or straight or a man or a woman. What races and cultures want—what identities want—is respect. What we want as black people or Jews is for our difference not to be understood as and treated as inferiority. That’s why it makes sense to want to get rid of racism, sexism, and heterosexism. The solution to the problem of racism, in other words, is for us to stop being racist, to stop thinking of races and cultures that are different from our own as inferior to our own, and to start recognizing that different from us doesn’t mean worse than us—in a word, to start appreciating diversity. But of course, the problem of economic inequality can hardly be solved the same way. The prob- lem with being poor is not that it makes you a victim of classism; it’s not that people with more money don’t think of you as their equal. The problem is that, with respect to money, they’re right. And this is a problem that would not be solved if rich people stopped looking down on poor people and started appreciating them instead, admiring their cheap clothes, bad educations, and inadequate health care after all. For while it may be plausible to think of cultures as different but equal, it cannot be plausible to think of classes in the same way. Defined on a vertical axis—upper, middle, and lower— classes are nothing but structures of inequality. So if it makes a cer- tain kind of sense to celebrate and seek to preserve cultural diver- sity, it obviously doesn’t make the same kind of sense to celebrate and seek to preserve economic diversity. The defenders of culture regularly fret about one or the other’s potential disappearance, from the vanishing American Indian of the 1920s to the vanishing American Jew of the 1990s, but no one worries about the disappearance of the poor. For one thing, of course, they’re not disappearing. And, for another, as everyone—above all poor people themselves—would acknowledge, it would be a good thing if they did. But to put the point this way is at the same time to explain that our nostalgia is indeed a kind of nostalgia for racism. What we like about racism is precisely the fact that its victims are the victims of discrimination rather than exploitation, of intolerance rather than oppression, or of oppression in the form of intolerance. And insofar as the politics of the left becomes the politics of respect for identities— the end of discrimination—it becomes a kind of utopianism of the right. Liberalism, as Reed and others have argued, may have 298 Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism needed racism; neoliberalism doesn’t—it needs antiracism.3 The dream of a world free of discrimination, the dream of a world where identities are respected, is as foundational to the neoliberal right as it is to the neoliberal left. Indeed, from this standpoint, the neoliberal left is nothing but a kind of police force for the neoliberal Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 right, committed to revealing and eliminating the residual preju- dices that too many actual neoliberals no doubt continue to harbor deep inside them. Hence their periodic apologies for racist actions in the past or sexist remarks in the present; hence, more signifi- cantly, the continuing (although weakening) opposition to affirma- tive action, the continuing and growing opposition to gay marriage. And hence on the other side, our expansion of identity categories and the redescription of crimes against both persons and property as crimes against identities, “motivated,” as the FBI says of hate crimes, “in whole or in part by a bias against the victim’s perceived race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability” (FBI). The preferred crimes of neoliberalism are always hate crimes, the holocausts of everyday life. Thus, although I began by criticizing Roth for depicting a soci- ety that in reality discriminated against black people as one that dis- criminated against Jews instead, we can now see that, properly understood, Roth’s anti-Semitism is not a replacement for anti-black prejudice but a placeholder for prejudice of all kinds—anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Latino, anti-whatever. The point of a novel like The Plot Against America—the point of calling it the plot against America—is that it’s not just Jews but the very idea of America that’s the target of anti-Semites, that anti-Semitism is a kind of anti-Americanism. What this means is the complete identification of America with neoliberalism, an identification that can obviously be disputed since the US is no doubt nowhere near as free of discrimination as it ought to be but that nonetheless gets the basic point right—it gets, in other words, that the world we want is a world where (unlike Dr Miller and unlike Mr. Roth) we are allowed to do what we can afford to do.4 And, of course, the study of the humanities in American uni- versities has made a small but not entirely insignificant contribution to the creation of this world. Although we in the humanities are accustomed to thinking of ourselves, and to being thought of by oth- ers, as radicals of the left, nothing could be less true. We are, in fact, much closer to being radicals of the right, to functioning as some- thing like a research and development laboratory for neoliberalism. Indeed, the very interest in citizenship that helped produce this con- ference (and thus this paper) is a mark of our ingenuity in focusing on issues that render economic inequality either irrelevant or invisi- ble or both: the problem of the poor in America is not that they are American Literary History 299 insufficiently American or that they are treated as if they are insuf- ficiently American.5 But if our breakthrough technology (what they used to call in Silicon Valley our killer app) has been cultural identity, our more fundamental contribution—our contribution, let’s say, to basic science—has been the idea of, the commitment Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 to the primacy of, the subject position as such. In their introduction to the recent collection Cultural Analysis, Cultural Studies and the Law (2003), the legal scholars Austin Sarat and Jonathan Simon provide what I will conclude by describing as an exemplary instance of this phenomenon. Remarking (with approval) that “much of the corpus of cultural studies consists of tools for track- ing the production of subject position” (8), they go on to call for contemporary legal scholarship to pay more attention to these technologies and to what they call the “central solidarities of mod- ern societies (nation, race, class position, gender)” (8). My point in citing this exhortation is not simply to remind everyone of the importance of race and gender as cites of oppression through dis- crimination or of the fact that the absolute elimination of racism and sexism would be completely compatible with the absolute tri- umph of neoliberalism (one look at the Bush cabinet ought to do that).6 It is to suggest instead the ingenuity of the transformation of class into—what Sarat and Simon correctly suggest it always is in cultural studies—class position. My idea here, in other words, is not (as is often said) that class is taken less seriously than the other terms in the race, gender series. Just the opposite. One might more plausibly argue that it is and has always been the category taken most seriously—that the whole point of that series has always been to understand class on the model of race and gender and thus to redescribe the injustice of class difference as a kind of discrimination, as if the solution to the problem of poverty, like the solution to the problem of racism, was to eliminate the identification of difference with inferiority. Indeed, in the utopian imagination of neoliberalism, this is exactly how we would understand class difference: not as an inequality to be eliminated but as a difference to be respected. And it is also— paying a new attention to the literature and art of the poor, treating the cultural productions of poverty on the model of the cultural productions of ethnicity, identifying (as Hardt and Negri and even Zizek do) poverty with authenticity—how we have in fact pro- ceeded. Thus, where the neoliberal right blames the culture of the poor—it’s the cause of their poverty—the neoliberal left appreci- Blaming the victim is no doubt a bad thing. But it’s ates the culture of the poor—it’s the sign of their equality. Blam- hard to see how, from the ing the victim is no doubt a bad thing. But it’s hard to see how, political standpoint, from the political standpoint, congratulating the victim is a better congratulating the victim one. is a better one. 300 Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism Notes 1. For a brief but wonderfully suggestive account of the impeccable position of doctors in an American class system offering them “minor wealth . . . high prestige . . . and a good opinion of themselves” (344–45), see Joel Williamson’s account in Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 William Faulkner & Southern History (1993) of William Faulkner’s happiness among the physicians who dominated the Farmington Hunt Club in Charlottesville, Virginia. 2. For the more general version of this claim—that class as such should not be understood as an identity—see Rita Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” John Guillory, Cultural Capital (1993); and Walter Benn Michaels, “Autobiographies of the Ex- White Men,” in Transition 7.1  (1998): 122–43. And for a recent and important effort to focus on class as a structure of inequality in American literature, see Gavin Jones, “Poverty and the Limits of Literary Criticism,” in American Literary History 15.4 (2003): 765–92. 3. One way to put the point would be in relation to my earlier work in Our America (1995). The historical argument there was that American Modernism both deployed race and transformed it, turning the racial supremacism that I associated with pro- gressivism into the differential racism that I associated with nativism and with the emergence of race as culture. The theoretical argument was that the notions of cul- ture (or the postmodern social construction of race) that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century as alternatives to the racial essentialism of the first half of the century were in fact just new versions of that essentialism. My interest in the more recent The Shape of the Signifier (2004), however, and in the current essay, is not in the theoretical incoherence of our concept of identity but in its political attractiveness. And the historical argument here is that the continuing commitment to the primacy of the subject position is foundational for postmodernism as it mor- phs into neoliberalism because neoliberalism (liberalism, let us say, in its perfected twenty-first century form) needs antiracism in just the ways that the not- yet-perfected liberalism of the twentieth century needed racism to render economic inequality as invisible as possible. 4. For a version of this position that goes beyond the equation of anti-liberalism with anti-Americanism to an equation of both with, as we increasingly like to call it, evil, see Paul Berman’s Terror & Liberalism (2003). It is of particular interest that, in the 2004 Preface to the paperback edition Berman responds to questions he was asked after the publication of the hardcover about the politics of his views by insisting that his “picture of a world-wide struggle between liberalism and its enemies is not in itself either left wing or right wing” (xviii). But, from the stand- point of a left that is interested in economic justice, he is mistaken. For one thing, the difference between the rich and the poor is mentioned only twice in the 200- plus pages of this book, the first time by the Islamic philosopher, Berman identi- fies as a primary source of contemporary terrorism—he is quoted as identifying “maldistribution” as a primary problem in the rich nations of the West (what’s he thinking?)—and the second time in an aside acknowledging the “superior degree of economic equality” in Western Europe while criticizing the Western Europeans for being insufficiently antiracist, failing to protect “their” Jews and their Muslims (204). But my point is not merely that Berman’s targets are more con- cerned with economic equality than he is. My point is rather that his vision of a world in which liberalism is defined by its hostility to totalitarianism and in American Literary History 301 which the opposition to liberalism is identified over and over again as “patholog- ical” is itself a right-wing vision. Once opposing liberalism is redescribed as “cel- ebrating death” (xiii), allowing people to do whatever they want with their money is made to look like life itself. 5. It is thus a relevant fact that the growth of identity studies in the American Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/18/2/288/2567738 by Harvard Library user on 10 July 2019 university has taken place during the same period as the growth in economic ine- quality. Focusing on the journal American Quarterly, Larry J. Griffin and Maria Tempenis have presented useful quantitative evidence that, “Beginning in the late 1960s and climbing very quickly until the mid-1980s, AQ’s pages were increas- ingly filled with articles and reviews framed or otherwise organized by gender, race, and (to a much lesser extent) ethnicity. This tendency,” they conclude, “has since escalated” (78). But, of course, one did not really need their data to know that identity has become a fundamental organizing category for Americanist scholarship. And we also know that inequality of income has at least kept pace with race and gender. Figured in 2001 dollars, families in the 25th percentile had incomes in 1965 of $16,678; families in the 95th percentile made $79,556. The gap between them was $62,878. By 2001, the equivalent figures were $24,000 and $164,104; the gap had grown to $140,104. And, since 2001, this tendency too has escalated. In this context, it can hardly count as a surprise that the teachers and students at elite universities like appreciating diversity better than we like eliminating inequality. Griffin and Tempenis also point out that class has not disappeared from the pages of American Quarterly, but has often been combined with other categories of analysis, and they remark that “humans do not enter the historical stage as all of one thing—members of class, say—and none of another thing—say, members of gen- der or racial groups—but instead as members, simultaneously, of multiple, overlap- ping groups” (82). This is surely true but perhaps not as reassuring as we sometimes make it out to be. For, if we are interested in social justice, the kinds of justice called for by one’s membership in some groups (say, races or genders) is very dif- ferent from the kind of justice required by membership in the lower class. One way we might describe this is as the difference between the universalization of civil rights and the redistribution of wealth. These are both, in my view, good things, but it’s useful to remember that neoliberalism privileges the first at the expense of the second and part of the point of this essay is to suggest that neoliberal intellectuals (e.g., the people who write for and read journals like American Quarterly and, for that matter, ALH) have been doing the same. 6. If not for its unfortunate underrepresentation of women, the current cabinet (almost 40% minorities, with two Asian Americans, two African Americans, and two Latinos) would be the demographic envy of the Chair of any English department. Works Cited Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. Davis, Gode and James Fortier. <http:// New York: Norton, 2004. www.americanlynching.com>. Chesnutt, Charles. The Marrow of Tra- FBI. Uniform Crime Reports. <http:// dition. 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