book review

Philip Roth’s Our Gang

Satire: Old and New

It helps to know about (or remember) the administration of Richard M. Nixon to laugh out loud as I did while reading Roth’s great 1971 satire skewering Nixon, but it’s not necessary.

Our Gang certainly includes details about Nixon (as well as about Spiro Agnew, several Democrats, and a cadre of famous news reporters and commentators of the time) that improve the humor of the punchlines, but far beyond that, the book attacks cynical political opportunism that uses nearly-reasonable-sounding rhetoric to twist reason into unrecognized train-wreckage, no matter the time or place.

The humor maintains clear, loud resonance even today, over 30 years since its first publication. Or, perhaps I should say, especially today.

Our Gang opens with Trick E. Dixon’s stated position in favor of the rights of the unborn (as actually stated in a quote from Richard M. Nixon at the beginning of the 1994 edition I read). He plans to show his support by introducing a Constitutional Amendment giving them the vote, expecting to secure their votes for himself. Pro-life? Or pro-self-interest?

The plot rises to Dixon’s “wag the dog” attack on Copenhagen, created to distract voters from a Boy Scout protest that he “decisively” stomps down. Dixon (unlike Nixon) is assassinated, but the double-talk of Orwellian White House Spokesmen and wily politicians denies the obvious until it can no longer be ignored. The Emperor’s Clothes are definitely on and beautiful, but doesn’t he look just great in his naked splendor?

Throughout, Dixon and his advisers pull all of the moves we continue to observe and decry—with intent hand-wringing—in today’s politics. The media goes along blandly, asking predictable questions that allow more twisting of words into bits and pieces of good-sounding nonsense. Occasionally a reporter asks a challenging question that allows Dixon to point to yet another red herring for the news hounds of justice.

One difference today is that more of the political operatives are part of the media now (think Limbaugh, Fox News, etc.). Still, media noise, announcements, pronouncements, and distractions (then and now) are revealed as a circus of absurdity designed to distract voters from reality while consolidating power to Tricky Dixon (but name your least or most favored politician or world leader or power broker to fill in the blank of that name).

Foundation for Fundamentalist and Tea Party Politico-Religious Speech?

The final chapter of Roth’s wonderful book might explain the post-Nixon rise of Fundamentalism in general and the Tea Party in particular. Dixon has descended into Hell and debates Satan in an attempt to win an “election” for the office of Devil. This helps to explain today’s (fill in the Fundamentalist Political Movement in the Religion of Your Choice Here). While Roth doesn’t tell us this, Dixon must have won. The new programs Roth has him propose are now evident amid the religious distortions, hypocrisy, and viciousness of this surging Fundamentalism.

Calling for

“bold new programs in Evil that will overturn God’s kingdom and plunge men into eternal death,”

he goes on to point out that a major part of the problem is that

“at least one half of the people presently on earth…no longer believe in the existence of Hell, let alone its influence in world affairs. And maybe Satan is satisfied that the Devil, the highest official in the underworld, once the very symbol of nefariousness to millions, is considered in the upper regions to have absolutely no power at all over the decisions made there by men.”

Fundamentalists of every persuasion seem determined to re-connect us to concepts of the Devil, Satan, and the Evil influences of not-their-belief not-their-way-of-living. Their politico-religious rhetoric makes this clear. So, Dixon must have won, then or later. And “the Devil, the highest official in the underworld,” has set his minions loose here and abroad, in terrorist circles and Tea Party hypocrisies, trying to get more than half of us to once again fear the Devil, as only the Devil would want us to do.

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