Philip’s Complaint, or Liberal political thinking in a nutshell

I’ve never been able to read Philip Roth’s novels because I cannot stand his navel gazing (or should I say penis-gazing?) characters. They are, for me, profoundly uninteresting — I find them infantile and narcissistic in their concerns. Perhaps my the problem with his writing is his thinking. Why do I say this? Because Roth unloads about politics in Spiegel interview, and pretty much highlights everything that’s infantile and narcissistic about liberal thinking with regard to the Bush administration and the upcoming elections:

Roth: Unfortunately, yeah. I didn’t, until about two weeks ago — until then it wasn’t real. Then I watched the New Hampshire primary debates, and the Republicans are so unbelievably impossible. I watched the Democratic ones and became interested in Obama. I think I’ll vote for him.

SPIEGEL: What made you interested in Obama?

Roth: I’m interested in the fact that he’s black. I feel the race issue in this country is more important than the feminist issue. I think that the importance to blacks would be tremendous. He’s an attractive man, he’s smart, he happens to be tremendously articulate. His position in the Democratic Party is more or less okay with me. And I think it would be important to American blacks if he became president.

SPIEGEL: It could change society, couldn’t it?

Roth: Yes, it could. It would say something about this country, and it would be a marvelous thing. I don’t know whether it’s going to happen. I rarely vote for anybody who wins. It’s going to be the kiss of death if you write in your magazine that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. Then he’s finished!


SPIEGEL: Do you actually believe that Obama could change Washington or could change politics?

Roth: I’m interested in what merely his presence would be. You know, who he is, where he comes from, that is the change. That is the same thing with Hillary Clinton, just who she is would create a gigantic change. As for all that other rhetoric about change, change, change — it’s pure semantics, it doesn’t mean a thing. They’ll respond to particular situations as they arise.

You got that? Republicans should lose because they’re “so unbelievably impossible,” as fatuous a statement about national politics as I’ve ever heard. And Obama should win solely because he’s black and “articulate,” the favorite liberal code word for a black who isn’t an embarrassing representative of his race. Incidentally, my last, italicized phrase is deliberate, and harks back to the acceptance speech Hattie McDaniel made, at the studio’s urging, when she accepted her Oscar for her performance in Gone With The Wind, the first Oscar ever awarded to a black actress:

“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting for one of the awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.” (Emphasis mine.)

You do appreciate, don’t you, the fact that Roth is completely uninterested in Obama’s abilities, background, politic beliefs, political experience, associates, ideology, indeed anything of substance? All that matters to Roth is that Obama is a credit to his race. How utterly embarrassing that our great tradition of democracy should be reduced to this kind of inane banality.

That same absence of deep thinking colors Roth’s commentary about Bush. Keep in mind that Roth, via his “profound” (but humorous) books, is considered one of the great social thinkers of the Baby Boomer generation. That “intellectualism,” however, assuming it actually exists, abandons him when it comes to describing why Bush is bad. He throws in a few conclusory statements about the war and global warming, but he just can’t get a handle on substance. (As an aside, we’ll assume, just to be nice, that this interview was recorded before recent news that the Greenies’ purported remedies are actually speeding global warming. Of course, that may not be a problem, because we’re possibly entering a period of solar induced global cooling. But let me undigress.) What you really have to do is just take Roth’s word for it that Bush is bad, really, really, really bad. Really bad.

SPIEGEL: What will remain of the current president, George W. Bush? Could he be forgotten once he leaves office?

Roth: He was too horrendous to be forgotten. There will be an awful lot written about this. And there’s a lot to be written about the war. There’s a lot to be written about what he did with Reaganism, since he went much further than Reagan. So he won’t be forgotten. Someone has said he’s the worst American president we’ve ever had. I think that’s true.


Roth: Well, the biggest thing would be the war, the deceptions surrounding the entrance into the war. The absolute cynicism that surrounds the deception. The cost of the war, the Treasury and the lives of the Americans. It’s hideous. There is nothing quite like it. The next thing would be the attitude towards global warming, which is a global crisis, and they were utterly indifferent, if not hostile, to any attempt to address it. And so on and so on and so on and so on. So he’s done a lot of harm.

Of course, it’s not all Bush’s fault he’s so appalling. It’s your fault and my fault too. That’s because we’re brutal. Did you know that?

SPIEGEL: Since your book is set in that week during the 2004 elections, can you explain why Americans voted for Bush once again?

Roth: I suspect it was the business of being in a war and not wanting to change, and political stupidity. Why does anybody elect anybody? I thought highly of John Kerry when he began, but he couldn’t stand up against Bush. The Democrats aren’t brutes, which is too bad, because the Republicans are brutes. Brutes win.

Funnily enough, a lot of the brutal behavior, lately, seems to be coming from the rank and file Democrats, not the Republicans. An easy example is the fact that Democratic speakers on the circuit don’t need to hire bodyguards. Republicans do. That’s because Republicans get physicall attacked when they speak on college campuses. Ann Coulter was attacked. College Republican student organizations are attacked. Condi Rice was threatened by a Code Pink loony tunes who got within inches of her. The list goes on and on and on. You can add your own, but you’ll be hard put to find corollaries on the other side; that is, conservatives attacking liberals. But back to Roth….

“Brutes.” “Hideous.” “There is nothing quite like it.” This man, this spokesman for a generation, clearly hasn’t thought beyond the Democratic parties’ last list of talking points. He’s got all the nasty conclusions of the kindergarten set, but with a more sophisticated vocabulary:

“Mommy, I hate Tommy.”

“Why, darling?”

“Because he’s a meanie.”

“But what makes him a meanie?”

“He does mean things.”

“What mean things does he do, darling?”

“He’s mean to me.”

And so on, ad nauseum. It’s tolerable in a child because you know they’ll attain reason and leave that phrase behind. It’s intolerable in a literary lion, a spokesman for his generation, who has never been able to emerge from his prolonged and clearly debilitating adolescence.

I’ve vented my spleen, so I’m going to leave the last words to that great philosopher, Bugs Bunny: “What a maroon. What a nincowpoop.”

UPDATE:  Just to keep things on the up and up, I edited the first paragraph to reflect some accurate criticism a reader made in a comment at my old blog site, regarding an ambiguity in my writing.

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  • expat

    Roth’s comments are par for the course in Europe. Every Hollywood type, writer, artist and silicone-enhanced airhead who visits the continent delivers such drivel as an admision fee. Those who bravely speak truth to power are certainly conscious that catering to the prejudice of potential consumers will be reflected in the bottom line. They also feed their errroneous belief that such behavior makes them relevant. They may receive an award, as did Susan Sontag, or they may be remembered as icons long after Americans have ceased to seek their counsel, as in the case of Norman Mailer. It’s all about being in the in crowd in a place where the common man must bow before his betters. Yep, they want to get up there with Michael Moore.

  • Oldflyer

    This business of race intrigues me some times.

    I cannot help being curious as to how much “race” you need to put you in one category or another. In the case of Obama, we know that he had a white mother and a black father. So, apparently that makes him black–at least when it is convenient to be black. We have various stories about the culture that dominated his childhood. Since his black father abandoned him early on, I am not sure why we would assume it was a black culture, more that an Indonesian or white one. In fact we do know that except when he was in Indonesia (and educated as a Muslim?), he was apparently educated in a predominately white environment.

    I have tentatively concluded that a person’s race in circumstances such as this often what is most advantageous. I have a good friend who is about one-fourth Cherokee. She has never lived in the American Indian culture. Other than strikingly black hair she has few physical characteristics that would identify her as Indian. Yet it is to her advantage to be defined as American Indian because the U.S. Government sees fit to pay her a monthly stipend; presumably to indemnify her for her (non-existent) suffering. (That is a hoot because her husband is a retired Captain from a major airline and they are very well-off). I am desperarately trying to confirm that my father’s family has a certain per centage of Plains Indian blood (which I suspect) because although I am of a conservative nature, I do love government checks.

    So, Roth wants Obama to be elected because he is black. I cannot help but wonder if his maternal family every wonders when and how they became totally discounted. I would guess that it happened about the time he decided to enter politics, or perhaps when he completed his application to Harvard.

    Well, I just wonder when we will start evaluating Mr Obama on his credentials and his governing principles (as G. W. Bush phrased it so well on Fox News Sunday this A.M.).

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  • neocon hippie

    Book, Philip Roth was born in 1933, which means he isn’t anywhere close to being a Baby Boomer. The year that he published Goodbye, Columbus, the oldest Boomers (using the orthodox definition as beginning in 1946) were just old enough to be Bar/Bat Mitzvahed.

  • Bookworm

    You’re right, neocon, that he’s too old to be a Baby Boomer, but I, on the tail end of the Boomer generation, always understood my fellow Boomers to believe he was one of theirs. Maybe I just misunderstood! :)

  • expat


    Davids Medienkritik also deals with Roth and has an interesting comment on German resistance to differing viewpoints.

  • Boran Miller

    Excuse me, but have you ever read anything by Philip Roth? Your comments about his work are risible. You say that Roth never emerged from adolescence, but you yourself write like you’re in kindergarten.

    By the way, I am a conservative and disagree completely with Roth’s political views. But I’m not stupid enough to say that Michael Jordan was a lousy basketball player because he endorsed Bill Bradley. Separate Roth’s art from his politics, genius.

  • Bookworm

    Boran, it doesn’t work to castigate me by asking “have you ever read anything by Philip Roth?” as if to shame me for not reading something, when it’s apparent that you haven’t read what I’ve written. If you had, you would have seen that, in my very first sentence I say I haven’t read anything by Philip Roth. I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve tried, but I find him unreadable. His writing style and outlook on life so quickly offend and bore me (and that’s my purely subjective opinion), that I’ve never put myself to the task of reading a book of his in its entirety. To me, the gold standard for writing and thinking is Jane Austen. Roth is the un-gold standard — the polar opposite of what I value in a writer. Whether he is “good” is irrelevant to me. I can’t read his stuff.

  • Zhombre

    Boran, a novelist trades in ideas, perceptions, and social observation; his or her work is primarily intellectual where the work of an athlete is physical; especially for a man of Roth’s generation, his politics are much more wedded to his politics than Michael Jordan’s ability to move a basketball are wedded to his, if he has any that are substantive. Would you separate the work of Orwell or Arthur Koestler or Solzhenitzyn from their political viewpoints?

  • Liam Hodder

    What we now characterize as Baby Boom
    attitudes infected that generation (my own)
    in the ’60s but actually migrated into the
    mainstream from the Marxist intellectual
    elite of the previous generation, so Roth and
    his contemporaries, tho’ older, are
    in ideology and philosophy etc identical to
    the Baby Boomers themselves. They are also,
    as we see, equally incoherent. Roth’s ‘The
    Human Stain’, however, is excellent and
    deals with race and Political Correctness in a
    startlingly thoughtful and provoking way
    – and with a kick-ass twist.
    The smugness and priapism inseparable
    from Lefty EngLit don’t get in the way once
    you fight past the opening pages. The guy’s
    got talent and brains and an intellectual
    avoir du pois lacking in younger novelists.