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Philip Roth's "Our Gang:" A Satirical Purgative for the Last Seven Years

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Okay, so it’s New Year’s morning 2008. Big deal! I have a raging head cold and there’s still 385 days until . . . what . . . a new president . . . a new hope for the democratic experiment of our Founding Fathers . . . until my sinuses stop feeling like an unanaesthetized root canal.

Quarantined by my wife, and in the velvet grip of an antihistamine-induced torpor, I’ve had uninterrupted moments to ruminate on the democratic malaise—some would say cancer—that has been developing these last seven years in the land of “liberty and justice for all.”

Groping for synthesis through a medicated fog I decided to reread “It Can’t Happen Here,” by Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell’s “1984.” Like many Americans, I’d read both novels a long six years ago. But while searching my library for the books, I stumbled upon a long neglected political satire by Philip Roth called “Our Gang.” The caricature of Richard Nixon’s scowling mug on the cover convinced me that it was just the spoonful of medicine I needed.

Anyone—mostly guys—familiar with the first 12 pages of Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” knows how piss-your-pants funny he can be. “Our Gang” is that funny. It is also, as Dwight McDonald wrote in a 1971 New York Times review, “far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse . . . [and] a masterpiece.”

The story is prefaced by a statement President Nixon issued from his San Clemente home in 1971: “FROM PERSONAL AND RELIGIOUS BELIEF I CONSIDER ABORTION AN UNACCEPTABLE FORM OF POPULATION CONTROL. FURTHER MORE, UNRESTRICTED ABORTION POLICIES OR ABORTION ON DEMAND, I CANNOT SQUARE WITH MY PERSONAL BELIEF IN THE SANCTITY OF LIFE—INCLUDING THE LIFE OF THE YET UNBORN. FOR SURELY THE UNBORN HAVE RIGHTS ALSO . . .”

The “fun” begins as Trick E. Dixon, attempts to address a citizen’s concern that Lieutenant Calley may have inadvertently caused an abortion during the massacre at My Lai.



Tricky squares his belief in the sanctity of life and his defending of Calley by making it “perfectly clear” that the Lieutenant either didn’t know that any of the slain women in the ditch were pregnant or had assumed they were just overweight if they were showing. Besides, he reasoned, “if the pregnant ones would wear maternity clothes . . . that would help our boys. But they don’t . . . they go around all day in their pajamas, it’s almost impossible to tell the men from the women, let alone the pregnant from the nonpregnant.”

But what gets Tricky in trouble is his proposed constitutional amendment to give the unborn the vote, a strategy he hopes will offset the democratic tilt of the 18-22 year-old vote in the 1972 election.

The Boy Scouts of America interpret the amendment as an endorsement for heterosexual promiscuity and converge on the White House en mass carrying banners that read, TRICK E. DIXON FAVORS SEXUAL INTERCOURSE and POWER TO THE PENIS? NEVER!

Tricky defends himself—dressed in a football uniform and helmet from his alma mater—in a secret Cabinet meeting by asking, “What did I say? Let’s look at the record. I said nothing! Absolutely nothing! I came out for ‘the rights of the unborn.’ I mean if ever there was a line of hokum, that was it. Sheer humbug.”

As if Tricky’s hypocrisy has no limit (which we know it didn’t), he assures his spiritual advisor that “no one in this country wishes to appear more religious than I do. But sometimes . . . people just make being religious impossible, even for someone who stands to gain as much from that posture as I do.

The plan Tricky and his advisors come up with to “wag the dog” results in the shooting of three Boy Scouts (one Eagle Scout and two Tenderfoots), the invasion of Denmark and the nuking of Copenhagen . . .oh yeah, and the attempted extraordinary rendition of Curt Flood, the center fielder for the Washington Senators . . . it works.

Eventually, Tricky is assassinated. I will not reveal how or by whom. That is piss-your-pants funny. What I will reveal is that Tricky ends up—as you well imagine—in Hell campaigning against Satan for position of Devil.

In a stump speech, Tricky reassures the denizens of Hell that the misinformation being spread by Satan regarding actions he may have taken as President of the United States is just a pack of lies:

“Let me say, as regards these wholly unfounded attacks upon my bad name, that I intend . . . to issue a black paper, showing that in every single instance where they claim I was “humane” or “benevolent,” I was in actual fact motivated solely by political self-interest, and acted with utter indifference, if not outright contempt and cynicism, for the welfare of anybody other than myself.”

Help me here. Is the old saying, “starve a cold, feed a fever” or “feed a fever, starve a cold?” Either way, the American electorate of a certain persuasion has been starved of the kind of satire that Roth has achieved in “Our Gang.” It can’t change the last seven years and it may not affect the next seven, but damn, it sure changed the way I felt for a couple of hours.

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Biography: Robert Weitzel is a contributing editor to Media With a Conscience (www.mwcnews.net). His essays regularly appear in The Capital Times in Madison, WI.
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