Authors: Philip Roth
OUR GANG by
"The victims may not enjoy it, but they should be
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wittiest and wickedest political satire since Dryden."
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GOODBYE, COLUMBUS LETTING GO
WHEN SHE WAS GOOD PORTNOY'S
COMPLAINT OUR GANG
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Random House edition published October 1971
2nd printing ... November 1971 3rd printing ... November 1971
4th printing ...
Literary Guild edition published January 1972
Book Find Club edition published January 1972
Bantam edition published May 1972
Sections of this book appeared in somewhat different form in
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Copyright © 1971 by Philip Roth.
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of Bucknell University,
now of Antioch College,
of the University of Chicago
three teachers to whom I remain particularly
grateful for the instruction and encouragement
they gave me
And I remember frequent Discourses with my Master
concerning the Nature of Manhood, in other Parts of the
World; having Occasion to talk of Lying, and false
Representation, it was with much Difficulty that he
comprehended what I meant; although he had otherwise a
most acute judgment. For he argued thus; That the Use of
Speech was to make us understand one another, and to
receive Information of Facts; now if anyone said the Thing
which was not, these Ends were defeated; because I cannot
properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from
receiving Information, that he leaves me worse than in
Ignorance; for I am led to believe a Thing Black when it is
White, and Short when it is Long. And these were all the
Notions he had concerning that Faculty of Lying, so
perfectly well understood, and so universally practised
among human Creatures.
-Jonathan Swift, A Voyage
to the Houyhnhnms, 1726
... one ought to recognize that the present political
chaos is connected with the decay of language, and
that one can probably bring about some improvement
by starting at the verbal end.... Political language-and
with variations this is true of all political parties, from
Conservatives to Anarchists-is designed to make lies
sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an
appearance of solidity to pure wind.
-George Orwell, "Politics
and the English Language,"
FROM PERSONAL AND RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
I CONSIDER ABORTIONS AN UNACCEPTABLE
FORM OF POPULATION
CONTROL. FURTHERMORE, UNRESTRICTED
ABORTION POLICIES, OR
ABORTION ON DEMAND, I CANNOT
SQUARE WITH MY PERSONAL BELIEF IN
THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFEINCLUDING
THE LIFE OF THE YET
UNBORN. FOR, SURELY, THE UNBORN
HAVE RIGHTS ALSO, RECOGNIZED IN
LAW, RECOGNIZED EVEN IN PRINCIPLES
EXPOUNDED BY THE UNITED
SAN CLEMENTE, APRIL 3, 1971
Tricky Comforts a Troubled
Sir, I want to congratulate you for coming
out on April 3 for the sanctity of human life,
including the life of the yet unborn. That required
a lot of courage, especially in the light of the
November election results.
Well, thank you, I know I could have done
the popular thing, of course, and come out against
the sanctity of human life. But frankly I'd rather be
a one-term President and do what I believe is right
than be a two-term President by taking an easy
position like that. After all, I have got my
conscience to deal with, as well as the electorate.
Your conscience, sir, is a marvel to us all.
I wonder if I may ask you a question
2 OUR GANG
having to do with Lieutenant Calley and his
conviction for killing twenty-two Vietnamese
civilians at My Lai.
Certainly. I suppose you are bringing that
up as another example of my refusal to do the
How's that, sir?
Well, in the wake of the public outcry
against that conviction, the popular thing-the
most popular thing by far-would have been for
me, as Commander-in-Chief, to have convicted
the twenty-two unarmed civilians of conspiracy
to murder Lieutenant Calley. But if you read
your papers, you'll see I refused to do that, and
chose only to review the question of his guilt,
and not theirs. As I said, I'd rather be a one-term
President. And may I make one thing more perfectly
clear, while we're on the subject of Vietnam?
I am not going to interfere in the internal
affairs of another country. If President Thieu has
sufficient evidence and wishes to try those
twenty-two My Lai villagers posthumously, according
to some Vietnamese law having to do
with ancestor worship, that is his business. But I
assure you, I in no way intend to interfere with
the workings of the Vietnamese system of justice.
I think President Thieu, and the duly elected
Saigon officials, can "hack" it alone in the law
and order department.
Sir, the question
that's been troubling
TRICKY COMFORTS A TROUBLED CITIZEN
me is this. Inasmuch as I share your belief in the
sanctity of human life
I'll bet you're quite a
football fan, too.
I am, sir. Thank you, sir ... But inasmuch
as I feel as you do about the unborn, I am
seriously troubled by the possibility that Lieutenant
Calley may have committed an abortion. I
hate to say this, Mr. President, but I am seriously
troubled when I think that one of those twentytwo
Vietnamese civilians Lieutenant Calley killed
may have been a pregnant woman.
Now just one minute. We have a tradition
in the courts of this land that a man is innocent
proven guilty. There were babies in
that ditch at My Lai, and we know there were
women of all ages, but I have not seen a single
document that suggests the ditch at My Lai
contained a pregnant woman.
But what if, sir-what if one of the
twenty-two was a pregnant woman? Suppose
that were to come to light in your judicial review
of the lieutenant's conviction. In that you personally
believe in the sanctity of human life,
including the life of the yet unborn, couldn't
such a fact seriously prejudice you against Lieutenant
Calley's appeal? I have to admit that as an
opponent of abortion, it would have a profound
effect upon me.
Well, it's very honest of you to admit it.
But as a trained lawyer, I think I might be able to
go at the matter in a somewhat less emotional
manner. First off, I would have to ask whether
Lieutenant Calley was aware of the fact that the
woman in question was pregnant before he killed
her. Clearly, if she was not yet "showing," I think
you in all fairness have to conclude that the
lieutenant could have had no knowledge of her
pregnancy, and thus, in no sense of the word,
would he have committed an abortion.
What if she told him she was pregnant?
Good question. She might indeed have tried
to tell him. But in that Lieutenant Calley is an
American who speaks only English, and the My
Lai villager is a Vietnamese who speaks only
Vietnamese, there could have been no possible
means of verbal communication. And as for sign
language, I don't believe we can hang a man for
failing to understand what must surely have been
the gestures of a hysterical, if not deranged,
No, that wouldn't be fair, would it.
In short then, if the woman was not "showing,"
Lieutenant Calley could not be said to have
engaged in an unacceptable form of population
control, and it would be possible for me to square
what he did with my personal belief in the sanctity
of human life, including the life of the yet unborn.
TRICKY COMFORTS A TROUBLED CITIZEN
But, sir, what if she was "showing"?
Well then, as good lawyers we would have to ask
another question. Namely: did Lieutenant Calley
believe the woman to be pregnant, or did he,
mistakenly, in the heat of the moment, assume that
she was just stout? It's all well and good for us to be
Monday Morning My Lai Quarterbacks, you know,
but there's a war going on out there, and you cannot
always expect an officer rounding up unarmed
civilians to be able to distinguish between. an
ordinary fat Vietnamese woman and one who is in
the middle, or even the late, stages of pregnancy.
Now if the pregnant ones would wear maternity