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Waving Around an American Flag Does Not Make You a Patriot

By Jen K. | Book Reviews | August 23, 2010 | Comments ()


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I finally get the big deal about Sarah Vowell! She was one of those authors that people kept raving about over on Pajiba, so I read her book Assassination Vacation, and while there were definitely parts of it I found amusing, I just didn't get the hype. I figured I just wasn't quite her audience and I don't tend to have a good track record with essay collections. I have yet to click with David Sedaris (a few of his essays cracked me up; the whole collection . . . not so much) or Sloane Crosley (same issue as above). After reading Assassination Vacation, I commented that her style might work better with smaller topics, and apparently I was right.

While her collection of essays definitely has a theme, each essay approaches this theme from a different topic. Even though it is a collection of essays, for the most part they span from 2000 to 2002, covering the Gore-Bush campaign and election, as well as a few other essays about random historical sites and conflicts. "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," the essay which gives the book its name, actually addresses 9/11 and her feelings about patriotism. I'll get back to a few of these topics in a little bit, but I figure I'll start with the funny stuff before moving on to the more reflective parts of the book.

The second essay in the book probably had me laughing the most, which was about her family coming to New York for Thanksgiving, and included this quote:

It is curious that we Americans have a holiday - Thanksgiving - that's all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parent's lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents! It's as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets.

It also included a description of her father as "a man who moved us sixteen hundred miles away from our Oklahoma relatives so he wouldn't have to see them anymore," which I loved because I think my family could definitely relate to that. My parents and I first spent 8 years in Germany, then two years in Seattle before my parents finally decided to move to Illinois to be near my dad's family, only to stop speaking to them after a few years.

Mostly though, I loved the fact that Sarah Vowell loves history, and is in fact a huge nerd about it as she would tell anyone, but is also conflicted about it (and, of course, the "Buffy" references make her awesome as well). She describes working in an antique map store, and how a customer would be looking at an old map of South Carolina and how pretty it was, and while she would agree, she would also immediately think "slave state." I really appreciated reading about someone that clearly loves history and their country but also can look at how nuanced and complicated it truly is simply because I often have the same feeling. America's history is not simple by any means but so many people try to simplify it that I often feel like a spoil sport for not being able to look at the story of American westward movement and progress without thinking, but what about the Native Americans? Or the slaves? Or the Japanese internment camps? Just as a few examples.

She also took a look at the election between Gore and Bush, and discussed the fact that at some point in America, being knowledgeable became something to hide or be embarassed about. Gore was clearly the more intelligent of the two candidates but Bush won on a platform of the "average guy" -- do we really want an average guy in charge? I mean, why do we want someone in the White House that gets us rather than someone that not only gets us but also might have an understanding of how to solve our problems? Or recognizes that problems even exist?

The last essay I wanted to mention was "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," written in December of 2001. Vowell explains that in the first few days after the attack, she thought seeing flags everywhere was a cheering sight but as time progressed, she felt like the symbolism changed. And I really understand what she meant there. In her view, "the true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government . . . so by the beginning of October, the ubiquity of the flag came to feel like peer pressure to always stand behind policies one might not necessarily agree with." I also am occasionally skeptical about seeing the American flag hanging everywhere ... on the one hand, it can be nice to see but sometimes I wonder if people are just hanging it to be cool. Or to say they are patriotic. And like Vowell, I wonder, who is more patriotic, the person that hangs a bunch of flags up and says, "America, fuck yeah!" or the one who knows and loves the history of America with all its contradictions and tries to make sense of it? Personally, I prefer the one that involves some thought. I have never described myself as a patriot because it feels like such a loaded word, it feels like it's been appropriated by people who think they represent the true America and I don't agree with their views, and I don't have an uncritical view of our country and its past. Yet I know many people would probably describe me as a patriot or assume I am one simply because of my job. I think part of this might be due to the fact that I spent K-7 in German schools so when I learned American history, I was already older and more likely to look at it critically rather than learning to love America in second grade (trust me, I was proud to be the American in my class of German students in elementary school but I just didn't grow up with American history the same way as many of my peers; instead, I grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust, which definitely teaches people to be critical of their past rather than simply proudly embracing it).

Also, this whole idea of patriot and patriotism reminded me a bit of the current debate regarding the cultural center, which is being played up as a mosque, and some comments that Jill at Feministe made:

5. Republicans who hate on New York City 364 days of the year, and now use the evils of New York (sex! gays! immigrants! Jews! elitists!) for political gain, don't get to suddenly claim to care when September 11th is involved.

I feel like this basically describes the people that say they are patriots and wave a flag around a lot but don't necessarily think about the topics more (not that I'm saying all Republicans are like this, I'm quoting her). Actually, since I'm on that article anyway, there was other point, I really liked:

6. Don't even get me started on the people who now call the World Trade Center site "hallowed ground," but have had no problem coming to NYC and snapping smiling photos in gym shoes and fanny packs in front of the site, like it's another attraction between Century 21 and Times Square. It is hallowed ground. Act like it . . . I just really liked that point because I have felt similar about people visiting the Concentration Camp at Dachau. I admit, when I was in Manhattan in May, I ended up going to the site and taking a picture of the flag flying overhead, but I wasn't planning on going originally because I didn't want to treat it like a tourist site. There's a line between treating something like a tourist site and going due to genuine interest or to show respect, and I feel like it can sometimes be hard to tell which side of the line one is on during a particular visit. I ended up going when I realized I was a block away but as I said, I'd originally meant to avoid it because I didn't want to turn it into something on a "Things to See in New York" check list.

Anyway, in case it isn't obvious, I really enjoyed this book. It was thoughtful but also humorous and I agreed with much of what she said, and I am definitely looking forward to reading another one of her books. I just hope it's similar to this one in its set up, and not like Assassination Vacation.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jen K's reviews, check out her blog, Notes from the Officer's Club.



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