As a child, Bill McKibben was passionately fascinated by the American Revolution. His family moved to the iconic town of Lexington, Mass., when he was 10. As a teenager, he served as a guide on the town green, telling tourists how colonial villagers faced off against British soldiers in the first clash of the American Revolutionary War.
In his new book, The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon: An Aging American Looks Back on His Suburban Childhood and Wonders What Happened, McKibben offers a chapter on each of the resonant symbols of its title. The book reads like a memoir but draws on anecdotes about its own evolving relationships with the flag, the cross and the station wagon to explore how patriotism, religion and consumerism in the United States since the 1960s have left us with the society we live in now. .
McKibben recounts how, while still in high school, he started working for the local newspaper, which led to a lifetime of reporting. Learning a writer’s skills of observation and composition forced him to abandon an idealized interpretation of historical events.
Shortly after Vietnam War protests erupted in Lexington, the city held a landmark vote to ban multi-family (and more affordable) residences. These events forced the young journalist to reflect on the gap between his community’s much-celebrated “revolutionary” origins (and complacent liberalism) and his growing resistance to innovation and antipathy towards newcomers, especially people of color and those of more modest means.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s recent book June 16 recounts the experiences of his school years in Texas as well as observations on the late abolition of slavery in that state. Similarly, McKibben finds connections – and contradictions – between Lexington’s role as the site of the “shot heard around the world” and the city’s evolution into a privileged enclave.
In these books, hybrids of autobiography and analysis, the authors’ accounts of their hometowns make hard-to-grasp societal changes more visible by examining them through the prism of detailed personal recollections.
Gordon-Reed distinguishes between history (which requires careful study of what she calls “change over time”) and “myths and legends”, which may be personally flattering and glorify the country, but omit many truths about the past.
McKibben is interested in both history and myth, which are revealed in different ways. While describing his childhood enthusiasm for these legendary freedom-loving militiamen, he brings an adult’s historical perspective to the specific ways America failed to realize its vaunted ideals for all citizens.
In process and on the page, McKibben makes an effort to understand the past within the larger perspective of the present.
The author of 15 creative and topical non-fiction books, two retrospective anthologies and a novel, the Ripton resident has also contributed since his early twenties to the New Yorker and other publications. Very early on, he rejected the postural detachment of a journalist in favor of a fervent plea. A strong advocate for social justice and environmental action, he wrote the first book on climate change for general readers, nature’s endin 1989.
In 2007, McKibben co-founded the international environmental group 350.org, and in 2021 he co-founded Third Act, which aims to foster political activism among Americans 60 and older. He is currently a Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.
With disparities between wealth and poverty at an all-time high and participation in traditional civic and religious institutions at an all-time low, America is seen by many as a nation of extremes, including drastic differences in how whose government is perceived.
McKibben laments the “hyper-individualism” of our culture, a fanatical elevation of the private at the expense of the public in all walks of life, which “has taken us as a nation from the vast possibilities of the 1960s to the idea cramped and greedy 80s that markets would solve all the problems.”
He developed his own forms of patriotism (based on the egalitarian principles of the founders’ writings, without ignoring the flaws in their lives) and piety (based on what he sees as a radically human Jesus, seeker of justice and humble decency). ). His many years of working with citizens, scientists, educators and entrepreneurs to avert catastrophic climate change have convinced him that a well-informed, thoughtful and determined population can thrive while defending and enhancing democratic decision-making. .
The “Flag” and “Cross” chapters of this book are fascinating to read, although sometimes rather casual. McKibben seems, in some passages, to try so hard to avoid sounding stern that he sounds talkative, insinuating.
Perhaps most memorable in the first half of the book is its discussion of how black families aspiring to move to the suburbs were methodically excluded by zoning, lending practices, and spurious “historic preservation” rules and “conservation of the environment”.
McKibben’s reflection on how Americans have abandoned church, synagogue, and mosque membership over the past 60 years is also illuminating, a shift he says “dwarfs all other demographic changes in our country. in my life”. During these decades he himself was a member of Presbyterian, Congregational and then Methodist churches.
The book gains verbal momentum and moral intensity when we come to the “Station Wagon” chapter, where McKibben delves into the changes that have led to the current climate collapse and economic devastation. Contemplating what he considers the pivotal year of 1970, he writes that at that time “the car was the absolute and undisputed reality of our lives”.
It didn’t take long – a decade – for America to be built around the car. That was suburbia, a reflection in concrete and wood and brick of the logic of the automobile, designed for its dimensions, its turning radius.
Considering the rapid shift to car-centricity, McKibben notes that “More than three-quarters of Americans drove to work, and most of them drove alone. In 1970, there were more than 118 million cars and trucks on the American road – more than quadrupled twenty years ago.”
Throughout this book, McKibben exploits statistics that come off the page. These have a very different impact from the data of bureaucratic reports or a typical newsletter, as it provides its documentation in combination with stories:
“Lexington’s population was 1.3% African American in 2020, down from 1.5% in 2010, down from 3.1% in 2000. Boston’s public schools, in 2020, were 75% black and Hispanic. ”
“In 2000, Bangladeshis emitted 0.2 tons of carbon per person; Americans emitted 22 tons per person, or about a hundred times more.”
“If you are sixty years old, 82% of global fossil fuel emissions have occurred in your lifetime.”
In the final section of the book, McKibben reflects on what might have been, had Americans made different choices in the 1970s. Modern civil rights victories had raised hopes and new coalitions. The end of the war had freed up resources. Our energy systems could have been transformed by renewable technologies already viable at that time.
Then, turning to the present, he challenges older Americans, “the generations who gave us the troubled country we inhabit” – who now have the resources and the time to devote to a genuine democratic movement for social change. and who vote in large numbers:
I believe that the only way to improve our heritage is to improve our present and our future: if we change decisively in the direction of inclusion and equity, then perhaps history – in taking a very long view – will see something worthy of praise in the promise that “all men are created equal”, or in the Gospel injunction to love one’s neighbour; perhaps if we install enough solar panels, the American science and engineering of the 20th century (which gave rise to all these miraculous devices) will be remembered more than to make comfort more comfortable.
Of The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon: An Aging American Looks Back on His Suburban Childhood and Wonders What Happened
[I]n Lexington, I was confirmed in the United Church of Christ, the direct theological descendant of those Puritans, by Reverend Clarke and Bishop Hancock. UCC counts among its principal “theological grandparents” Jonathan Edwards, often considered one of America’s greatest theologians, a stern figure best remembered for his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of One Angry God”. Edwards purchased several human beings – he traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, to purchase the first, a fourteen-year-old girl named Venus, who had been kidnapped in Africa. Edwards, a frugal man, used the back of the bill of sale to write a sermon; in his will he referred to his slaves as “stock”. As an adult, I became a Methodist, again because that was what was in the small, isolated rural town where I made my life. The British founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was an opponent of slavery, and a brave one – he preached an anti-slavery sermon in Bristol, England’s main slave-trading port, and indeed it caused a riot: “The terror and confusion were inexpressible; the people rushed upon each other with the greatest violence.” But the first significant American leader of Methodism was a man named George Whitefield, who helped spark that first Great Awakening. Whitefield campaigned to allow slavery in Georgia, in order to maintain the plantation which supported an orphanage he had founded. He left fifty slaves in his will.
So: [religion was] poisoned at the source. Or: inextricably linked to American history, cataloging and staggering with the turns of that history, sometimes helping to progress and sometimes holding it back.