Words, words, words:  A review of The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

I thank God for Sarah Vowell, just because she's a declared atheist and the universe needs balance. Vowell is pretty good at providing a little balance of her own with her wounded idealist's insight into the American psyche in books like The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation. I read this volume in tandem with Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire. For some reason, I couldn't help thinking of Vowell as a witty, articulate Lisbeth Salander who, in other circumstances, might just set you on fire or report your tax evasions without a second thought.

Here, Vowell sets her sights on the Puritans, America's so-called moral and philosophical founders. These, of course, are the same noble Puritans who first arrived in droves on the Mayflower, etc., and set about conquering the New World. The very same people who could on one hand thank God for the plagues decimating the native population (between 1492 and 1650, as many as nine out of ten died of diseases brought to the Americas by European settlers) and on the other hand write some of the highest pleas for godliness and brotherliness ever penned. Let's just say for argument's sake that they were a little conflicted in their aims.

Fleeing religious persecution in their native England, predictably the Puritans exported their own brand of religious fervour to America. A holier-and-more-put-upon-than-thou sort of infighting was all the rage, just as, say, Tweeting is today, only the consequences were a bit more severe. Banishment was popular, particularly in the dead of winter. And remember—this is a winter without Starbucks or Tim Horton's coffee shops to cosy up in when your neighbours got a little cranky with you.

At the heart of this book lies the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who coined the catchphrase “city upon a hill” wherein “the eyes of all people are upon us” to describe his vision of an America built on, by and for Christian charity. As many Americans can tell you, that contentious little phrase has been making the rounds ever since, popping up in speeches by presidents as different as Kennedy and Reagan to defend all sorts of nefarious behaviour.

To many Canadians, when it comes to politics Americans can seem remarkably stupid, pig-headed and blind. This is largely because of two things: one, their religious zeal and two, their patriotic zeal. Both smack of an unwelcome fanaticism to us middle-of-the-roaders to the north. And have no doubts, we will be quite smug about it when pressed.

For those of us who feel no sentiment for America, it's interesting to see how rhetoric dulls even the most brilliant mind. Vowell is a smarty, but she's not immune to such things, so it's sad to see her succumb to the same religious fervour, albeit the political brand, while extolling the sullied virtues of her beloved republic and shedding tears for those above-quoted words, even while admitting they are “dangerous,” “arrogant,” and “rude.” No shit, Sherlock.

Reading this book is a little like looking at family photos. When it's your family, you read things into each face: love, hate, laziness, stupidity. Each one means something quite specific. When it's someone else's family, however, you realize they're just people like anywhere else, nothing special about them, and certainly nothing to make them act like God's Chosen Tribe, at home or abroad. Sadly, Vowell succumbs to the temptation to beatify America and American history, despite what she knows about it. Which goes to show that even smart girls can be really, really dumb.


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