What the hell happened?
Bill McKibben grew up believing—knowing––that America was the greatest country on earth; that for all its obvious flaws, it was history’s most dynamic machine, pushing steadily towards a better future. Postwar suburban prosperity; the emerging movements for human equality—the escalator seemed to be heading steadily up. But new understandings of history have cast shadows on that picture—and over the past half century, over consumption and hyper-individualism have wrought havoc on three of America’s most distinctive features: our intertwined sense of history and patriotism, our kindness and generosity, and the promise of prosperity for all.
While there’s an emerging understanding that our heritage was less stained by racism than shaped by it, a sense that Christianity shifted with chilling speed from a source of relatively benign civic unity into a wellspring of snarling division, and a growing scientific understanding that our post war prosperity set the stage for the planets’ climatic upheaval, we badly need to pinpoint where we went astray in the first place if we wish to fix this country.
The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon weaves together McKibben’s reflections on growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts—at the time a middle-class suburb where his high school job was wearing a tricorne hat to give tours of the Green where the American revolution commenced—with the latest scholarship on race and inequality in America, on the rise of the religious right, and on our environmental crisis. Our chances of navigating an increasingly perilous future depend on a unity that we currently lack. If we begin to act, then we can not only start to repay very real debts; we can also begin to reclaim the very real good parts of our shared legacy. And perhaps something of that old world—of the flag, the cross, the station wagon—can be summoned up again to help us face a difficult future. But if so we’ll need to deal honestly with some serious questions. We can, and we will, be able to tell an American story—a truer one this time.