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    Home / College Guide / The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon
     Posted on Friday, July 01 @ 00:00:09 PDT
    College

    The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened Bill McKibben (Henry Holt and Company, 2022) Bill McKibben moved to Lexington, Massachusetts in 1970, when he was ten. In their thirty-thousand-dollar house on Middle Street, their family of four represented the archetype of the American Dream. The town of Lexington also makes a pretty fair proxy for American suburbia, though its place in colonial and revolutionary history adds a dimension that McKibben uses to advantage in his story. Hes not primarily engaged in memoir, but what he does have to say explains a lot about his career as a journalist and activist. He was a teenage journalist, covering the 1978 gas crisis for the local suburban paper, before he ever got to the Harvard Crimson, and subsequently the New Yorker. Along with gas station owners, I also got to interview the number three man in the countrys energy department. John Deutch was an MIT professor, and in between Washington stints he lived in Lexington, so I talked with him the week before his boss, President Carter, was to give a nationwide address on energy conservation. Jimmy Carter had at least some grasp of how the country needed to reinvent itself in response to changing ecological conditions, but he lost the election to a sunny, confident huckster whose attitude toward such matters was nothing to see here.

    Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House, and Ronald Reagan took them down. Another job McKibben held in high school was being a tour guide on the Lexington Battle Green, purveying tales of long-ago glory for tips from tourists. The patriotism he felt on the Green has only grown, though its been complicated by more thought about who was left out of the stories. If the American origin story that youre telling over and over involves a small force of ill-trained men who, feeling oppressed, decide to take on the greatest empire in the world–well, that story leaves you believing that dissent can be patriotic, that American history is ultimately the story of the underdog, that a sense of shared community and a willingness to sacrifice for it defines who we are. McKibben got an early taste of such willingness on Memorial Day weekend of 1971, when Vietnam War protesters, led by a young John Kerry, came to town. A group following Paul Reveres ride in reverse broke Lexingtons curfew by camping out in the middle of town; the police rounded up 458 protesters, of whom more than a third were local townspeople, including McKibbens father. He got out in the morning, and they all went to church, but he did put himself on the line, as his son has done many times since, protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline and the like.

    That same year, as he learned while researching this book, Lexingtons citizens voted to overturn a rezoning proposal for a townhouse development that would have provided some housing for lower-income families. In the pulpits, and in the letters pages of the paper, Lexingtonians were all for diversity and inclusion; in the privacy of the voting booth, they were for protecting property values. And why not? They had great schools, a fine library, sports teams and station wagons, all the comforts of home. Partly because of the young Bill McKibben, in fact, they had an award-winning high school debate team, among all the other stepping stones to brand-name college educations. The repercussions of this kind of thinking, spread over the intervening decades, have only increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots. That three-bedroom house on Middle Street is worth well over a million dollars today; but if you never had the chance to buy in in the sixties, what good is that to you? A substantial part of the difference, of course, is a residue of racial red-lining from the middle of the century, and all the doors closed to Black veterans who should have been able to use GI benefits to improve their lot in life.

    McKibben imagines what a compensatory wealth transfer would look like. One big change in our adult lifetimes is the decline of main-line Protestant denominations and the rise of independent evangelical churches. McKibben has seen it for a long time: he wrote an article for the Crimson about Jim Bakker and his PTL Club, with a predictable degree of mockery; but he did find the people there both sincere and kind. Evangelicalism, he says, may just be part of a larger story of growing hyper-individualism in our time. The youth group trips he used to take, to paint houses and–literally–sing Kumbaya, pointed to a form of religion that was about more than saving individual souls. Perhaps it still could be. The last chapter is a call for people born under Truman and Eisenhower to give something real back. But older people also have something beyond their kids and grandkids to think about. We also have the chance to partially redeem some sense of our history as Americans, and, for those to whom it matters, as Christians. Any Good Books, July 2022

     
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