Sarah Vowell, the diminutive, acerbic essayist and NPR personality was on The Daily Show with John Stewart to hawk the paperback version of her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, which seems to be about the Puritans, but is about so much more.
Sarah Vowell is best known by people who do not read left wing history polemics or listen to National Public Radio, which is most people, as the voice of Violet Incredible on The Incredibles, the thoroughly enjoyable animated film about a family of super heroes.
The main take away from the interview with John Stewart was that while our Puritan fathers were religious fruit cake who would put the Taliban to shame, burning the poor, oppressed Native Americans alive while they were not prating about the “City on the Hill”, some were less bad than others. Sarah Vowell seems to like Roger Williams who, while believing that everyone who was not a puritan was bound to burn in Hell, that was sufficient punishment and that a good Christian should be friendly and charitable to everyone, even godless heathens, in this life.
In The Wordy Shipmates, one gets the impression that Sarah Vowell really hates the idea of American Exceptionalism, which she believes only leads to wars in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq, which she disapproves of (what about Europe and the Pacific?), and the very existence of Ronald Reagan, who pinched the Puritan idea of the “City on the Hill” and used it shamelessly in a lot of his speeches.
Sarah Vowell seems to make four very annoying mistakes that left wing historians persist in making.
First is the sin of preasentism. By preasentism one means judging, say, 17th Century people by 21st Century standards. People four hundred years ago thought differently about just about everything, including concepts of mercy and charity. Sarah Vowell is probably a good multiculturalist when it involves people in other countries, but seems to fall short when it comes to people living in other time periods/
Second is the sin of lack of context. Sarah Vowell can drop a little tid bit about Puritans burning the gentle, Native American alive without noting the depravations often visited on the early settlers by those same Native Americans. The narrative of the remorseless, evil white man tends to be somewhat diluted when one notes the sins of the just as remorseless, evil red man.
Third, Sarah Vowell tends to follow the old error of “more religious than me, a fanatic.” And there are few people who are less religious than an effete, Northeastern lib. Especially if it is one with attitude.
The last sin Sarah Vowell commits is trying to use history to make contemporary political points. This is especially annoying when it is left wing cant couched in pseudo religious rhetoric.
Read The Wordy Shipmates for the sarcastic style and the tangents (of which there seem more than a geometry text), but not for the history.
Sources: Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show, October 5th, 2009
The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell, Riverhead Trade, 2009