Lafayette In The Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell
This book forgets something of vital importance, and that is that while the reader of this book may care something of what Lafayette thought and did, especially during his tour of the United States in 1824, hardly anyone cares what Sarah Vowell things, which the author does not appear to understand. In reading this book the author appears to fancy herself as one of those grifter moderates who believes themselves to be above the partisanship while looking down with contempt on extremists on both the right and the left–anyone who considers the principled conservatives of the Tea Party to be extremist really has no room to claim any expertise as a political commentator, it should be noted–and comes off as a spoiled and privileged brat in her complaints about American politics through history as well as her transparent efforts to get special favors while grousing about entitlement cuts that threaten her convenience. If the book were more about Lafayette than about the author and her whinging, this book would be an immensely more enjoyable volume and likely a good deal more insightful. The author does not make a good case for why self-professed moderates like herself ought to have any cultural and political influence in our times given her unlikeable attitude and continual contempt for others.
This large text version of the book is a bit less than 400 pages and it is filled with the author blending her own quest to follow the trail of Lafayette and his influence and popularity in the United States along with her nasty and carping commentary on the politics of the early 2010’s. Interspersed along with her travelogues and her bloviating about political matters that are beyond her ken are comments about the life of Lafayette and his 1824 trip to the United States where adulation of his role in assisting the cause of American independence was about the only thing the deeply divided nation agreed upon at the time, as well as Lafayette’s volunteer military service to the American republic that won plaudits because it was volunteer military service coupled with open appreciation of the American people. The author would do well to recognize that a great many of the political disagreements within the United States revolve around the desire of grifters like her to exploit the American taxpayer for their own dignity and comfort and profit while simultaneously looking down on those whom they rob, and the author’s attitude to the hostility of the American people to this is colored with a lack of understanding of the legitimacy of America’s gripes about the public spirit of its grifting political elites.
If you don’t know who Sarah Vowell is because you aren’t a fan of NPR and you don’t particularly care about her opinions, this is not going to be a fun book. There are a lot of books that are written about Lafayette and his role in the founding of the American nation, and the author’s insights into her historical subject are continually knee-capped by her overinflated sense of self-regard and self-importance. That said, there are at least a few ways in which this book can be useful to the reader, and that is in reflecting on the ways that political divisions and the mistrust of institutions have always been a part of American history. If the author reflected upon the ways that American governments have always had a very ambivalent relationship with the American people as a whole then she would be less quick to demonize other people for reflecting that ambivalence in their own views of government. The book is also useful in serving as a corrective to beliefs that the United States was ever entirely unified; our federalist government and its checks and balances between the state and federal level as well as between the branches of government and between the private and public sectors as a whole are a testament of our cynical but not inaccurate belief that power must be pitted against power to prevent it from oppressing the people. The author, with her doe-eyed naivete about the beneficial role of government, would do wise to learn from that wisdom.