Essays On And Our Flag Was Still There

Barbara Kingsolver began this book on September 12, 2001, one day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. In a series of twenty- three essays, she shares with readers how she has tried to come back from grief and despair over this tragedy to regain a measure of hope for the future. She has found consolation in the small wonders of everyday life. Big issues such as terrorism, global warming, the enormous gap between rich and poor, and the wasteful overuse of Earth’s resources all seem overwhelming to an individual. Kingsolver instead writes about lifestyle choices on a personal level that eventually can change the world for the better. She reminds her readers that it was a small number of highly committed individuals who brought about major social changes such as racial equality in the United States, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and progress in women’s rights.

In the lead essay, titled “Small Wonder,” Kingsolver points to the fundamental weakness of a purely military response against terrorism. From Greek mythology, she cites the story of Jason, who killed a dragon but found that each of the dragon’s teeth germinated and grew into a new enemy. This story is pertinent to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. She says,

We kill its leaders and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes, inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror requires of us something that most of us haven’t considered: how to defuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective than simply going at it with the biggest stick at hand.

On the same day that the United States began its bombing campaign over Afghanistan, a news story from neighboring Iran reported an amazing miracle: A young child who had wandered away from his village was found alive three days later in a cave, where a she-bear had been nursing it. A skeptic would question whether this story could possibly be true when it was much more probable that such a child would become food for the hungry bear. Nevertheless, bears have a mothering instinct for their young, so it could have happened as reported. Kingsolver pursued this story on the Internet until she became convinced from the testimony of witnesses in the village that it really was genuine. This story of a child who was unexpectedly spared provided her with an important “small wonder” to balance against the large-scale brutality and destructiveness of the bombings.

In trying to understand what it is that motivates a suicide bomber, Kingsolver focuses on the increasing economic gap between the haves and have-nots of the world. While the Western countries live in growing affluence, the lowest quarter of the world’s poor are sinking into greater poverty, losing ground as they struggle. In her poignant words, it is the “insane rage of the dispossessed” that brings new recruits into the terrorist training camps. Her prescription is for the wealthier nations to become less wasteful and more generous in sharing the world’s resources.

In an essay titled “And Our Flag Was Still There,” Kingsolver contrasts two views of patriotism. One viewpoint often attributed to President George W. Bush holds that if Americans do not agree with his position then they are supporting the terrorists. The terrorist attacks are seen as a declaration of war against the United States, requiring a military response. The fear of further terrorism is used to justify restrictions in civil liberties and large increases in military expenditures. Kingsolver objects to this “us-against-them” philosophy and searches for an alternative definition of the meaning of patriotism. She feels alienated by violent retaliation and is concerned for the civilians in Afghanistan who have become a population of refugees.

At a time of national emergency, citizens are exhorted to give unqualified support to their government. Under the banner of “United We Stand,” dissenting voices may be criticized for being disloyal. During the Vietnam conflict in the 1960’s, some people with a narrow view of patriotism had an automobile bumper sticker that carried the message, “America, love it or leave it.” Kingsolver describes herself as someone who loves her country but at the same time is opposed to its militarism. She would like to replace the symbolism of “the rockets’ red glare” in the national anthem with the message of brotherhood found in “America the Beautiful.” She insists that criticism of American policy is a duty of citizenship and that the flag is her banner of patriotism as much as it is for the more militant voices.

Kingsolver has a college degree in biology that provides the background for several essays dealing with ecology. “The...

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Small Wonder
by Barbara Kingsolver
282pp, Faber, £12

Barbara Kingsolver is one of the few American writers who have refused to join George Bush's cheerleaders. A writer who reminds her readers, as Kingsolver has done, that "every war is both won and lost" would hardly seem extreme over here, but in the US such talk can receive some pretty nasty responses. One writer in the Wall Street Journal suggested that a reasonable response to Kingsolver's articles would be for bookstores to refuse to stock her novels.

Now that those articles Kingsolver wrote in response to September 11 have been republished - together with other essays on family life and wildlife - they can be judged in a more reflective context.

Some novelists came a cropper by suddenly trying to pontificate about politics last year, but you might think that a writer such as Kingsolver, who has always worked within a visible moral framework, would find the transition easier than most. That the author of The Poisonwood Bible and The Prodigal Summer is something of a pacifist and an environmentalist is hardly a surprise. But although I was rooting for these essays from the first page, over and over again, just as Kingsolver was heating up the rhetoric, I would find myself turning cold.

Perhaps the most admirable essay of all, and the one I most wanted to like, is "And Our Flag Was Still There". It was a version of this piece that drove the Wall Street Journal to such anger, and it was brave of Barbara Kingsolver to speak against her country's belligerence in September 2001. Even if it doesn't have the same shock effect nine months on and outside the US, it is still heartening to read a mainstream American writer saying: "In my lifetime I have seen the flag waved over the sound of sabre-rattling too many times for my comfort."

At the heart of this essay is an attempt to reclaim patriotism for Americans who love their country but don't love its current direction. Kingsolver marshals some fine arguments to her cause. Especially, she reminds the reader that American culture was created through dissent, through constant challenges to the status quo. "Our flag is not just a logo for wars, it's the flag of American pacifists, too." She also celebrates American feminists, abolitionists, and all the other dissenters who made her country so richly tolerant.

Although she is very much, here, an American speaking to Americans, her arguments travel well. Europeans often seem to see the country of Walt Whitman and Thoreau, Susan B Anthony and Martin Luther King, as a country only of McDonald's and Marines, and it's good to be reminded of the traditions of dissent that were forged in the US.

But then we get to the last paragraph, and her final rhetorical flourish. She tells of how she and her husband and daughter were looking at a photograph of thousands of people wearing red, white, or blue, arranged in the shape of the American flag. "Then my teenager, who has a quick mind for numbers and a sensitive heart" laid a hand over part of the picture and said: "In New York, that many might be dead." Kingsolver "shuddered at the one simple truth behind all the noise. That is my flag, and that's what it means: We're all just people, together."

We're all just people, together. It's at this moment, when Kingsolver tries to wrap the whole complicated argument that has gone before into something that should be stunningly persuasive, that she moves into something too easy, and even trite. Her arguments too often fall, at the crunch point, into this kind of naive utterance that, however sincere - and Kingsolver is nothing if not sincere - slips away from precise argument and into woolly reassurance.

This uncomfortable mixture of precision and woolliness characterises all her essays. A passion for the environment infuses all of Kingsolver's work, and gives her novels their dense roots in the natural world. But instead of keeping them earthed, here she keeps letting her feelings for nature drift off into vague spiritual lessons.

The title essay of the book, "Small Wonder", takes as its starting point a tale about a bear who suckled a runaway child in Iran. To turn such a very unusual bear into a symbol of the reliable gentleness of nature seems to be pushing it a bit. Yet Kingsolver takes it as proof of the universal rules that "warm lives are drawn to one another in cold places", and that we can all rely on "the unconquerable force of a mother's love".

Although Kingsolver is very proud of her training as a biologist, this smacks more of religion than biology. Indeed, a key word of this book is "reverence". "I took my leap reverently," Kingsolver tells us, when as a child she jumped across the Mississippi; a Mexican farmer holds a handful of soil to show her "as reverently as any true believer might handle a relic of his faith"; or she approaches nature "with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering places of worship".

Even if you do feel reverent in the face of nature, you might still find yourself pulling away from Kingsolver's rhetoric. That is partly because of her prose style, which is overdone compared to that of her novels, with too many spectacular, magnificent, miraculous, wondrous, sacred, unbelievable adjectives leaking out when what you want are particular details. It's also because, when she gets caught up in this reverence and awe, she tends to slide away from the stringent demands of argument.

She desperately wants to challenge the status quo, and at least someone is still trying to do that. But if you are going to attack popular pursuits such as eating strawberries in winter, or supporting the war on terrorism, or living in cities, or even watching television (something Kingsolver has turned her back on), you may have to do more than just raise your eyes heavenward when the going gets tough. You may need to acknowledge the complexity of the present situation and set out concrete steps for change.

She tends to sidestep that tough stuff in favour of fuzzy appeals to the soul. "Oh, how can I say this," she wonders. "People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it." This would work in one of her novels, coming out of the mouth of some charmingly naive character and finding an answering note from another, but left to struggle on the page of an essay it fades without an echo.

Kingsolver writes much more evocatively about bears, coyotes and bobcats when she isn't using them to make moral points. It's a pity to find her arguments falling at the final hurdle, because she stands within a space in American culture that is currently looking empty.

· Natasha Walter is the author of The New Feminism (Virago)

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