Patriotism for Dummies

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Guides for the historically-challenged

Suddenly patriotic? Are you one of those who just last summer was too shy to sing the national anthem at baseball games and this year is celebrating the Fourth of July by dyeing your hair red, white and blue? Feel a little iffy, though, on the details? Can't tell the Sons of Liberty from the Son of Sam?

Lucky for you, "American history has never been this much fun!" So promises the cover of "U.S. History for Dummies." The famous how-to series has issued a number of patriotic titles over the last year, devoted to politics, our nation's capital, the Civil War and a new volume covering presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush. They allow the prospective patriot to bone up on the grand saga of the American ideals of freedom and equality, while at the same time keeping track of our original sins through chapter titles such as "fighting the Indians — again."

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I was recently given "U.S. Presidents for Dummies" as a gag gift, but paging through it, I found myself pulled in not so much by the book's facts as by its opinions. For instance, the author, University of Texas at Tyler political science professor Marcus Stadelmann, calls Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson, a former slave owner who flubbed Reconstruction, "a horrible human being." When I was in school, textbooks were not that honest. Of course, when I was in school, textbooks still said the U.S. had never lost a war, and I started kindergarten four months after the fall of Saigon.

Or, as the Dummies books might put it, "The U.S. never lost a war. Not!" Sometimes the language is disconcertingly colloquial. I would have hoped that "U.S. History for Dummies" could have concocted a more majestic description of Harriet Beecher Stowe's response to the Fugitive Slave Law than "it ticked her off."

Though there is often more teenage slang in these volumes than Jeff Spicoli's analysis of the Declaration of Independence at the end of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"("So what Jefferson was saying was, 'Hey, you know, we left this England place because it was bogus'") adults, refreshingly, are the intended audience. Thus "U.S. History for Dummies" is able to quote a Richard Nixon Watergate tape in all its four-letter-word glory. If a high school textbook cited a sitting president telling his aides, "I don't give a shit what happens," parents would sue the school board. "The Civil War for Dummies" even has three chapters for the Civil War tourist that operate under the assumption that the reader is a licensed driver, enumerating the battlefields one may visit without even getting out of the car.

There is solid cocktail-party fodder among these volumes, such as this assessment of the election of 1828: "Jackson's supporters accused Adams of having premarital sex with his foreign-born wife, while Adams' supporters called Jackson's mother a whore." Consider bringing such trivia to an Independence Day barbecue as a sort of hostess gift. I think we've all attended get-togethers over the last few months where the conversation devolves into a round robin of each person's imagined death scenarios and everyone leaves early to go stock up on canned goods and gas masks. The amateur historian, on the other hand, can steer concerns about government decision-making into more cheerful areas, such as the War of 1812, which "U.S. History for Dummies" quite rightly describes as "goofy." And uncomfortable silences can be relieved by pointing at the beer and bringing up the invention of lager in Milwaukee or chatting up the uncle hiding behind the grill about Teddy Roosevelt and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

What if this year, your mom, who holds Thanksgiving dinner ransom until everyone holds hands and says out loud what he or she is thankful for and then gives you a dirty look when you say, "over the counter painkillers and 300 cable channels," decides to extend the tradition to Independence Day? If you had to stand before your loved ones and tell them one reason you are proud to be an American what would you say? You're on your own on that one. I checked, and there is no "Patriotism for Dummies." Yet.

Sarah Vowell's newest book, "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," will be published in September