Monday, April 11, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes, 18/100

If I had to pick one Bible verse that students of American history should know, it is Acts 16:9: "And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, come over into Macedonia and help us." ...

For Americans, Act 16:9 is the high-fructose corn syrup of Bible verses -- an all-purpose ingredient we'll stir into everything from the ink on the Marshall Plan to canisters of Agent Orange. Our greatest goodness and our worst impulses come out of this missionary zeal, contributing to our overbearing (yet not entirely unwarranted) sense of our country as an inherently helpful force in the world. And, as with the apostle Paul, the notion that strangers want our help is sometimes a delusion.

In The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell covered the settlement of white Christians on America's native shore. In Unfamiliar Fishes she skips forward about 200 years and shows the descendants of that same group arriving on the distant shores of Hawaii. Tourists! Jeez.

Vowell's newest book is a brief study of the Americanization of Hawaii and the events that led to its annexation in 1898 -- the same year America also acquired Cuba, the Phillipines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, turning it into a super power overnight, in what she refers to as "an orgy of imperialism."

Hawaii's annexation is really one of those forgotten periods of U.S. history, delegated to maybe a half-page in one of those ungodly 15lb high school textbooks. Hey, let's talk about whether Jefferson had relations with Sally Hemmings for 10 pages (scandal!), but don't worry about that one time we unlawfully overthrew a monarchy that the governed people actually WANTED to keep. Most Americans know the history of Hawaii as something something hula dancing and Elvis, something something the Brady Bunch.

And I was no exception. I came to this book not really knowing diddly about Hawaii's history, beyond what was probably covered in a 3 minute lecture by our high school history teacher/football coach. So it was really tailor-made for me, since it was brief, humorous, and written by a smartass. Most reviews of the book I've read have said the smart-alecky comments and personal narratives are too distracting. I actually thought it needed a little more. By the end of the book Vowell started to get a little too "this happened, then this, then that." The decreasing amount of her always fun personal stories was probably due to how well-researched the material was. The majority of her time seemed to have been spent digging through the archives.

But she's still hilarious. Like so:

Yale was founded by finicky Protestants who worried that the Puritans at Harvard weren't puritanical enough. But the Revolutionary War brought the Age or Reason to New Haven, and Dwight inherited a student body full of deist beatniks on the Enlightenment highway to hell, which is to say, France. This generation did not just read Voltaire; they literally addressed each other as "Voltaire" the way kids today call one another dude. Like, "Voltaire, I'm so high right now."

Expecting capitalists to refrain from gobbling up the earth is like blaming Pac-Man for gulping down pac-dots -- to them, that's what land is for.

I can no longer read any faith's Napoleonic saber rattling without picturing smoking rubble on cable news. I guess if I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I'd go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn't want it.

While covering the actual annexation of the islands by the U.S., Vowell cites a speech that Henry Cabot Lodge made before the Senate in 1900, in response to the cry that the take-over of Hawaii (and the Phillipines) was in opposition to the ideals behind America's foundation. I found a fuller version of the speech online, and it's quite disturbing. Or as Vowell put it, "evil genius":

It has been stated over and over again that we have done great wrong in taking these islands without the consent of the governed, from which, according to American principles, all just government derives its powers. The consent of the governed! It is a fair phrase and runs trippingly upon the tongue, but I have observed a great lack of definite meaning in those who use it most ... What do we mean by the "consent of the governed?" We quote it from the Declaration of Independence. What did Jefferson mean by the phrase? ... The Declaration of Independence was the announcement of the existence of a new revolutionary government upon American soil. Upon whose consent did it rest? Was it upon that of all the people of the colonies duly expressed. Most assuredly not. In the first place we must throw out all negroes and persons of African descent, who formed about one quarter of the population, and who were not consulted at all as to the proposed change of government .... Were women included in the word "governed?" They certainly were not permitted by voice or vote to express an opinion on this momentous question. They must, therefore, be excluded.... Did the revolutionary government rest on the consent of all the white males in the colonies? Most assuredly not. There was the usual age limitation ... Everywhere the suffrage was limited, generally by property qualifications, sometimes by other restrictions...

He goes on to mention the cessions of land in the Louisiana Purchase and treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, wherein a new government was forced upon the unsuspecting inhabitants. And it all makes an eerie sense. Of course he's just making these points to promote America's imperialist ventures and soothe the consciences of congressmen (although saying "this isn't NEARLY as bad as the shit we used to do!" is hardly comforting), but it nags at a larger question: can any government really be considered to be run with the consent of its citizens?

I remember being freaked out as kid when I discovered you couldn't choose whether or not you wanted to take part in being a citizen of a country. I suppose I had some wildly romantic idea of just running free in the forest, living in a tree house, and not paying taxes -- but not driving or anything either so it was okay. Now I realize just how tea party-ish that sounds. But it still freaks me out that you're born into a government. There's no consent. It's not like religion, where you can go through that freshman-year-in-college phase, renouncing every belief from the first 18 years of your life (it's just like Santa Claus, man...). Unless you live in a theocracy, in which you're just shit outta luck.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as Vowell's past work, but I still recommend it to anyone interested in learning those hush-hush back alleys of American history (but what isn't hush-hush in our history, really? Yikes).

Now please enjoy the author's deadpan voice accompanied by unappetizing food art depicting Hawaii's history:

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