Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes

Reading Notes /

Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes
[God, I love this book, I love this woman! gotta read lots more.]

American Exceptionalism: the idea that Americans are the exception to the rule that men are beasts.
Note that this is a human theory, not a scientific theory: it will be agreed with by the audience that agrees that the magician is displaying an ordinary deck of playing cards, by the audience that thinks the shill actually examined the trick box, while the magician was guiding the examination.
Gotta do more on this, in a separate post.

Steven Lukes called soft power, the process by which one people gets another group of people “to want what you want.”

multiethnic miscellany in which every race is a minority.

Kipling later wrote, “I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.”

HAWAIIANS HAVE A word for all the pasty-faced explorers, Bible thumpers, whalers, tycoons, con men, soldiers, and vacationers who have washed ashore since Captain Cook named their homeland the Sandwich Islands in 1778: haole. …
Like many nouns in the Hawaiian language, haole evokes multiple meanings, including foreigner, tourist, Caucasian, or, in the movie in which I first learned it, blond nitwit who learned to surf in a suburb of Phoenix.

Rick personifies two centuries of trespassing. He is oblivious to his status among the locals as a stand-in for every freckled missionary’s son who helped turn land into real estate.

Denis Diderot, mission statement for the encyclopedia, tacked up next to my desk as a talisman: “All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”

Of the five countries the United States invaded and/or acquired in 1898, Hawaii is the only one that became a state. That said, I have come to understand that even though Hawaii has been a state since 1959 and an American territory since 1898, a small but defiant network of native activists question the legality of both developments and do not consider themselves to be Americans at all. Which is pretty easy to pick up on when they’re marching past you down the main drag of Honolulu on the fiftieth anniversary of statehood, carrying picket signs that say “We Are Not Americans.”

It is worth pointing out that disregard for the feelings of others who disagree is the one thing shared by New England theologians and French philosophers (along with New Bedford whalers, Hawaii-born queen-usurpers, President McKinley, and New York writers finding inspiration in quotations about how it’s fine to be a jackass as long as you’re trying to tell the truth). In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of “I don’t give a damn what you think.”

Here in Waikiki, the U.S. Army Museum is hunkered down in the midst of all the concrete high-rise hotels and condominiums built in the post-1959 statehood architectural style I like to think of as A Very Brady Brutalism. The park where my plate lunch and I are sitting appears in an old black-and-white photograph on display there. The picture was taken in the summer of 1898, a few days after the sons of missionaries who had dethroned the Hawaiian queen handed over Hawaii to the United States. The park is pitched with the tents of the First New York Voluntary Infantry. The Spanish-American War had the soldiers stopping off in this suddenly American city en route to the Philippines to persuade the Filipino people at gunpoint that self-government really isn’t for everyone. They named their encampment after the president who dispatched them here: Camp McKinley.

… persuade the people at gunpoint that self-government really isn’t for everyone.

[I love this woman.]

Obookiah was the star pupil from the start. By the time he arrived at the school, he had already spent eight years among the seminarians and their families. He had enough English and theology under his belt to start sermonizing to random farmers he bumped into in the woods. In his diary he recounts a walk through the Connecticut countryside when he “found an old grey-headed man, next to the road, hoeing corn . . . and I thought it was my duty to converse with him.” To Obookiah, conversing meant informing the man point-blank, “No doubt your days will soon be over.” I wonder if the apostle Paul took this approach with the retirees of Corinth. Henry hounded the elderly farmer around his cornfield, haranguing him that anyone that decrepit should repent his sins at once. The codger must not have wanted to waste his dwindling moments on earth being hassled by some prim Polynesian because he ignored Obookiah and “kept hoeing his corn.” It’s indicative of just how deeply Henry had drunk the Jesus juice that his quintessentially Christian response to this evangelical flop was to offer “thanks to the Almighty God for the opportunity” to pester a geezer with a hoe.

I can’t deny the guts of Lucy Thurston and the other brides. Nor do I question their good intentions. Sure, all missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That’s what a mission is—a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong. But it’s worth remembering that these women, and the men they married so recklessly, believed they were risking their own lives to spare strangers on the other side of the world from an eternity in hell.

I spent enough time in churches when I was young to know that this has been standard Christian rhetoric for two thousand years. So routine that a reader who goes to Sunday school might just breeze past all the “subduing” and the “belongs” and the “possession” without even noticing it, not questioning the notion that Jesus holds title to the planet. But 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.

Church and state were separate but cozy.

Being a stickler for the Ten Commandments, Bingham couldn’t help but point out why a law against graven images became necessary in the first place, when the Israelites “were ever ready, we remembered, to relapse into idolatry.” Moses couldn’t even take a walk in the woods without his friends and family whipping up a golden calf to worship behind his back, and this was after Jehovah had just parted the Red Sea to save their lives. If an Old Testament tribe that had witnessed the Bible’s most over-the-top miracle was still praying to sculptures, Bingham grumbled, “How much more did we fear these uninstructed heathen would do so, unless they could be speedily impressed with the claims of Christianity.” Otherwise, Hawaii would be “scourged with atheism or anarchy.”
On the long, doltish list of Hiram Bingham’s fears, anarchy seems to me the most unfounded.

I envy a people who celebrate their leaders’ private parts—that they love those leaders so much they want them making newer, younger versions to tell the next generation what to do. In the democratic republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn’t going to see his name on a ballot again.

2012 09 20 I just took a glance at another Vowell book, The Wordy Shipmates.

The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief.

Wow, I can’t wait.

Reading Notes

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in reading notes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s