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Friday, March 9, 2012

Sarah Vowell: America's Missionary-Style Foreign Policy Is Like an Invasive Tree Species

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 2:00 PM

Sarah Vowell - TAMMY LO

Author (and former SF Weekly columnist) Sarah Vowell really has a lot to say about the role religion has played in American life. Her previous book, The Wordy Shipmates, is about New England Puritans, while in her most recent, Unfamiliar Fishes, now out in paperback, she traces the history of Hawaii from the missionaries coming to the events of annexation to the U.S.

Vowell, who appears at Herbst Theatre on Monday (March 12), talked with us about the Bible verse she believes influences American life and foreign policy, how 1898 was the year the U.S. became an empire, and how the banyan tree symbolizes America for her, even though it's an Indian species.

Why did you start the book with the plate lunch?

Well, I don't start with the plate lunch actually; I start with the banyan tree. To me the banyan tree became a stand-in symbol for America even though it's an Indian species of tree. It became my favorite tree when I was there because it's just so strange looking, and I talk about how the way the branches droop down to the ground and then take root again and that forms sort of another tree. Hawaiians, I found, did not share my love of the banyan tree because it's called the strangler fig because it will grow and grow till it destroys everything nearby. I talk about the most famous banyan in Hawaii in the public square in Lahaina. Lahaina is an incredibly significant town in Hawaii because it was a real missionary town and a big whaling port, so it was where all these missionaries and whalers would kind of have it out. The missionaries were working to get prostitution outlawed and liquor regulated, and then the whalers would come and all they wanted was a girl and a drink.

That tree in Lahaina was planted by a missionary descendant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of missionaries arriving in Maui. So that tree came to symbolize to me what this first group of Americans from the northeast United States when they came to Hawaii and planted seeds and had offspring who went on to found sugar plantations and the Hawaiian monarchy. That's why I started with the tree. I'm sitting under a banyan tree in Honolulu having a plate lunch, which is something I would do a lot -- go pick up a plate lunch and sit under a banyan tree. So there's a lot going on in that beginning, and the banyan and plate lunch is part of that. The plate lunch is a significant group of foods because it's the heritage of the sugar plantations founded by the missionary descendants because by the time they were building the plantations there weren't enough Hawaiians to work the plantations because so much of the Hawaiian population had died off, so they had to bring in people from all over the world to work the plantations -- mostly from Japan, China, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines, so the plantations became their own little towers of Babel.

So the plate lunch is this lovely aftereffect from all of these people from different parts of the world living together and sharing food and that could get overly optimistic until you remember one reason the sugar plantations owners imported all these people who couldn't talk to one another is because they thought they would be less likely to rise up and organize against their overlords. But foodwise it's a kind of "It's a Small World After All" type of plate where you have the Polynesian or Asian protein and Japanese style rice and the macaroni salad, which no one quite knows the heritage of.

You write about 1898 and what a big year that was -- you say as important as 1776. Why is that?

It's when the United States became an empire, and it happened really fast and on purpose. It happened much to the dismay of many Americans and the people we colonized, including the Hawaiians. It happened not overnight but pretty much in a summer when we invaded Cuba and the Philippines and annexed Hawaii and Guam. To me the Hawaiian story is the most interesting and maybe the most important to understand because it's the only one of those colonies that became a state. The decades between 1898 and 1820 when the missionaries show up and Hawaii is being intentionally Americanized by these Americans so by the time 1898 rolls around there's been almost eight decades of Americans in those islands trying to turn Polynesia into New England. I think that might have something to do with why Hawaii became a state. It was the only one that wasn't a former Spanish colony and at that time it was the most Americanized of those.

You can pretty much look at a map of world and predict what's coming. Those islands are pretty much smack dab between the United States and China. Someone is going to notice that and take advantage commercially or militarily, which is what we did. It's still our headquarters in the Pacific. I was working on this in the shadow of relatively recent developments in American foreign policy. It was interesting to visit the 1890s and what the arguments people were making about becoming an empire. Is it right to colonize when we ourselves are a former colony whose very founding was based on the idea we don't want to be anyone's colony? There were a lot of namby pamby ineffectual people with whom I greatly identified who were like, "I think this would make George Washington cry." And the Hawaiians who had been educated by these New Englanders and they had been brought up with all this 1776 stuff too and they were completely perplexed by people wanting to colonize them because they thought that was completely undemocratic. So the Hawaiians thought, "Well, we'll just send the Congress petitions saying we don't want to become Americans, they'll listen to us."

In some ways, they were right because a proper treaty of annexation never happened -- it was just this little weird barely legal blip. It was a debate that went on most of a decade and basically the debate can be boiled down to "America -- should it be good or great?" and people like Theodore Roosevelt were stumping for greatness. To them greatness meant empire and empire at that time meant a navy and for a navy to work you need islands off the mother country to support the navy. So as an after effect of the Spanish-American War which was supposed to be about freeing Cuba from Spain, we ended up taking Cuba for a while -- and we still have that base in Guantanamo -- and the Philippines and Hawaii and Guam to use them as naval bases. To the people who wanted an empire, they were able to gloss over the question of whether that was right to colonize these other countries and make them our naval pit stops, but there were other people like Mark Twain or Jane Addams who were appalled by this, but obviously the Roosevelts of the world won. That's who we are now. We like to think we're known for our goodness, but really, we're known for our power.

It's not a moment most Americans know much about or want to think about, but I do think it was a crucial turning point. The way we are in the world, the way our military is stretched so thin, and all of these responsibilities we have in the world -- it all goes back to that one crazy summer.

You went to Hawaii to see the USS Arizona, one of the ships sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Were you planning to write the book then?

I was in California, and I had a few days off so I just zipped over there. It was in 2003 and I think maybe now it had something to do with being a New Yorker and wanting to go see where that attack happened. I'm not the type of person who would go to Hawaii. For that reason, I stumbled on the seeds of this book. I was there to see the Arizona memorial and I still had some free time, so I took the tour of the Iolani Palace that was the last home of the last Hawaiian monarchs. You take the tour and you find out how the queen was overthrown and Hawaii became part of the United States. Those two sites became so linked in my mind because those islands would never have been attacked if the Americans hadn't overthrown the Hawaiian monarch.

In the book you say the Bible verse Acts 16:19 ("And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed to him, saying, Come over into Macedonaia and help us.") is important for students of history. Why is that?

In the verse, Paul has a vision or a hallucination or a dream where he imagines this fella in Macedonia saying come over to Macedonia and help us, so Paul drops whatever he's doing and heads straight to Macedonia, missionary style. It becomes the sort of missionary motto. It has to me overtones outside of religion. There's this real missionary strain in American history and American life, and it goes back to the original Puritan settlers. It's this notion of, "We're here to help whether you want our help or not." It's the story of missionaries in Hawaii, and it's kind of the story of American foreign policy. It's a pretty powerful subtext. You can hear that when President Kennedy talks about helping Vietnam, and President Bush talked about helping Iraq, and it's in the Marshall Plan too [the plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II]. It's this notion of ourselves as this helpful bunch of goody-goodies, here to save the day. I think it's the source of the good that this country does in the world, but it's also the source of how we mess stuff up.

Sarah Vowell appears as part of City Arts and Lectures at 8 p.m. at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson

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