Unfamiliar Fishes: The latest chapter in Sarah Vowell's examination of U.S. history

Unfamiliar_Fishes_cover.jpg First aired on Day 6 (03/26/11)

While most would agree that imperialism is nothing to laugh about, social commentator Sarah Vowell isn't afraid to leaven her examination of American history — even its unsavoury aspects — with sardonic humour.

In Unfamiliar Fishes, her fifth book on American history and culture, the bestselling author and former contributing editor at This American Life looks at the annexation of Hawaii, in 1898, as a defining event in her country's past.

"In the summer of 1898 the United States became a world power and in an orgy of imperialism we invaded Cuba, the Philippines, took over Guam, Puerto Rico and annexed Hawaii in our sudden need and want to become a world power and empire," explained Vowell in a recent interview with Brent Bambury on Day 6.

America's place in the world has been at the forefront of Vowell's mind for the simple reason that the country seems to be in an endless cycle of war. She sees the history of Hawaii as yet more evidence of America's imperialist nature.

Vowell recalls visiting the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, and hearing her tour guide recount the story of when the Hawaiian flag was lowered and the American flag was raised. "It happened more than a hundred years ago, but she was upset about it, as many Hawaiians are," Vowell said. "And of course, because we all have Saddam on the brain, I couldn't help but think about the regime change...there seemed to be a pattern of this American quest for regime change."

Though Vowell is critical of U.S. actions, past and present, she's a firm believer in the fundamental values enshrined in the American constitution.

"In some ways I think that even my questioning and my occasional embarrassment over the history or current events of this country, all of my outrage and all of my sadness, comes from the fact that I still believe in government based on consent of the governed. I still believe in the pursuit of happiness and I believe that all men are created equal. That's really my core belief."

To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above.

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