the start of 2000 less than two months away, I’ve been thinking about a beloved
American writer who stuck his neck out the last time people went through a
change of centuries.
revere Mark Twain as a superb storyteller who generates waves of laughter with
powerful undertows of biting satire. One generation after another has grown up
with the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Some of Twain’s essays
were less palatable; his most scathing words about organized religion seemed so
blasphemous that they remained unpublished for half a century after he died in
renowned author’s fiery political statements are a very different matter. They
reached many people in his lifetime — but not in ours.
few Americans are aware of Twain’s outspoken views on social justice and foreign
policy. As his fame grew, so did his willingness to challenge the high and
Clemens adopted the pseudonym "Mark Twain" in 1863, when he launched
his writing career as a newspaper reporter in the wild Nevada territory. During
the next five decades, many of his most incendiary paragraphs first appeared in
was painfully aware of people’s inclinations to go along with prevailing evils.
When slavery was lawful, he recalled, abolitionists were "despised and
ostracized, and insulted" — by "patriots."
far as Twain was concerned, "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a
chain or freed a human soul." With chiseled precision, he wielded language
as a hard-edged tool. "The difference between the right word and the almost
right word," he once commented, "is the difference between lightning
and the lightning bug."
are a few volts of Twain’s lightning that you probably never saw before:
are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other
overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of
the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that
the soft-handed and idle eat."
is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because
laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and
constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal
am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any
the turn of the century, as the Philippines came under the wing of the U.S.
government, Mark Twain suggested a new flag for the Philippine province –
"just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars
replaced by the skull and cross-bones."
the United States followed up on its victory in the Spanish-American War by
slaughtering thousands of Filipino people, Twain spoke at anti-war rallies. He
also flooded newspapers with letters and wrote brilliant, unrelenting articles.
Dec. 30, 1900, the New York Herald published Mark Twain’s commentary — "A
Greeting from the 19th Century to the 20th Century" — denouncing the
blood-drenched colonial forays of England, France, Germany, Russia and the
United States. "I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning
bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria,
South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket
full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a
towel, but hide the looking-glass."
followed up in early 1901 with an eloquent essay titled "To the Person
Sitting in Darkness." Each of the world’s strongest nations, he wrote, was
proceeding "with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its
loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other." Many readers and some
newspapers praised Twain’s polemic. But his essay angered others, including the
American Missionary Board and The New York Times.
in his later years," scholar Tom Quirk has noted, "the fierceness of
Twain’s anti-imperialist convictions disturbed and dismayed those who regarded
him as the archetypal American citizen who had somehow turned upon Americanism
can imagine what Mark Twain would have to say these days. But policymakers in
Washington can rest easy. Twain’s most inflammatory writings are smoldering in
his grave — while few opportunities exist for the general public to hear
similar views expounded today.
time has verified Mark Twain’s caustic remark: "None but the dead are
permitted to speak truth."
then, evidently, their voices tend to be muffled.