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The Twain Most Americans Never Meet


Norman Solomon

With

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.

We

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blasphemous that they remained unpublished for half a century after he died in

1910.

The

renowned author’s fiery political statements are a very different matter. They

reached many people in his lifetime — but not in ours.

Today,

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

mighty.

Samuel

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

newsprint.

Twain

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."

As

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."

Here

are a few volts of Twain’s lightning that you probably never saw before:

"Who

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."

"Why

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

division."

"I

am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any

other land."

At

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."

While

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.

On

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."

Twain

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.

"Particularly

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

itself."

We

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.

Perhaps

time has verified Mark Twain’s caustic remark: "None but the dead are

permitted to speak truth."

Even

then, evidently, their voices tend to be muffled.

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