Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mark Twain: Anti-Imperialist

It's almost an axiom of American culture that if heaps of praise and adulation come your way, then the American puritanical streak has largely lifted you of your private parts and your politics. Off the top of my head Thomas Jefferson comes to mind on the former and someone like Helen Keller, she was an avowed socialist, comes to mind on the latter. After reading William Grimes review of Ron Power's "Mark Twain: A Life," the same can be said to be true of Twain and his politics.

Nowhere within the review does Grimes make note of Twain's anti-imperialism even with the obvious example of Iraq to provide context. Maybe I'm being a bit unfair to Mr. Grimes, maybe Mr. Powers downplays Twain's radical politics. I haven't read the book, but I highly doubt this. Therefore I'd like to highlight Twain's excellent essay, "To the Person Sitting in the Darkness," which sets out his stance on the folly of empire.

Jump to the essay and you'll find gems like this:
The Blessings-of-Civilization Trust, wisely and cautiously administered, is a Daisy. There is more money in it, more territory, more sovereignty, and other kinds of emolument, than there is in any other game that is played. But Christendom has been playing it badly of late years, and must certainly suffer by it, in my opinion. She has been so eager to get every stake that appeared on the green cloth, that the People who Sit in Darkness have noticed it -- they have noticed it, and have begun to show alarm. They have become suspicious of the Blessings of Civilization. More -- they have begun to examine them. This is not well. The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light. In the right kind of a light, and at a proper distance, with the goods a little out of focus, they furnish this desirable exhibit to the Gentlemen who Sit in Darkness:

-- and so on.

There. Is it good? Sir, it is pie. It will bring into camp any idiot that sits in darkness anywhere. But not if we adulterate it. It is proper to be emphatic upon that point. This brand is strictly for Export -- apparently. Apparently. Privately and confidentially, it is nothing of the kind. Privately and confidentially, it is merely an outside cover, gay and pretty and attractive, displaying the special patterns of our Civilization which we reserve for Home Consumption, while inside the bale is the Actual Thing that the Customer Sitting in Darkness buys with his blood and tears and land and liberty. That Actual Thing is, indeed, Civilization, but it is only for Export.
Whether this is actually occurring in Iraq today (I think in large part it is) is something to be debated upon and great American authors like Twain can be used as a path to this discussion.

But that won't happen, because Twain will only be remembered for his satirical writings as well as his outstanding novels that put America on the map literarily. So while Twain and Keller could be marshalled at certain times to provide an in to discuss issues such as imperialism or economic justice, they're given their sanitized accolades and pushed through the historical door before they start a commotion by saying something quarrelsome.

I'll leave you with one more taste of Twain's great essay, which is eerily prophetic considering where we are in Iraq today.
[We] have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us...we have invited clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit's work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America's honor and blackened her face before the world. . .
Now, as then, perceptions matter, and this is how we are perceived the world over today. Whether the reality conforms to this perception 1:1 I don't know, but America has a lot of work to do if Iraq isn't going to be an ill-fated, tragic imperialist adventure or worse: a failed state that delivers the people of Iraq into the hands of a clique much, much worse than Saddam Hussein or us.