Monthly Archives: August 2012

Mark Twain, Free at Last

Mark Twain is often credited as being the first truly great author of international reputation born and raised on American soil. He was not only a writer and journalist; he was also a personality, and late in life, an institution (I suppose if people can be corporations, they can also be institutions). His sly, homespun, and sardonic observations on everything from Congress to cuckoo clocks have passed into our national collective conscience. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) often jockeys with Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) for the status of “The Great American Novel.” Like Benjamin Franklin, he was a noble savage, an American original.

But as so often the case with authors, most of whom also happen to be human beings, there is so much more than meets the eye about Twain. He lived to the (then) ripe old age of 75, saw the continued expansion of the American frontier, the War between the States, the end of slavery and rise of Jim Crow, the massive waves of immigration, the telephone, phonograph, wireless, and moving pictures— and like America, he changed and grew.

Something we are not usually taught in high school when reading Huck Finn is that in the last decade of his life, Twain became an anti-imperialist. And not just an anti-imperialist, but a fervent, outspoken one—so much so, that the highly influential American Anti-Imperialist League appointed him its vice-president.  Although up until the end of the nineteenth century, he had cheered American expansion and interventions abroad, by 1900 he had had his eyes opened. Here he writes to the New York Herald regarding U.S. troops in the Philippines:

“I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific …Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? … I said to myself, Here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves. But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [which ended the Spanish-American War], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”—New York Herald, Oct. 15, 1900

Twain also had a great deal to say about patriotism, and said it.

“[Patriotism] …is a word which always commemorates a robbery. There isn’t a foot of land in the world which doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successive ‘owners’ who each in turn, as ‘patriots’ with proud swelling hearts defended it against the next gang of ‘robbers’ who came to steal it and did — and became swelling-hearted patriots in their turn.”—Notebook

“…Remember this, take this to heart, live by it, die for it if necessary: that our patriotism is medieval, outworn, obsolete; that the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”  –“The Czar’s Soliloquy,” North American Review, March, 1905

“A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot — except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart. The spirit of Christianity proclaims the brotherhood of the race and the meaning of that strong word has not been left to guesswork, but made tremendously definite — the Christian must forgive his brother man all crimes he can imagine and commit, and all insults he can conceive and utter- forgive these injuries how many times? — seventy times seven — another way of saying there shall be no limit to this forgiveness. That is the spirit and the law of Christianity. Well — Patriotism has its laws. And it also is a perfectly definite one, there are not vaguenesses about it. It commands that the brother over the border shall be sharply watched and brought to book every time he does us a hurt or offends us with an insult. Word it as softly as you please, the spirit of patriotism is the spirit of the dog and wolf. The moment there is a misunderstanding about a boundary line or a hamper of fish or some other squalid matter, see patriotism rise, and hear him split the universe with is war-whoop. The spirit of patriotism being in its nature jealous and selfish, is just in man’s line, it comes natural to him — he can live up to all its requirements to the letter; but the spirit of Christianity is not in its entirety possible to him.

“The prayers concealed in what I have been saying is, not that patriotism should cease and not that the talk about universal brotherhood should cease, but that the incongruous firm be dissolved and each limb of it be required to transact business by itself, for the future.” –Notebook 

One short story, or prose poem, left unpublished at the author’s death and considered too sacrilegious by both his publisher and family, did not find its way onto the printed page until 13 years later, after the desolation of the First World War. “The War Prayer” depicts a Christian congregation on the eve of war praying for protection and victory for their troops. An angelic stranger arrives announcing that their prayer has been heard in heaven, but that they have left out what logically follows: that in petitioning God for victory, are they not also praying for the destruction and untold suffering of their enemies?

The older Twain grew, the more radical his opinions became. He spoke out for women’s suffrage and labor unions, and against the American art of lynching, the treatment of native peoples, as well as the hypocrisy of what passed for Christianity. His last decade was littered with unpublished works that he knew the country was not ready for. “None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth,” he confided in a friend. His entertaining though meandering autobiography, dictated in his final years, he did not intend to be published until a century after his death. The first volume has now been made available, and in the introduction, Twain states the reason for his lengthy absence:  since he is now “speaking from the grave,” he can finally speak his mind. Free at last! As he once wrote,

“Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted, becaue I can’t print the result. I have just finished an article of this kind, and it satisfies me entirely. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for me and the family. I will leave it behind, and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.”

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Dickens on America

In January 1842, a 29-year-old literary sensation named Charles Dickens stepped for the first time upon the shores of the New World. He came in his capacity as a social critic to measure the progress, or lack thereof, of the new nation. He also had a bone to pick with the United States, since the lack of copyright protections allowed his novels to be shamelessly pirated here.

During his stay the young author was dined and feted by the elite in every city—writers, socialites, academics, and politicians—from Boston to St. Louis. As popular in America as in Britain, Dickens was, at the time, the most famous personage to visit the U.S. since the Marquis de Lafayette’s celebrated grand tour in the 1820s. So popular were his novels, the previous year Americans flocked to the docks to greet the next printed installment of The Old Curiosity Shop with the anxious cry, “Is Little Nell dead?”

Upon his return to England, Dickens turned his observations into a sort of travelogue (American Notes: for General Circulation) detailing his six-month visit. Americans everywhere were anxious to hear his approval of their country, for chauvinism, he found, runs high here. Yet he was committed, as an author and journalist, to speaking the truth as he saw it, especially when it came to the institution of slavery, which he saw as “that most hideous blot and foul disgrace.” Dickens devotes an entire chapter to this subject, refuting the common sophistries that justified the barbaric practice, listing many examples from local newspapers of excruciating punishments exacted against slaves, and shrewdly drawing a connecting line between such violence and the rampant murder and mayhem practiced by white man against white man:

“When knives are drawn by English[speaking]men in conflict let it be said and known: ‘We owe this change to Republican Slavery. These are the weapons of Freedom. With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other.’”

The author was also astonished by the savage brutality of both the American press and politics, with which this people endlessly amused themselves. Politics, he noted, were a frequent topic of conversation:

“Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins, which is an unspeakable comfort to all strong politicians and true lovers of their country: that is to say, to ninety-nine men and boys out of every ninety-nine and a quarter.”

And of the press:

“But while that Press has its evil eye in every house, and its black hand in every appointment in the state, from a president to a postman; while, with ribald slander for its only stock in trade, it is the standard literature of an enormous class, who must find their reading in a newspaper, or they will not read at all; so long must its odium be upon the country’s head, and so long must the evil it works, be plainly visible in the Republic.”

Of Congress in session:

“I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon’s teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.”

There are also several humorous passages of lurid detail regarding the popular American pastime of chewing and spitting tobacco, a habit the young Dickens found disgusting in the extreme. Even the halls of Congress and the President’s House, he notes, were littered with “opened oysters” of spittle:

“Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account.”

Not surprisingly, Dickens’ Notes were not well received here. The Press, especially, were outraged, as though they had nurtured a viper. There was much indeed worthy of praise in America, he admits, in particular its natural beauty and the warm hospitality and affection of its people. Yet, along with these, there was also too much folly to avoid his satirist’s knife. And if that slubbering of the national escutcheon had not alienated his American audience enough, the author went on in his next novel (Martin Chuzzlewit) to add an episode in America, delineating these follies in the most comic fashion, especially the American worship of money.

In Notes he describes the American love of “smart dealing,”

“…Which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, ‘Do as you would be done by,’ but are considered with reference to their smartness.”

In Chuzzlewit, however, he gives this popular idol flesh, painting it in all its hideousness:

“Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures were gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Nature and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!”

In short, with his usual perspicacity in matters human, Dickens the social satirist had us pegged from the start, sketching the character of what would later be called “the Ugly American”: a person of boastful and mercenary nature, party spirit, and overweening national vanity.

In this election tide, how many of these nascent follies, pointed out by an Englishman 170 years ago, do we see in full bloom? The racism and violence that fills our streets and airwaves. Our fascination with a media shamelessly spewing propaganda that appeals to our basest instincts. Our exaltation of the corporate sector and our veneration of “smart” business men– smart enough at least to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, but who would sell out their own countrymen for a dollar. A love of wealth that numbs us to the unheard of cruelties committed in our name around the globe and comforts us with the mantra, “I’ve got mine.” A nationalism that blinds us to the truth about ourselves and allows us to be sold into the hands of anyone who waves the flag.

Dickens was honest because he believed America could do better. Yet he was not altogether optimistic for our progress, especially given the absolute and demoralizing power of our Press. In a letter written to a friend back in England during the American tour, Dickens remarks, perhaps prophetically, “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this Country, in the failure of its example to the earth.”

These days we watch painfully as this statement comes true before our eyes: as America sets an example to the world in suppressing free speech and dissent, ignoring international law and basic human rights, pillaging the earth’s resources, and imposing its economic and military power on the weak and helpless wherever they have the misfortune to exist.

For the entire text of American Notes.

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The Mask Is Slipping

In April of this year, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng fled to the American Embassy in Beijing, touching off a diplomatic firestorm. After almost a month of negotiations between the Chinese and American governments, Chen was granted a visa and allowed to leave China to study in the US—a graceful end to what had become a political quagmire for both countries.

During Chen’s period of refuge at the embassy, the Chinese government remonstrated with the American ambassador, at times harshly criticizing his actions as politically motivated to embarrass China. However, as far as we know, at no time did the Chinese ever threaten to violate international law and the embassy’s sovereignty by forcibly entering to seize Chen. The US is a powerful nation and such a step would have had dangerous repercussions.

Chen never sought asylum in the US; his desire from the beginning was to remain in China as a free human being. If he had been granted asylum, his case would have graduated to a higher diplomatic level. He would have instantly become a protected individual under international law.

Now witness the current firestorm surrounding the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up awaiting the decision of the government of Ecuador to grant him asylum. Instead of respecting the embassy’s sovereignty, the British government has begun a process of bullying, threatening to storm the embassy and take Assange by force. Why would the UK make such bold threats, completely illegal under international law? Why would they risk setting an outrageous precedent that would, in effect, endanger every embassy on the face of the earth, including their own? It’s most likely pressure from the US, the biggest bully on the world block, which has shown in recent years an utter disregard for international law when it comes to achieving its ends.

Let it be understood that Assange has not yet been charged with any crime. He is supposedly being extradited to Sweden to “answer questions” regarding charges of sexual misconduct, and possibly rape. The Ecuadorian ambassador has offered to allow Swedish officials to enter the embassy to question Assange, in the hope of clearing up the charges and thus the whole diplomatic quagmire. Sweden has refused. One suspects they want Assange on their own sovereign soil, again under American pressure, so that they can then allow him to be extradited to the US.  Washington wants him to stand trial here under the antiquated and draconian Espionage Act of 1917.

Assange is justified in his fear of extradition to the US, where it is very possible he would be treated harshly and inhumanely (like Pvt. Bradley Manning), or even tortured, and tried before a military tribunal on charges of espionage, perhaps executed. In their decision to grant asylum, the government of Ecuador carefully deliberated and found such threats to be real and Assange’s petition justified.

Ironically, Assange has not committed any act of real espionage, but like many other newspapers worldwide, has simply printed documents provided him. Even the Pentagon admitted the WikiLeak documents, while certainly embarrassing, posed no real threat to American security. Yet, as with its relentless hounding of whistleblowers in this country, a policy that is designed to have a chilling effect on truth-telling here at home, the Obama administration now stretches its long arm to silence truth-telling across the sea. Quite a departure for a former presidential candidate who pledged to make government more open and “transparent.” Well, I guess transparent is the word.

What tragic irony that this country, which has for so long claimed to stand for freedom, justice, and free speech, should be the object of such fear. What have we become? Don’t look now, America. Your mask is slipping–again.

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Fil-A Hate or Phileo Love?

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’” –Ezekiel 16:49,50

In the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel, the LORD takes his people to task for their idolatrous polytheism. He had blessed them in the Promised Land, and they had used their prosperity to build pagan shrines, idols of silver and gold, and to engage in degrading acts of ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice. So detestable were their actions, he says, they made even Sodom appear righteous by comparison—a potent condemnation, since the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had long symbolized the nadir of moral corruption.

The LORD goes on to list the sins of Sodom, but he does not mention the ones we would expect, at least not specifically. Instead, he tells a similar story of prosperity, leading to pride and moral declension. They were “…arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Their haughtiness led them to do “detestable things before me.” The “detestable things” may include acts of idolatry as well as the concomitant sexual immorality or perversion (the Hebrew word is often applied to both).

Yet note that, as in the case of Jerusalem, God had blessed Sodom, a large and rich city, and instead of humbling themselves before the Giver of all good gifts, they became proud, as though their prosperity came from their own hands. They became intoxicated with wealth, and reckless, blind, and deaf toward the needs of the less fortunate.

Why is this significant? The passage shows us that the sins we traditionally associate with Sodom, while serious enough, were merely the tip of the iceberg.

In truth, we know very little about Sodom apart from the biblical accounts. Archaeology and other historical texts have produced little of substance. Other Jewish writings imply that the sin described in Genesis 19 was not only the threat of homosexual rape, but more generally, a lack of hospitality to strangers, a very serious transgression in ancient cultures and evidence of godless depravity.  And still others state that the sins of Sodom were economic as well as sexual.

Yet Ezekiel makes it clear that the city’s overweening arrogance and reckless indifference toward the poor contributed greatly to her destruction.

I bring this up since the media, in its unceasing efforts to promote hostilities, has us now engaged in anathematizing one another over some comment made by the president of a well-known fast food chain. Does this man have the right to express his views? Of course. Have the mayors of Boston and Chicago overstepped their authority in trying to punish free speech? I think so. Did Rev. Huckabee overstep common sense by taking what is already a divisive issue to a new level of demagoguery? Yup.

Yet I find it deeply disturbing that so many thousands of my fellow well-fed Christians would go out of their way to lend their support to Chick-fil-A’s wealthy but beleaguered president, while perhaps few would spend an equal amount of breath to speak on behalf of the poor in this country.

If we want to be consistent, biblically consistent, we cannot cherry-pick sins. If we oppose gay marriage, then we must also oppose the oppression of the poor and our overreaching arrogance as a nation. But wait, that would cost us something, wouldn’t it? That would force us to recognize our own complicity in an unjust system, not to mention seriously denting our national ego. It might also cause us to lose our appetite. No, it is much easier to point the condemning finger at other people groups, ironically, those who are most in need of Christ’s love and healing.

Perhaps it is fitting, and typically American, that so many waited in line to fill their stomachs as a sign of solidarity.

What is so bewitching about these so-called “culture wars”? They enable a person to express hatred and intolerance while giving a vaguely satisfying and self-righteous sense of having done one’s religious duty, sort of like casting the first stone. If we really wanted to bring Christ’s hope and healing to homosexuals, we could not have picked a more offensive approach. But alas, I fear that bringing hope and healing has probably never occurred to us. No, much easier to reject, ostracize, eliminate, condemn. Sadly our message is not, “Come, Christ loves you and can heal you.” It’s “Don’t touch me. You’re unclean. I’m too holy for you.”

If Christian values are under attack in this nation, if we feel marginalized and irrelevant, we have only ourselves to blame. Of course, these culture wars provide the ruling class with just another diversionary tactic to distract us from those who are really responsible for destroying this nation. And we fall for it every time, like lambs led to slaughter.

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