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Hilton Obenzinger <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 22 Apr 2003 09:25:21 -0700
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Here is another use of Mark Twain in the current debate, this time on the
side of critics of the war and US policy.

Hilton Obenzinger

ZNet Commentary Mark Twain Speaks to Us by Norman Solomon

With U.S. troops occupying Iraq and the Bush administration making
bellicose noises about Syria, let's consider some rarely mentioned words
from the most revered writer in American history.

Mark Twain was painfully aware of many 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

* "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 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."

What Mark Twain had to say is all too relevant to what's happening 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

"None but the dead are permitted to speak truth," Twain remarked. Even
then, evidently, their voices tend to be muffled.


Norman Solomon is co-author of the new book "Target Iraq: What the News
Media Didn't Tell You." For an excerpt and other information, go to: <> target

Hilton Obenzinger, PhD.