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Monday, August 18, 2014


Mark Twain on events in Gaza and Ferguson

Last week I watched Ken Burns' latest documentary about the great American author Mark Twain. It was a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man, although it gave short-shrift to his most radical views, which included being Vice-President of the Anti-Imperialist League which opposed the annexation of the Philippines by the United States. The film did mention Twain's stinging denunciation of King Leopold II, the man responsible for the death of 10 million Congolese in the late 1800's.

My interest in Twain awakened by the film, I picked up my copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, one of a literal handful of "classics" amidst my library of books on Marxism, socialism, and feminism. It was a book I had enjoyed enough when I read it years ago to save it from periodic purging, an enjoyment kept alive over the years by several viewings of the movie, which features the delightful Bing Crosby as the protagonist Hank Morgan.

Morgan is a man from the 19th century transported by a blow on the head back to 6th century England and King Arthur's Court. The book has Twain's trademark humor, but is also a serious indictment of organized religion, slavery, and especially of the "1%" of the day, the kings and nobles whose only credential for "leadership" was birth. But, with events in Gaza and Ferguson foremost in my mind, it was the following passage which really caught my attention. Hank has just met with a group of "freeman," the agricultural working class of the day, ostensibly free, but in reality contributing virtually all the fruits of their labor to their "lord", the owner of the land:

"Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood - a settlement of that hoary debt in proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two "Reigns of Terror," if we would be remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the "horrors" of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by the older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."

The analogy of the French Revolution with either Gaza or Ferguson is far from perfect, of course. But in both of those, the media and Western politicians want us to focus on what they call a "Reign of Terror" (the missiles being shot at Israel in the case of Gaza, the alleged Molotov cocktails and looting in the case of Ferguson), while the real Reign of Terror is the rain of Israeli missiles and artillery on Gaza, and the rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound bombs raining down on the streets of Ferguson. And in both cases, the "horrors" of the "minor Terror" (the reaction of the oppressed) that the media and politicians dwell on are dwarfed by the "slow tortures" that have been visited on the oppressed people of Gaza and Ferguson (and so many other communities across the country) over a period of decades, if not centuries.

To close, a few more notes about Mark Twain which got left out of Burns' film. First, his comment on the French Revolution:

"When I finished Carlyle's French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin [a moderate]; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently — being influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment ... and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a Sansculotte! And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat." [The Sanculottes - whose name says that they were not the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries who wore culottes (silk knee-breeches) - were the more radical, left-wing, working class arm of the revolution].
Next, this perhaps startling quote, definitely not heard in Burns' film:
"I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute."
And one final quote, this one from Connecticut Yankee:
"All gentle cant and philosophizing to the contrary notwithstanding, no people in this world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed, must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward. If history teaches anything, it teaches that."

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