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What would Mark Twain say?

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Message Terry Ballard
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For the past decade or so it has been my privilege to be a member of an online discussion devoted to Mark Twain. Most of the time it is a seamless mix of distinguished Twain scholars (including many of the people you saw in the Ken Burns special) and people who simply love Twain's work. Twice in the past 3 years this mix has broken down badly over the issue of the War in Iraq. There is a division here - not of Republican vs. Democrat, but of how these people look at Twain. Group A believes that he was a great author who is worth studying for his art and for his sharp comments on 19th century America. A second group looks at what is going on in the world and keeps hearing the voice of Twain, who authored some of the most incendiary anti-war texts in human history. For those of us on the B team, Twain is talking to us every day and he's fighting mad.

What would Twain think about a war we started against a toothless dictatorship on trumped up charges that he was a threat to the good people of America? Here's a clue from his posthumously published novel "The Mysterious Stranger:"

"Look at you in war -- what mutton you are, and how ridiculous ...
There has never been a just one, never an honorable one -- on the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful -- as usual -- will shout for the war. The pulpit will -- warily and cautiously -- object -- at first; the great, big, dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say, earnestly and indignantly, "It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it." Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out and lose popularity. Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers -- as earlier -- but do not dare to say so. And now the whole nation -- pulpit and all -- will take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open. Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception."

Twain never liked the jingoistic style of Teddy Roosevelt. What would he think of a President who gets up to the podium and talks about a war that has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, destroyed the infrastructure of a country, killed thousands of Americans, and sent at least 8000 more service men and women home maimed for life - and delivers his message with a condescending smirk on his face.
I think most people can figure out what he'd say if he could only come back and see what has happened to his beloved America.

Twain's father died before he could have any kind of a formal education, but he was self-taught, and maintained a passion for the truth and a hatred for liars. What would Twain have thought of "Truthiness," Karl Rove's Ministry of Truth, or talking points delivered fresh every day by Fox News? Do we have to ask?

Every time Mt. St. Helens starts spewing ash I have a sneaking hunch that Twain is blowing smoke rings and trying to tell us something. Hopefully we'll listen.
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Terry Ballard was a native of Phoenix, Arizona until he made a wrong turn in 1990 - he has been living on Long Island ever since. His chief regret in life is that he does not have the option to live on some other planet.
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