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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Our greatest American, and our worst ones

May 10, 2024

Aside from George Washington and Abe Lincoln, it’s difficult to argue that anyone made the peoples of the world admire and love the United States more than Mark Twain did.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

This will be a rather long wind-up to a wonderful sentence with which Sam Clemens’ wife Livy admonished him as he scribbled a response to a preacher who had invited Mark Twain to speak at a church in Upstate New York in 1881.

The long wind-up is necessary because without the context of the remark it would be easy to use the words to twist Mark Twain into something he was not — into the opposite of what he was.

It’s also necessary because of today’s frightening, and age-old, trend, of removing context — history — from events public and private.

Without the context — the history — of what brought Marcus Brutus to stab Julius Caesar to death in the Forum, and plunge the Empire into 13 years of civil war, we might write off Brutus as just a murderer. But there was more to it than that.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Or rather, behind myself.

Here ends the wind-up. Now comes the pitch.

Mark Twain had considerable sympathy for the colored race, having grown up among them, learned their dialects, and of their persecutions and sufferings, and having known and befriended so many who had grown up in slavery.

Now, by 1881, Mark Twain had gained considerable celebrity around the world for his stories and books, including his “Jumping Frog” story of 1865, “Innocents Abroad” (1869), “Roughing It” (1872), “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), and so on.

He had gained fame, and his living, as a platform speaker, across the United States. Requests for his presence, and lectures, were pouring in upon him, as they would for the rest of his life.

So when he received a poorly written letter asking him to speak to a congregation near his home in Elmira, New York, “He was annoyed and about to send a brief refusal, [according to a six-volume edition of Twain’s letters] when Mrs. Clemens, who was present, said: ‘I think I know that church, and if so this preacher is a colored man; he does not know how to write a polished letter — how should he?’”

Volume III continues: “Her husband’s manner changed so suddenly that she added: ‘I will give you a motto, and it will be useful to you if you will adopt it: Consider every man colored until he is proved white.’”

Now, without knowing the history behind it, that motto could be used to propose that Mark Twain didn’t like or trust black people — only white men — when in fact Livy meant the opposite of that.

Mark Twain had an innate sympathy for unlettered Black folks, but not for the white men who had kept them that way.

Do you get it? Mark Twain knew his history.

We cannot — should not — judge people, or classes of people, or nations, or religions, or political parties, unless we know something of their histories: how they came to be what we think we think they are when we confront them today.

That’s one reason why today’s right-wing uproar against public education, public libraries, and the clamor for banning books is not just insane and ignorant, it’s dangerous.

It’s dangerous because its purpose is to try to erase history — to keep people ignorant.

Florida and its Gauleiter Ron DeSantis provide the most execrable example of this, outside of Russia or China, by attempting to prohibit teaching anything that might make a student feel “discomfort.”* The “discomfort” bill was found unconstitutional almost immediately after it was passed. As president, Donald Trump tried to reinstitute it by executive order, which President Joe Biden rescinded, by executive order.

Yet similar efforts continue, in Florida, Texas and elsewhere.

DeSantis (in)famously insisted that slavery taught slaves many “skillls” they could use for their “personal benefit.”

Man, that makes me feel “discomfort” as a white man, that a white man would say that.

Look: History is history. Stuff happened. I don’t care what race, religion or nationality you are, your race, religion and nationality have killed, raped and tortured others — and your own people — and have suffered rape, torture and murder as well. To deny that is to deny that the world exists.

What’s the use of trying to muzzle history, to keep it out of schools? The answer is obvious: It’s to keep people ignorant, and easier to control.

John Lahr sums this up in a review of the work of playwright August Wilson, in the May 9 issue of the London Review of Books: “The white immigrants who arrived on [our] shores left their past for a better future; Africans had their past taken away.” DeSantis and his fellow cultural murderers want to take history away from everyone.

Better than wasting millions of dollars promoting ignorance, I suggest DeSantis save his state a lot of money by simply distributing to every state resident, parent and child alike, a set of blinders for a jackass.

(* Florida SB 148 (2022) stated: “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”)

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