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July 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor
by John Avlon
The "us against them" era is slowly taking its toll on the American spirit as polls show decreased faith in a bitterly bickering Congress and increasingly partisan news organizations.
In the middle of war, we remain mesmerized by the influence of celebrity and big money. Juries' verdicts threaten to cheapen the concept of equal justice; corporate-corruption scandals weaken confidence in the economy; church scandals raise questions about institutions' ability to practice what they preach.
To cut through the noise of this gilded circus, it's worth revisiting the reassuringly skeptical common sense of Mark Twain.
Last month, I went to Broadway in New York City to watch Hal Holbrook's latest incarnation of the author in his one-man play "Mark Twain Tonight.”
For more than 40 years, Mr. Holbrook has been bringing Twain alive to audiences around America. When Mr. Holbrook began, he was a young man performing in small towns out of the back of a station wagon. Now, with decades of awards and accolades behind him, at age 80, Mr. Holbrook is older than the subject he portrays.
But in the search for some perspective on the excesses of our own era, Twain's words resonate more relevant than ever.
Audiences knowingly laugh at Twain's familiar digs on our legislators, such as "there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."
But there is a more thoughtful silence at pronouncements that denounce "the tyranny of party. What is called party allegiance, party loyalty, [is] a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes, which turns voters into chattels [and] slaves."
In wartime, accusations of insufficient patriotism are often raised to score partisan points, but Twain has a prescription for that as well, saying, "The only rational patriotism is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it."
Twain does not spare the press from criticism: “There are laws to protect the . . . press's speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press."
Pundits' influential but often baseless assumptions draw pointed scrutiny when Twain says, "That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse."
He more equitably, but no less fairly, points out, "In the real world, nothing happens at the right place at the right time. It is the job of journalists and historians to correct that."
At a time when the combination of celebrity and money seems to guarantee a get-out-of-jail card, from O.J. Simpson to Michael Jackson, Twain's frequent jibes at juries carry special significance: "The humorist who invented trial by jury played a colossal practical joke upon the world, but since we have the system we ought to try and respect it."
The trials of Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski, WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers, Adelphia's Regas clan, and the embers of Enron remind us of Twain's comment that "honesty is the best policy -- when there is money in it."
The stock swindles recall the Gilded Age corruption that inspired Twain to write of stockbrokers, "They are not any more unprincipled than they look."
With conflicts at home and abroad stoked by the contentious confluence of religion and politics, it is tempting to recall Twain's admonition that "in matters concerning religion and politics a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's."
And with all contemporary apologies, in a time of suicide bombings, it is somewhat heartening to hear Twain's point that "you never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors."
Many of Twain's homespun pronouncements would be derided as treasonous or heretical today, but that is a measure of how far we have gone down the road of rigid conformity in contemporary debates.
Indeed, the beauty of invoking Mark Twain is that he can offer a dissenting opinion without anyone credibly leveling an accusation that the sentiment is somehow un-American. To call Mark Twain un-American is itself un-American.
Almost alone on the contemporary stage, Twain exists beyond the claim of partisanship. His common sense may purposefully challenge those in power, but it's not left or right, renegade or radical.
It is about a healthy skepticism toward extremists, and a consistent demand for morality and fairness in a world that sometimes forgets its professed affection for both.
As the producer of "Mark Twain Tonight," Manny Azenberg, told me in a conversation, "If the man were around to give a speech on television, we'd elect him president."
Since he’s not, we'll have to make do with increased fidelity to the common sense, leveling humor, and essentially American spirit of Mark Twain.
If that should bring attacks from any offended interest group, it is worth recalling one last piece of Missouri wisdom: "It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare."
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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