Total Pageviews

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mark Twain, in Papers From The Adam Family

Twain has always been one of my favourite writers. The essay reproduced below is a superlative example of his biting wit, turned to political commentary. It is written as an excerpt from a (fictional) longer biography of Adam, in the style of a Biblical homily. To my mind, this essay must be read in conjunction with Ambedkar's "Grammar of Anarchy" speech, as a guide to how politics and discourse must function in a Republic. (To his description below, I would only add - as a Constitutional Republic, we must be guided by the standards in our Constitution.)

Mark Twain, in Letters from the Earth: Papers of the Adam Family (1939, post.)


Date, 9th century.

In a speech which he made more than 500 years ago, and which has come down to us intact, he said:

We, free citizens of the Great Republic, feel an honest pride in her greatness, her strength, her just and gentle government, her unsmirched flag, her hands clean from oppression of the weak and from malicious conquest, her hospitable door that stands open to the hunted and the persecuted of all nations; we are proud of the judicious respect in which she is held by the monarchies which hem her in on every side, and proudest of all of that lofty patriotism which we inherited from our fathers, which we have kept pure, and which won our liberties in the beginning and has preserved them unto this day. While that patriotism endures the Republic is safe, her greatness is secure, and against them the powers of the earth cannot prevail.

I pray you to pause and consider. Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object – robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. To-day they have turned and their voice is the other way. What caused the change? Merely a politician’s trick – a high sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: Our Country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every school-house in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor – none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, “Our Country, right or wrong,” and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?

For in a republic, who is “the country?” Is it the government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant – merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is “the country?” Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? is it the school-superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged;they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.

Who are the thousand – that is to say, who are “the country?” In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of the pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country – hold up your head! you have nothing to be ashamed of.

Only when a republic’s life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is wrong. There is no other time.

This republic’s life is not in peril. The nation has sold its honor for a phrase. It has swung itself loose from its safe anchorage and is drifting, its helm is in pirate hands. The stupid phrase needed help, and it got another one: “Even if the war be wrong we are in it and must fight it out: we cannot retire from it without dishonor.” Why, not even a burglar could have said it better. We cannot withdraw from this sordid raid because to grant peace to those little people upon their terms – independence – would dishonor us. You have flung away Adam’s phrase – you should take it up and examine it again. He said, “An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.”

You have planted a seed, and it will grow.

No comments:

Post a Comment