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A Communique From the Ghost of Mark Twain
18 January 2002
I see that I'm damn near legendary now; and since I died long ago, that's safe for all concerned.
The other day, with calendars showing January 2002, a radio was having its usual effect -- until suddenly my eyelids popped open. A young fella named Ken Burns was talking about me. I listened attentively in case I might, at last, learn the meaning of my glorious and wretched life.
Weighing me on literary scales, his thumb was heavy on the glory side. I will not object, though I might quibble a tad.
On the program (NPR's "Morning Edition"), filmmaker Burns brought me into the present. "Of all the historical characters that I've tried to size up over the last 25 years," he said, "Twain is the only person that I think you could drop down into today and within about 15 minutes everybody would want him. He'd be on your show. He'd be on all the cable channels."
Well, that depends. The man's own film briefly describes what happened when I wrote an extended attack on King Leopold's murderous plunder in the Congo: "No American publisher dared print it."
The impression gnaws at me that not so much has changed.
The film displays a photo of native people with their hands hacked off for not satisfying Leopold's rubber-trade henchmen in the Congo, rendered "Belgian" by massive greed and even more enormous cruelty. Now, a hundred years after Belgium's entrepreneurial forces were inflicting the first holocaust of the 20th century, let us consider more recent events a bit farther south on the same continent, where Angola became the amputee capital of the world.
Many Angolans are missing limbs due to land mines funded by American taxpayers as President Ronald Reagan lauded guerrilla "freedom fighters." With the U.S. government bearing major responsibility for the carnage, the war continued into the next decade. During an 18-month period ending in March 1994, half a million people died in Angola. I wonder, how likely is it that I'd be invited "on all the cable channels" to pointedly discuss such matters?
In Southeast Asia, across the countryside of Laos, at least 18 million cluster bombs -- left behind by the U.S. military -- remain dormant. They're apt to explode when jostled. "Bombies," they're called. Too trivial for the noble humanitarians in Washington to go back and remove.
Since the early 1970s, cluster bombs have taken 12,000 civilian lives in Laos, where they continue to kill or maim 500 people every year. Forty-three percent of the victims are children.
In Afghanistan, where several thousand civilians died outright from U.S. bombing last fall, American planes dropped quite a few cluster bombs. President George W. Bush, an avid moralizer, is not perturbed that some of those explosives will cripple or kill children and other Afghans in the months and years ahead.
Forgive me. The previous paragraphs fall into the category of "political diatribes" -- a phrase used by the narration of Mr. Burns' film to refer to certain proclivities in my later years.
As I watched "Mark Twain" (on PBS in mid-January), my entire life flashed before my eyes. By the end of the film, if I hadn't already been dead, I'd have been provided with much incentive. Granted, I was not as whitewashed as Aunt Polly's fence. The movie included this statement that I made: "I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
However, the audience of 21st century modernists would not have been unduly injured to hear words from my pen like these: "Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat."
This is not an outlook often seen on television. Instead, scarcely varying, news stories repeat themselves endlessly. They cause me to recall a tale I heard many times on stagecoaches along the Overland trail, a yarn (recounted in "Roughing It") about Horace Greeley and his ride from Carson City to Placerville.
Observing one news reciter after another on cable channels, I want to cry out as I did once long ago: "Proceed at your peril. You see in me the melancholy wreck of a once stalwart and magnificent manhood. What has brought me to this? That thing which you are about to tell. Gradually but surely, that tiresome old anecdote has sapped my strength, undermined my constitution, withered my life. Pity my helplessness. Spare me only just this once, and tell me about young George Washington and his little hatchet for a change."