Business World, 12 November 2012


At the lobby of the University of California-Berkeley’s Doe Library is a wonderful life-size bronze of a seated Mark Twain reading a book on a park bench. Visitors (okay, I plead guilty) cannot resist seating themselves beside the figure and hamming it up for a photo-op, as if conversing with the famous literary icon. Through historical and editorial twists of fate, Berkeley has become the repository of the world’s most comprehensive collection of Mark Twain’s papers. Its on-going Mark Twain Papers Project aims to organize and make publicly accessible everything the author ever wrote, whether previously published or not. The first fruit already appeared in 2010—a definitive annotated edition of Twain’s hitherto unpublished attempt at an autobiography, which he decreed should be published no sooner than a century after his death (he died in 1910).

Few Filipinos today realize Mark Twain’s unique connection to their country. Even their parents will probably remember him only as the creator of the lovable Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the “celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County”. Still the connection is there, and it is an important one.

Twain was one of the most prominent and consistent oppositors to the U.S. conquest and occupation of the Philippines in 1898. He was an “anti-imperialist” well before that term was monopolized by the Marxist Left. In Twain’s mind, however, opposition to imperialism was a thoroughly American position. He was joined in this view by other mainstream American figures, including the poet Edgar Lee Masters, the philosopher John Dewey, the redoubtable German-American politician Carl Schurz, the ex-president Grover Cleveland, and even the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Swimming against the jingoist tide of his time, Twain believed it was, on the contrary, expansionists like McKinley and Roosevelt who had betrayed the core American ideals of republicanism and non-intervention by seeking overseas possessions in order to join the club of (then exclusively West European) imperial powers as a latecomer. Twain had initially supported the Spanish-American war, since he thought the U.S. was intervening on the side of the oppressed peoples of Cuba and the Philippines (shades of the “Arab Spring”?). He was soon appalled, however, by the incongruousness and inconsistency of U.S. policy, which on the one hand supported the Cubans to the end in their fight for independence, but which turned against and suppressed the Philippine Revolution, on the other hand. “Against our traditions”, he wrote, “we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people and for a base object – robbery.”

In his most famous tirade, “To a person sitting in darkness”, Twain used withering sarcasm and satire to put across his point about the duplicity of official policy toward the Philippines: “Yes, we had been so friendly to them, and heartened them up in so many ways! We had lent them guns and ammunition; advised them; exchanged pleasant courtesies with them…fought shoulder to shoulder with them against ‘the common enemy’ [the Spanish]…petted them; lied to them – officially proclaiming that our land and naval forces came to give them their freedom and displace the bad Spanish Government – fooled them, used them until we needed them no longer; then derided the sucked orange and threw it away.”

Twain continued to write extensively from 1898 to 1906 about the Philippine-American War and the wrongheadedness of the American imperial adventure – even for America. It was an argument he would ultimately lose, however, and – in the hyper-patriotic era he lived in – his position would cost him many admirers and friends. He would go on to describe the sheer imbalance of forces as between Americans and Filipinos and the corresponding lop-sidedness in casualties. He admired the heroism of the revolutionaries and the justness of their cause and denounced the deception and ingratitude of Funston’s capture of Aguinaldo; Roosevelt’s nepotism in advancing Leonard Wood; and the brutality of U.S. forces during the hostilities. He was especially and utterly horrified by the Bud Dajo massacre (to which he devotes an extensive narration in his autobiography).

In the end, after his experience, Twain came to re-examine critically the way public opinion in a democracy was formed and questioned the way patriotism could be shaped and misdirected by the media and the political class. He asked his audiences to reflect on what it really meant to be patriotic and poked bitter fun at the then-popular phrase “Our country, right or wrong!” He wrote: “We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had – the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he (just he) believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away, and with it, all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word. Patriotism.”

Fast forward to the present, well over a century since.

As the Philippines now comes to recast its relations with America; and as the U.S. itself seeks to redefine its role in a world that in a few more decades it may no longer solely dominate – it may perhaps benefit both peoples to listen to the serious voice of a long-dead humorist who once had both countries’ interests at heart. Who knows, reading Twain may even be salubrious to some Chinese souls. (They also used him after all to attack “U.S. imperialism”.) Then perhaps East may meet West – in Twain.