Send Up the Clowns

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress,” Mark Twain once observed. Computations remain to be performed; investigations have not been completed. But with GOP heavyweights jettisoning Jack Abramoff's contributions faster than you can say “cooperating with prosecutors,” history may prove Twain right. Again.

Twain may be known for one thing among eighth-grade readers. But for those of us who need someone to make sense of a reality in which fiction is constantly presented to us as fact, Twain's bulldozing satire -- he excelled precisely at exposing the nonsensical while pretending to embrace it -- offers both stinging insight and singular comfort.

Most satire dates. Twain's is so timeless it could have been written last month. And in a world where the vice president fights tooth and nail to exempt the CIA from anti-torture laws while maintaining that the CIA does not engage in torture, I wish to God some of it had been.

King Leopold's Soliloquy, a century-old meditation on Belgium's rape of the Congo, hilariously presages the Bush administration's doublethink rhetoric about the “progress” being made in Iraq. The king bemoans the “tiresome chatterers” who expose to the world his darkest motivations but don't balance them with the noble ones; who complain -- just substitute “democracy” and “elections” for “religion” and “missionaries” -- about “how I am wiping a nation of friendless creatures out of existence by every form of murder, for my private pocket's sake, and how every shilling I get costs a rape, a mutilation, or a life. But they never say, although they know it, that I have labored in the cause of religion at the same time and all the time, and have sent missionaries there … to teach them the error of their ways and bring them to Him who is all mercy and love, and who is the sleepless guardian and friend of all who suffer.”

Twain's attacks on religious zealotry remain particularly relevant on the intelligent design front. “Was the World Made for Man?,” like most of his best satirical works, refutes the very premise it ostensibly serves, the belief that man alone was created in God's image. “[I]t took 99,968,000 years to prepare the world for man, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see him and admire him,” Twain writes. “But a large enterprise like this has to be conducted warily, painstakingly, logically. It was foreseen that man would have to have the oyster.” It takes 19 million years for God to produce the oyster, which then concludes that all that had come before was “a preparation for him.” Isn't that “just like an oyster,” writes Twain, “the most conceited animal there is, except man?”

The two themes of war and religion are brought together in “The War Prayer,” a scabrous, dual-fronted attack on war and narcissistic blind faith. It depicts a messenger from God who appears in a church as the congregation prays for victory and who puts words to the unspoken parts of the prayer: “O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!”

The media have recovered some of their critical faculties in recent months. But they haven't changed that much; whenever George W. Bush or Dick Cheney calls the sky green and the grass blue, they continue to report it with a straight face.

There's no better offensive against right-wing absurdity than satire. We've got Jon Stewart's swift one-liners, The Onion's sometimes brilliant lampoonery, and James Wolcott's scorn-drenched blog. They all help. But the sharpest sword is still one that's a century old. If you're looking for someone who really sends up the clowns, read Twain.

Maud Newton is a writer, editor, and former attorney who quotes Twain too frequently on her blog, MaudNewton.com.

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