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Anti-Imperialism, The Other Side, and Reality

Editor-in-Chief, ISHLT Links Newsletter

It was the last Christmas Eve of the 19th century when an article by Wilbur Chamberlin was published in the New York Sun about the apparent collection of indemnities for damages done by the Boxer uprising to oppose foreign imperialism and Christianity in China. Chamberlin had interviewed a well respected Congressionalist minister, the Reverend Will Scott Ament, Director of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Ament was on a mission providing for 700 native Christians in China. He informed Chamberlin that he had collected 300 taels (a form of Chinese currency) for each of the 300 murders during the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to punish the foreign influences in China. Ament also declared to Chamberlin that his compensation was only moderate when compared with the Catholics who insisted on a head for a head in addition to the monetary recompense.

Well, you guessed it, our ever popular Mark Twain, who by the 20th century had reached international acclaim following his world lecture tour at this juncture, commented on Chamberlin's report. His international stature was a projection of American power, and America had started exporting its ideals to other cultures. Twain called himself an emissary to the world. But during his tour around the world while delivering his lectures of the 1890s to the colonies of the British Empire, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa, he was shocked by the atrocities and social injustices occurring to local indigenous populations as the British had taken over with their administrations of government, ideals and exports of materials. In 1900, when he got off the boat from his world tour he stated. "I am an Anti-Imperialist; I'm opposed to having the Eagle put its talons on any other Land."

Although missionary ideas had occasionally appealed to him, they became less attractive to him than usual, especially after the business of bloodshed reported in foreign lands. Twain responded to the Chamberlin article he was shocked that Ament would use blood money for the "propagation of the Gospel" and to promote the "blessings of civilization" to brothers and sisters who "sit in darkness." Twain summoned to missionaries, "come home and Christianize Christians in the States!"

Twain's embittered sarcastic response provides us with this bit of "dark humor" probably unfairly attacking Ament. "By happy luck we get all these glad tidings on Christmas Eve-just the time to enable us to celebrate the day with proper gaiety and enthusiasm. Our spirits soar and we find we can even make jokes; taels I win, heads you lose." His dark humor was fierce. His anti-imperialism stance was firmly established and obvious in nearly all his writings in the last decade of his life. But the roots of this attitude have been lightly sprinkled in the form of humor from his earliest writings beginning with The Innocents Abroad and increasingly more overt in Following the Equator or More Tramps Abroad. Take note of his rise to fame and how it auspiciously coincides with America's rise to an international power. Perhaps Twain's writings rapidly became embedded in the subconscious and social conscience of Americans in the last half of the 19th century. This may have boosted the confidence of America into its success in the early part of the 20th century yet at the same time Twain may have set the stage or perpetuated the attitude of isolationism in the United States.

"I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts."
— Mark Twain

From The Innocents Abroad he gives us the ability to take on the Old World from an American perspective. In Huck Finn, he teases the aristocracy and tyranny by using the names, The King and The Duke, for the "sham" characters. In Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan imposes his ideas on an unwilling population leading to destruction. Hank's intentions were to bring the "blessings of sivilization" to a primitive people. This is almost identical on how the powers of Europe justify their colonization of Africa and Asia. In Following the Equator, Twain, although indirectly is becoming more obvious on how he describes the way America has treated slaves and Native Americans. These points are evident in Tom Sawyer—Injun Joe, and in Pudd'nhead Wilson. Especially take note of this passage from his travelogue (his final book), Following the Equator, in the section while traveling through Australia. He witnesses the way the aboriginal population has been treated to generalize about colonial powers.

In many countries we have chained the savage and starved him to death; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it. In many countries we have burned the savage at the stake; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death is loving-kindness to it. In more than one country we have hunted the savage and his little children and their mother with dogs and guns through the woods and swamps for an afternoon's sport, and filled the region with happy laughter over their sprawling and stumbling flight, and their wild supplications for mercy; but this method we do not mind, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it. In many countries we have taken the savage's land from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him every day, and broken his pride, and made death his only friend, and overworked him till he dropped in his tracks; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it.

His world tour penned in this travel diary helped open his eyes to the happenings around the world. Then in 1901, his sentiments on Anti-Imperialism roar from the essay on To the Person Sitting in Darkness. This is the most acerbic and caustic piece Twain has ever written. In fact, William Dean Howells, Twain's long time friend and literary critic, stated that "this is a great piece, publish it, then go and hang yourself to save the people that you're going to offend the trouble of hanging you."

The Person Sitting in Darkness is the best depiction of Twain's sentiments on Anti-Imperialism. No one can guard against his tongue. With his mordant and sarcastic wit along with his international prominence, he attacked different targets from Western Missionaries in China (Boxer Rebellion), England's behavior in South Africa (Boer War), the way the Kaiser and the Czar have been acting eastern Asian then finally climaxing with an attack at President McKinley "the Master of the Game" and America's presence in the Philippines. Many politicians were disgusted and outraged with Twain, probably because they saw the realism in his sarcastic charges against imperialistic powers. This essay suggests that the Western Powers are ruining the market of the "blessings of civilization." The Third World - those sitting in darkness are beginning to suspect that they are being sold a false bill of goods. You go into these nations claiming that these nations will get hope liberty, prosperity and justice. But the third world may not be getting what they pay for. "We're exporting civilization with the wrapper off." Twain points out that McKinley has allowed American's policy to be corrupted by foreign influences, but he tries to be the social critic carefully. Twain wants to keep the readers on his side as he pushes the envelope on being a critic. Fortunate for Twain, it is only he who can take on the sacred idols, the revered icons of various cultural movements. It is through his humor he topples them and erodes their authority. Take note of this tribute of our country's most sacred icons.

And our flag—another pride of ours, our chiefest! We have worshipped it so; and when we have seen it in far lands—glimpsing it unexpectedly in that strange sky, waving its welcome and benediction to us—we have caught our breath, and uncovered our heads, and couldn't speak, for a moment, for the thought of what it was to us and the great ideals it stood for....

...And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one—our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.

As this dark essay comes to a close, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, the reader may realize for whom the essay is really intended. We believe Twain is talking about the primitive peoples of the third world when in actuality, it's us, the American readers who are sitting in darkness who need to have our ideas redeemed if not by the blessings of civilization then by the blessings of the ideals we claim to stand for.

Other dark writings by Twain include The War Prayer which is considered the greatest Anti-War statement in literature. But this piece was unpublished until after his death. Twain was always mindful of public reaction, he considered that he needed family support so he withheld its publication, he did not want to be seen as a Puddn'head. And besides, "I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world."

Twain wrote a lot on social injustice, more than he published. His most outspoken attacks on injustice remain unspoken. He wrote a piece on lynching only published posthumously, The United States of Lyncherdom. "I shall have not half a friend left in the south." His most outspoken attacks on injustice remain unspoken. He could not resist the fear of alienating his audience. The vulnerability of unpopularity was too much for Mark Twain.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Dr. Valentine is a Professor of Pulmonary Medicine and Critical Care Medicine, Medical Director of the UTMB Texas Transplant Center, and Director of Lung Transplantation at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, USA.