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Book report

I just finished The Statesman and the Storyteller, by Mark Zwonitzer. It’s a dual biography covering the last years of Mark Twain and John Hay. Everyone knows who Mark Twain was, but Hay is not so well known, though he’s not forgotten either. For those who can’t place him: he was one of Lincoln’s secretaries, and, in the fullness of time, Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt, until he died shortly after Roosevelt was elected president in his own right. Hay and Twain were lifelong friends, though they often went years without seeing each other, and they maintained their mutual respect despite their divergent political views.

This post is more of a riff on the book than a review. I’m probably not capable of a good book review.

The book is really a history of turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) America, told through the lives of these two remarkable individuals. It’s a period in our history that I think is largely ignored, at least in the educations that most of us get in grammar or high school. But you can’t read this book without coming away with the impression that it was during this period when the U.S. took the turn that led it ineluctably to the imperial and anti-democratic state that it is today. Of course, we had a head start as the deeply engrained racism throughout the nation made it easy for us to justify ignoring our supposed principles when non-whites or non-Christians were concerned.

I won’t say that it was the high water mark of political hypocrisy in this country, but the politicians of the day could hold their own against the slaveowners of the pre-civil war South and the Republicans of today. We were led into the Spanish American war through two lies; the first that it was fought to free the Cubans; the second that the Spanish had sunk the Maine. We were just coming off the annexation of Hawaii , featuring the destruction of a republic in which the native Hawaiians had a predominant voice, said republic being replaced by a system that stripped those natives of practically all civil rights, including the right to vote.

As I said, it was a time of great hypocrisy, but it’s instructive that there were some subjects they felt no need to be hypocritical about. Roosevelt, McKinley, Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge.. the whole pack of them, frankly proclaimed their belief that no one who lacked a white skin had any rights that the United States was bound to recognize. The Supreme Court agreed. One byproduct of that racism was a brutal war of extermination waged by the United States against a Filipino anti-Spanish resistance movement. When the war started, we encouraged the Filipinos to believe that they were our allies, and that we would hand the country over to them once the war was won. But once the war was won we stabbed them in the back and proceeded to exterminate them. Those few prisoners we didn’t kill outright were systematically tortured. The major media of the day was fine with all of it, since we were, by definition, doing God’s work.

And here’s where there’s a bit of irony. I can recall some years back that Huckleberry Finn was banned in some places, and attacked in many others, for being racist. The attackers had apparently never read the book with any understanding; their claim was pretty much based on the fact that a certain word beginning with “n” appears frequently in the book. The dialogue is, in other words, totally faithful to the way the characters portrayed would have spoken at the time, and in the places, depicted in the book. But, too much of this. Huck Finn needs no defense from me.

Anyway, while Hay and Roosevelt were justifying their imperialism with overtly racist arguments, Twain was condemning that imperialism and spoke out on behalf of the Filipinos, Hawaiians and other non-white people in decidedly anti-racist terms. He often withdrew from the fray, not because he had changed his mind, but because he wanted to avoid the vituperation aimed at him when he did speak his mind. It’s fair to say that he recorded his views in writings not intended for publication in his lifetime (or for the life of his copyrights), such as The War Prayer .

Like today, it was a time when the .01% pretty much ran the show. I was struck by this summary of the allegedly radical 1896 platform of William Jennings Bryan.

The Democrat’s nominee was proposing that the federal government take over the management of currency and the money supply, insure bank deposits, tax income, permit laborers to form unions, and dry the world economic powers by coining silver at a ratio of sixteen to one as against gold… He wanted to promote free trade, which meant further reducing (if not outright killing) the protective tariffs that stood, as the banking and manufacturing crowd told it, as their bulwark against certain economic ruin. He wanted to find a way to put a floor under falling crop prices and get farmers out fro under 20 percent mortgages. Bryan volubly–and at least twice a day–repudiated the Republican Party’s insistence that if the government protected and propped up the well-to-do, their prosperity would, as a matter of natural law, leak through to the lower classes. “The Democratic idea,” Bryan liked to say, “has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon it.”

Okay, the man was a religious troglodyte, but he had it right on economics. Most of what he advocated, FDR achieved, and what is left, legislation “to make the masses prosperous” is still blocked by the Republican Party, though the fact that it would benefit everyone is now the settled opinion of all sane economists.

One other thing struck me, not of a political nature. We all know that in the 18th century, the surest way to die of any disease or medical condition was to call in a doctor. It certainly appears as if that was only slightly less true at the dawn of the 20th. Hay spent most of his time sick, Twain slightly less so, but his family members were often ill. Not only did the doctors not know what they were doing, but they somehow formed the idea that it was good for a patient to be deprived of contact with family members. Twain was unable to be in the same room as his wife for months at a time, pursuant to doctor’s orders. The only thing you can say for the doctors is that they’d given up bleeding patients. It’s practically a certainty, I’d say, that 75 years from now many of the medical procedures and medication that are common today will be considered ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst.

So, that’s my report. The book is a bit slow at the start, but I got into it as it went along. It’s a neglected part of our history that is well worth brushing up on, particularly given the present state of our government.

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