Sunday, November 4, 2018
Mark Twain wrote The Privilege of the Grave at the age of 69- the same age I am now. I survived a bout with cancer this past spring so I know a bit about having thoughts of the grave. It was Twain's opinion, while a man is living he does not really have free speech. Then he qualifies it, “The living man is not really without this privilege—strictly speaking—but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it…,” That essay was only published recently (in 2008) having been put aside out of a reticence that Twain clearly but coyly described in the last few lines of the essay itself. “I have just finished an article of this kind,” Twain wrote, “and it satisfies me entirely. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for me and the family. I will leave it behind, and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.”
I would like to commend this delicious essay to my readers at this, the threshold of the 2018 midterm elections because Twain secreted a timely message in this essay. That message is hidden in plain sight within this long neglected masterwork. He wrote these words five years before his own death and they lay dormant for 103 years. Now ten years after that, I have discovered a plea he embedded in it- to try to save us from making a terrible mistake.
Let me explain. He sheepishly admits that thirty years before the Civil War, he and most other Americans actually accepted the existence of slavery. It was, “… not because we wanted to, for we did not, but we wanted to be in the swim. It is plainly a law of nature, and we obeyed it.” “In the swim,” (today we might say, “to be mainstream”) he explained, is the main motive for party and ideological identification. According to Twain, “The average citizen is not a student of party doctrines…after all the fuss and all the talk, not one of those doctrines has been conclusively proven to be the right one and the best.”
In Twain’s time political feelings were personal and ambient. The only media were newspapers, flyers and the occasional speech. These days, we have television, radio and social media all of which leverage “the mainstream” into a flood tide. In place of Twain’s neighbors, co-workers and townspeople, we are beset by the almost unanimous howling, bleating and self aggrandizement of preening Mass Media Personalities. They are the avatars of the elite establishment. They are telling you what to think and feel and how to think and feel it 24/7. They mean to make you understand that if you do not do it precisely as they say, you are NOT IN THE SWIM!
This is why the loudest most persistent cries in public and private life are anti-Trump. The constant battering our president takes from luminaries like Don Lemon, Morning Joe and Rachel Madow are as prejudicial as they are unfounded in facts. Its mostly name-calling and hysteria. Then there are the rage filled mobs of “liberals” who publicly harass and intimidate anyone connected to Mr Trump. A reasonable person would accept Twain’s approach: “…oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.”
Hated and shunned! When did it happen that the hard working people in fly-over country became so out of “The Swim” as to be objects of hate? When did it become smart to shun religious principals? The workers, the business people, the taxpayers- when did liberal elitists and media nabobs become so smart that they can tell us what to think? I don’t like it and I don’t accept it.
But then, what hope does Mark Twain offer? What secret message has he left us?
Here it is: “When a man has joined a party, he is likely to stay in it. If he change his opinion—his feeling, I mean, his sentiment—he is likely to stay, anyway; his friends are of that party, and he will keep his altered sentiment to himself, and talk the privately discarded one. On those terms he can exercise his American privilege of free speech, but not on any others. These unfortunates are in both parties, but in what proportions we cannot guess. Therefore we never know which party was really in the majority at an election.”
That’s it! That’s why the polls were all wrong in 2016. It's also why we now have the best economy in decades and we down here in the hoi polloi have the feeling that things have gotten better than we could ever have expected if we had listened to the smart people in Washington and New York. We have remembered that we can vote against “The Swim” and that free speech is not just for the grave it is also the privilege of the vote! Please, let's show them again. Show them that the “Blue Wave” was just their wishful thinking- just like “Ready for Hillary”- whistling past the graveyard, if you will. Get up on Tuesday and express yourself!