The relevance of irrelevance

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  • Published 20110607
  • ISBN: 9781921758218
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IN 1901 MARK Twain battled America’s imperial designs in the pages of an American literary magazine. Remarkably, the North American Review still exists, though its influence, at least in geopolitics, has long since waned. Twain’s foray into American foreign policy created a dust-up in the US as soon as the piece was published, with thousands of people in equal number deriding him as unpatriotic and lauding him as a hero.

The issues that so outraged Twain and stirred him to write his controversial article, ‘To the Person Sitting in Darkness’, not only seem irrelevant to a contemporary audience at first glance, but nearly unintelligible. The personalities of whom he writes were household names in his day, but no more. For a contemporary audience to appreciate Twain’s essay a history lesson is in order. And isn’t this exactly the problem with political essays: like political poems and stories, don’t they quickly become dated and irrelevant?

According to James D Smelkoff of the Harvard Institute of Relevant Studies, in 1901 current events remained relevant for an average of 900 years for the majority of the reading public. That means that the First Crusade’s capture of Jerusalem in 1099 had just lost its relevance to Mark Twain’s audience. In 1960 Relevance had eroded to a mere 350 years (the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 was still safe, but barely). For the past ten years, Relevance has held steady at six weeks. With the disappearance of most news outlets, major events might soon be irrelevant before they happen, according to Smelkoff.

‘Not that it really matters,’ the Boston Globe quoted him as saying, two weeks before I began this essay.

So, a brief history lesson. It won’t be boring. You won’t die. Please stay with me. Breathe. Breathe, damn you!


IN 1898 AMERICA declared war on Spain because of the explosion onboard and subsequent sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Bay. The resulting war, created in large part by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, lasted all of three months. That’s what it took for the brash republic of the United States of America to defeat a doddering empire. The US, founded on principles of self-determination, sided with the Cubans and freed them from the Spanish yoke, but didn’t quite know what to do with the Philippines, which had been a colony of Spain for more than three centuries. Filipino rebels had been fighting against the Spanish for two years when the Americans came along and said, ‘Hey, let us help you.’ By this time the Filipinos had pretty well surrounded the Spanish garrison in Manila and didn’t need much help. The US escorted the leader of the Filipino resistance, Emilio Aguinaldo, from exile in Hong Kong and made short work of the Spanish, who surrendered to Admiral Dewey.

Simply put, the US wanted a share of the imperial pie in Asia that the Europeans had been feasting on for centuries; but in order to project their power, which in those days was only naval, it needed coaling stations to fuel ships on the long trip across the Pacific. That’s why it needed Hawaii (acquired in 1893, when a group of American businessmen, supported by an American battleship, staged a coup and imprisoned Hawaii’s queen) and Guam (also won during the Spanish-American War), and why it needed the Philippines.

But the notion of empire seemed to conflict with the principles on which the US was founded. How could the bastion of liberty – the Statue of Liberty was a mere fifteen years old in 1901, and therefore still decidedly relevant – deny liberty to another country?

The argument went like this: the Filipinos were not ready to govern themselves. Americans’ ‘little brown brothers’ needed help. They needed to be Christianised – with a different brand of Christianity from the Catholicism they had practiced for three centuries. The Philippines were not a colony. We repeat. Not a colony. America does not colonise. They were…something else. A purchase. A possession.

America bought the Philippines from the Spanish because you can’t buy love but you can buy land, and sometimes with the people thrown into the bargain. But the idea of buying the Philippines, in a kind of legal contract, was simply a ploy. We might illustrate the idea in this way: a thief breaks into a house and steals a treasured urn. The police capture the thief but, instead of returning the urn to its rightful owner, decide instead to buy it from the thief. The original owner protests, so the police, outraged, jail the owner and execute his family members.

Filipinos, as it turned out, didn’t need such analogies. They wanted nothing other than liberty – though they wanted their own brand of liberty, which is widely considered inferior to American liberty, so America had to show them. It was a matter of quality control; in contemporary terms, the US was fighting liberty piracy. Liberty is America’s intellectual property. When fighting broke out between American soldiers and Filipino soldiers, the Americans slaughtered them by the thousands, as well as thousands of Filipino civilians.

THIS DID NOT sit well with Mark Twain, who as vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League wrote his critique of American foreign policy. Twain’s attack was multi-pronged. It was first of all aimed at Reverend William Scott Ament and his comments on the recent Boxer Rebellion, in 1900, in which the Chinese had risen up against the colonial powers and murdered hundreds of missionaries and Chinese Christians. Reverend Ament, the director of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, supported making suspected Boxers (as the peasant movement was known) pay exorbitant damages, which he claimed wasn’t as tough as the Catholics, who he asserted were demanding Chinese heads along with money. Ament, in any event, justified the missionary presence in China, claiming they were simply bringing the light of the Gospel and civilisation to those who sat in darkness. Twain saw it differently. He saw the missionaries as scouts for imperialism.

In 1928, Twain’s literary executor republished the essay minus the attack on Ament, the most controversial aspect of the essay. Twain had dared attack the motives of the clergy. Expunging the opening salvo against Ament made the piece a little less of a personal attack. Curiously, it also made the essay stronger, more focused on the Philippines, which in 1928 was still an American possession, not to be wrested from its grasp until World War II, when the Japanese invaded and occupied it for four years.

The version of Twain’s essay most often reprinted begins: ‘Extending the Blessings of Civilisation to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole; and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked – but not enough, in my judgement, to make any considerable risk advisable. The People that Sit in Darkness are getting to be too scarce – too scarce and too shy. And such darkness as is now left is really of but an indifferent quality, and not dark enough for the game. The most of those People that Sit in Darkness have been furnished with more light than was good for them or profitable for us. We have been injudicious.’

Those who sit in darkness are becoming suspicious of the blessings we bring, Twain adds. The ways in which we entice the darkness-sitters out is by showing them what the Blessings of Civilisation entail – namely love, law and order, justice, liberty, gentleness, equality, Christianity, honorable dealing, protection of the weak, mercy, temperance, education.

Who could resist such blessings? But there’s a catch. These blessings are reserved for home consumption, while another kind is packaged for export (albeit with a pretty cover: the above list of blessings), which the sitters in darkness pay for with their ‘blood and tears and land and liberty’.

I can’t say I fully admire Twain’s essay for his criticism of the powers-that-were. One of the main problems with his dark satire is his criticism of countries such as the US, Britain, Russia and France for making flimsy excuses for land grabs the world over. Flimsy or not, at least they bothered making excuses! That’s a kind of progress, isn’t it? Wasn’t there a time when no excuse was needed? As King, if I wanted your land, I just went in and murdered you to get it. But since Twain’s day, countries have made of point of coming up with reasons for grabbing land, so as not to alarm their citizens. The countries Twain was writing about set precedents in this manner that modern relevant nations still adhere to today.

Take the Second Boer War (1892-1902), a conflict between the Dutch settlers of South Africa, Boers, and the English, after English settlers began flooding into Boer territory in search of gold. The British government, seeing its greedy subjects treated as second-class citizens stripped of their rights by the Boer government, sent in troops. When the Dutch farmers, realising they couldn’t defeat the better-equipped Brits on the battlefield, went guerrilla, the Brits decided to break the back of the Boer resistance by imprisoning their families in concentration camps. The strategy worked. After more than 26,000 women and children starved to death or died of disease in British custody, the Boers surrendered. The British didn’t invent the concentration camp, but they helped perfect it. A mere forty years later, prisoners at Auschwitz were welcomed to its gates with a slogan extolling the work ethic, a blessing of civilisation if there ever was one:Arbeit Macht Frei.

Twain points out in his essay that the British seemed a tad hypocritical when the head of the Colonial office, Joseph Chamberlain, complained about Boer atrocities on the battlefield. He quotes one British private triumphantly recounting a battle in which his compatriots took a hill from the Boers. When the Boers saw the situation was hopeless they threw down their guns, went down on their knees with clasped hands and begged for mercy. ‘And we gave it them,’ Twain recounts the private’s words, ‘with the long spoon.’Bayonets, in other words.


WE KNOW THAT atrocities happen in war, regardless of the cause or combatants. It’s the larger atrocities that Twain was concerned with – what we might term atrocities of conscience. What concerned him was that America wanted badly to play the ‘European game’, when it was so accustomed to playing the ‘American game’. We had done the right thing by the oppressed people of Cuba, sitting directly off our shores, freeing them from their colonial bonds. President McKinley had even called the idea of forcibly annexing Cuba ‘criminal aggression’ – but within a year, Twain notes, he had forgotten these noble words because the temptation to play the European game and annex a sovereign nation, the Philippines, proved too great. Pragmatism nearly always trumps ideals: what later came to be known as Realpolitik necessitates the unpleasant task of compromising values from time to time, even frequently, to be Masters of the Game.

America was a good pupil in the ‘Blessings of Civilisation Game’ (European rules) from this point on. It became so adept at bestowing blessings right and left that hardly a country remained untouched by American blessings (Export Quality and otherwise) in what came to be known as the American Century.

It’s hard to believe that a man as smart as Twain did not fully understand that America had joined the European game at least as early as 1893, when it covertly overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy – an act for which it formally apologised in 1993. Regardless, the American game, as he describes it idealistically in the following quote, was over, finished, kaput, or at least badly tarnished in light of America’s determination to be a player in Asia at any cost. In the following words, his belief in American ideals of fair play and true liberty shines painfully through and his satiric edge dulls: ‘It was a pity; it was a great pity, that error; that one grievous error, that irrevocable error. For it was the very place and time to play the American game again. And at no cost. Rich winnings to be gathered in, too; rich and permanent; indestructible; a fortune transmissible forever to the children of the flag. Not land, not money, not dominion – no, something worth many times more than that dross: our share, the spectacle of a nation of long harassed and persecuted slaves set free through our influence; our posterity’s share, the golden memory of that fair deed. The game was in our hands. If it had been played according to the American rules, Dewey would have sailed away from Manila as soon as he had destroyed the Spanish fleet – after putting up a sign on shore guaranteeing foreign property and life against damage by the Filipinos, and warning the Powers that interference with the emancipated patriots would be regarded as an act unfriendly to the United States. The Powers cannot combine, in even a bad cause, and the sign would not have been molested.’

Even at the remove of more than a century, these words stir me. Perhaps that’s in part because I’ve spent much time in the Philippines and am married to a Filipina. But what good does it do to pick at a scab? After all, the Philippines was given independence in 1946, and the country is now an ally and has done a pretty good job of telling its former master what it could do with its military bases, which it shuttered in 1991. Still, the betrayal rings in my ears as though it happened yesterday, probably because before I first travelled to the Philippines, in early 1999, I hardly gave the country a thought, like most Americans, and had no idea of my country’s legacy there. I always had considered myself a relatively informed person, a lover of history. My great-uncle Julius had served in the Spanish American War, which I knew about. But not this other war. How could something as big as a war escape my notice?

Twain expressed shock at the casualty figures General Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur, reported in the ten months prior to his essay. The American casualties were 268 killed, 750 wounded. The Filipino casualties were three thousand two hundred and twenty seven killed‘ (Twain’s italics), 694 wounded, leading Twain to reason that while the Filipinos showed mercy, Americans showed none. A letter from a private from Decorah, Iowa to his mother seemed to bear out his assertion: ‘WE NEVER LEFT ONE ALIVE. IF ONE WAS WOUNDED, WE WOULD RUN OUR BAYONETS THROUGH HIM.’

THE WHOLE BUSINESS flummoxed Twain. He wondered how we could say with a straight face that we were bringing the blessings of civilisation to a country by asking young men to conduct such slaughter. Here, too, Americans first used waterboarding on recalcitrant patriots, developed the 45-calibre pistol, coined the word ‘gook’ or alternately dehumanised the Filipino rebels by calling them ‘niggers’. Have we seen such ironies repeated in the intervening hundred years? Have we offered the blessings of civilisation to other countries, only to have our sweet offers thrown back in our faces? Have we expressed wonder time and time again that they have not always welcomed us as benefactors? The literary heirs of Mark Twain have expressed their doubts: Susan Sontag in her essay about Abu Ghraib, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others,’ as well as countless poets and prose writers during the Vietnam era.

What we find time and again in essays by American writers trying to reconcile the lofty ideals their nation professes with a foreign policy often at extreme odds with these ideals is a tone of utter disbelief, a kind of literary post-traumatic stress disorder in which the writer is wandering over a rubble-strewn landscape that had once seemed a haven. Perhaps that seems melodramatic and perhaps it is, but I don’t think it overstates the sense of injustice and outrage that writers of conscience such as Sontag and Twain feel when they see a country they love betraying its own highest principles. What other response could possibly be appropriate?

The real test for the writer of conscience is to rein in her anger, to resist the urge to simply weep or scream. Weeping and screaming, while cathartic, don’t have much effect on foreign policy. But neither does writing of conscience. Try as he might, Twain cannot hide his utter disgust at the atrocities the US commits in his name, in the name of all American citizens, in the Philippine archipelago, likening it to the British attack on the Boers. His irony is no match for his shame:

‘Our case is simple. On the 1st of May, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet. This left the Archipelago in the hands of its proper and rightful owners, the Filipino nation. Their army numbered 30,000 men, and they were competent to whip out or starve out the little Spanish garrison; then the people could set up a government of their own devising. Our traditions required that Dewey should now set up his warning sign, and go away.

But the Master of the Game happened to think of another plan – the European plan. He acted upon it. This was, to send out an army – ostensibly to help the native patriots put the finishing touch upon their long and plucky struggle for independence, but really to take their land away from them and keep it. That is, in the interest of Progress and Civilisation. The plan developed, stage by stage, and quite satisfactorily.

We entered into a military alliance with the trusting Filipinos, and they hemmed in Manila on the land side, and by their valuable help the place, with its garrison of 8,000 or 10,000 Spaniards, was captured – a thing which we could not have accomplished unaided at that time. We got their help by – by ingenuity. We knew they were fighting for their independence, and that they had been at it for two years. We knew they supposed that we also were fighting in their worthy cause – just as we had helped the Cubans fight for Cuban independence – and we allowed them to go on thinking so. Until Manila was ours and we could get along without them. Then we showed our hand.

Of course, they were surprised – that was natural; surprised and disappointed; disappointed and grieved. To them it looked un-American; uncharacteristic; foreign to our established traditions. And this was natural, too; for we were only playing the American game in public – in private it was the European. It was neatly done, very neatly, and it bewildered them. They could not understand it; for we had been so friendly – so affectionate, even – with those simple-minded patriots! We, our own selves, had brought back out of exile their leader, their hero, their hope, their Washington – Aguinaldo; brought him in a warship, in high honour, under the sacred shelter and hospitality of the flag; brought him back and restored him to his people, and got their moving and eloquent gratitude for it.

Yes, we had been so friendly to them, and had heartened them up in so many ways! We had lent them guns and ammunition; advised with them; exchanged pleasant courtesies with them; placed our sick and wounded in their kindly care; entrusted our Spanish prisoners to their humane and honest hands; fought shoulder to shoulder with them against ‘the common enemy’ (our own phrase); praised their courage, praised their gallantry, praised their mercifulness, praised their fine and honorable conduct; borrowed their trenches, borrowed strong positions which they had previously captured from the Spaniard; 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.

We kept the positions which we had beguiled them of; by and by, we moved a force forward and overlapped patriot ground – a clever thought, for we needed trouble, and this would produce it. A Filipino soldier, crossing the ground, where no one had a right to forbid him, was shot by our sentry. The badgered patriots resented this with arms, without waiting to know whether Aguinaldo, who was absent, would approve or not. Aguinaldo did not approve; but that availed nothing.

What we wanted, in the interest of Progress and Civilisation, was the Archipelago, unencumbered by patriots struggling for independence; and the War was what we needed. We clinched our opportunity. It is Mr Chamberlain’s case over again – at least in its motive and intention; and we played the game as adroitly as he played it himself.’

He starts restrained, ironic, but notice how it builds in intensity to: ‘Until Manila was ours and we could get along without them. Then we showed our hand.’ This is Twain showing his hand – trembling with rage. For the most part his language is plain, unadorned, but then he allows for one metaphor to contain all he feels about our behavior in the Philippines: the US ‘derided the sucked orange and threw it away.’

WHAT TWAIN IMAGINED Americans saying to Filipinos of a century ago, about the blessings they wanted to give them, the US has repeated to several other countries: ‘They look doubtful, but in reality they are not. There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil. True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us; we have stamped out a just and intelligent and well-ordered republic; we have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a Shadow from an enemy that hadn’t it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and his liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world; but each detail was for the best. We know this.’

Of course, now that the war in [fill in the name of irrelevant country] is over, we don’t need such reminders, such essays. They’re dated, irrelevant. We’re better now. We know this.

My suspicion is that such political essays are irrelevant primarily because they contradict the values that Americans hold dear. The People who Sit In Darkness have left the darkness for irrelevance. They have become the People for Whom We Don’t Usually Give a Thought. The People for Whom We Don’t Usually Give a Thought don’t want to be ignored, but they have no choice. We long ago pushed aside the European powers and told them the only game in town was ours; and now isn’t it ironic that China, the piss pot of Europe in Twain’s time, now bestows its own blessings upon the world and its people, whether America or the Europeans like it or not? The rules of the American game have become so confused, and have been changed so frequently, that people who formerly sat in the light have started running for the cover of darkness again in alarming numbers. At times it has seemed that America has played the game against itself, against its own interests, as when it propped up or installed unpopular dictators in Iran and Cuba (sadly, America’s legacy in Cuba is not its liberation of the country from the Spanish in 1898, but the corrupt Batista regime in bed with the Mafia that Castro replaced), and trained the Taliban to fight…us.

I’d like to say we meant well, that we always mean well, but we didn’t – as Twain learned with such horror. We didn’t mean well because no institution means well and that in the end is what a country is, an institution, and institutions don’t feel, don’t consider the common good, even if there are good people within that institution, as there always are. Institutions simply act on their own best interests.

In some chamber of the White House in 1898, William McKinley and his advisers certainly had a map on the wall that showed the line of countries needed for the US to extend its power in Asia. Did they need to create a war in Cuba with the stated aim of freeing the oppressed people of that island, but with the real purpose of territorial expansion in Asia? Or was the conquest of the Philippines simply a happy after-fart in McKinley’s mind, an imperial backfire as it were, as is conventionally assumed? I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but the circumstantial evidence seems compelling. America needed coaling stations for its navy. The Philippines sat directly on the line that included Hawaii (annexed in 1898), Guam (in 1898) Wake Island (in 1899). Perhaps the acquisition of the Philippines was not so much a betrayal as a calculated deception from the start.

In a lighter, more cynical mood, Twain penned the following parody of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the sword

He is searching out the hoardings where the strangers’ wealth is stored

He has loosed his fateful lightning, and with woe and death has scored

His lust is marching on.

It’s no wonder, a hundred years, later the Philippines is a blank spot in the consciousness of most Americans – given space in the press only in relation to terrorism or karaoke. I can imagine many good reasons we might want to ignore or forget the country that made the American game virtually unplayable.

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About the author

Robin Hemley

Robin Hemley is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction and the winner of numerous awards for his writing, including the Guggenheim...

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