Magazine article The American Prospect

Send Up the Clowns

Magazine article The American Prospect

Send Up the Clowns

Article excerpt

"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. …

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