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Mark Twain, “Stirring Times in Austria,” Harper’s, March 1898
Mark Twain, “Concerning The Jews,” Harper’s, September 1899
In the last days, an important compromise bill negotiated between Republican and Democratic moderates and strongly backed by President Bush has gone down to a surprising defeat. It seems particularly the victim of a withering attack from the political right which constituted Bush’s celebrated “base.” Their tirades against the bill have had an unmistakable measure of xenophobia and fear-mongering, as television personalities claimed, for instance, that immigrants have produced an epidemic of leprosy in the country, or would end the country’s “dominance by white Christian males.”
Here’s a Lou Dobbs transcript – one of dozens of stories he has aired on his CNN show on the “threat” posed by immigrants:
DOBBS:… Deadly imports. The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans. Highly-contagious diseases are now crossing our borders decades after those diseases had been eradicated in this country…
DOBBS: Extraordinary is the only reaction I can offer. First, the health officials saying it’s unrealistic to stop this at the border. This is a refrain we hear from everyone who wants to — even health officials concerned about public health. The fact that we’re somehow helpless to defend this country, to secure our borders? What in the world is that about?
ROMANS: He says in his experience have you to go at the at-risk groups in their neighborhoods, in the populations here in this country and attack the problem from that way. Not stop it at the borders.
DOBBS: Well, certainly that makes great sense, as well. But to stop future cases it seems clear that one would have to secure our borders. Secondly, these other diseases, tuberculosis, leprosy, malaria?
ROMANS: It’s interesting, because the woman in our piece told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.
These claims were absurd. In fact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that there have been 7,000 leprosy cases over the last thirty years, not the past three, and nobody knows how many of those cases involve illegal immigrants. Still, Dobbs resisted correcting his hysterical report.
For Bill O’Reilly, the anchor figure of Fox News, the immigration bill has an ulterior motive, which is an ethnic restructuring of America. On May 16, O’Reilly stated:
Now in 1986, President Reagan thought he could solve the [immigration] problem by granting about 3 million illegal aliens amnesty. The New York Times was in heaven, editorializing back then, quote, “The new law won’t work miracles but it will induce most employers to pay attention, to turn off the magnets, to slow the tide.” Of course, just the opposite happened. But the Times hasn’t learned a thing. That’s because the newspaper and many far-left thinkers believe the white power structure that controls America is bad, so a drastic change is needed.
According to the lefty zealots, the white Christians who hold power must be swept out by a new multicultural tide, a rainbow coalition, if you will. This can only happen if demographics change in America.
An open-border policy and the legalization of millions of Hispanic illegal aliens would deeply affect the political landscape in America. That’s what The New York Times and many others on the left want. They might get it. And that’s the “Memo.”
And the next day, while claiming to “reluctantly support” the measure, O’Reilly said:
there will be unintended consequences all over the place. The new census report says America’s now one-third minority. And in four states – California, New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii – whites are the minority.
One of the amazing things about these statements, which have a toehold in scholarship in the works of Samuel Huntington, for instance, is an amazing ignorance of history. For instance, O’Reilly seems unaware of the fact that while “whites” (a very vague term, which he apparently defines to the exclusion of Hispanics or whatever ethnicity) are indeed a minority in California, New Mexico, Texas and Hawaii – they were also a minority in those states at the time of the American Civil War. But O’Reilly is working hard to draw upon an image once honed by the fear-mongers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the so-called “yellow peril” – unless Asians were excluded, they would simply engulf and overcome us. They presented a “challenge to the White Race.” This technique was tried and proven, and it therefore has its obvious appeal to the current demagogues seeking to make hay from the anti-immigration issue.
America is a land of immigrants, and beginning in the nineteenth century, each successive wave of immigrant has sought to close the door behind it – to block new groups from being added to the mix. There were the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Central and Eastern Europeans and especially the Jews. Xenophobia and racial demagoguery have been political constants in this country. As the pages of Harper’s itself show, in the formative stages of the Republican Party – a process almost obsessively reported by the magazine and its contributors in the 1850’s and 60’s – the immigration issue was a highly volatile one. In the end, the Republican Party’s stout refusal, under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, to embrace a rhetoric of xenophobia and hatred, led to the Know-Nothing Party, which, lacking any consistent vision other than hatred, floundered and failed. Today, however, it would appear, the Know-Nothings are back with a vengeance, and are doing their best again to infiltrate and control the GOP.
Now it seems to me that changes in immigration policy are necessary to address the changing situation within the country – its available resource base, its needs for economic growth and productivity and considerations of humanity. The maturing of the country and the transformation of its economy to a less industrial and more service footing dictate a change in policies towards immigrants as well. In particular, they point to a new set of policies which place a premium on immigrants who have something to offer the nation – brains, special skills or investment capital, for instance, but also agricultural labor and other jobs which Americans do not want to perform – and a closing of the doors that have long been open to a broader category of immigrant. That means I am very broadly sympathetic to and in agreement with those who want to be far more selective in the immigration process. In fact, it appears that there is a very broad consensus in the country on this point.
The controversy focuses not on these objectives, but on how they are to be reached and the tools that are employed to reach them. Will the country permit a dialogue that bubbles over with ethnic hatred, and allows racial appeals as its base? Will it permit the broad disparagement of the immigrants as “illegals” – the latest shorthand for people who are apparently something somewhat less than fully human? These are very profound questions which go to the core of America’s self-understanding as a nation. Indeed, as a nation of immigrants.
They provide a good opportunity, incidentally, to revisit the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah – which in the view of much of the contemporary Genesis scholarship has very little to do with sexual deviancy and very much to do with how a society treats immigrants. In fact, it’s not just the modern interpretation, since Josephus Flavius, writing about the time of Christ, took exactly the same view:
Now, about this time the Sodomites, overwhelmingly proud of their numbers and the extent of their wealth, showed themselves insolent to men and impious to the divinity, insomuch that they no more remembered the benefits that they had received from him, hated foreigners and avoided any contact with others. Indignant at this conduct, God accordingly resolved to chastise them for their arrogance, and not only to uproot their city, but to blast their land so completely that it should yield neither plant nor fruit whatsoever from that time forward. (Jewish Antiquities bk. i, sec. 194)
At the peak of the Gilded Age, several groups bore the brunt of ethnic character assassination in America. The East Asians were broadly and effectively excluded. And then there were the teaming immigrants of Central and Eastern Europe, whose numbers were peaking as the century drew to an end. These immigrants were disproportionately Jews, and while there were broad brush labels (some of which have, fortunately, passed from use in American English), it seems clear that the Jews bore the worst of it.
Mark Twain, whose name was tightly linked with Harper’s throughout this period, was deeply concerned about the immigration issue, and particularly the tendency of those opposing immigration to pursue their goals by racial stereotyping. He took a number of different approaches to dealing with this problem, most of which focused on lampooning the narrow-minded bigots whose voices have always been heard so loudly in the American democracy. But in two contributions at the century’s end, he settled on a different technique – reverse stereotyping. Twain decided that he would undertake to define the Jews in a way that reversed all the negative stereotypes with which they were being tarred. The main essay, “Concerning the Jews,” appeared in the September 1899 issue. It is a work of unmistakable Twain genius, but it broke new ground for him.
I will begin by saying that if I thought myself prejudiced against the Jew, I should hold it fairest to leave this subject to a person not crippled in that way… All I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.
And Twain goes on into a highly humorous passage on Satan (see Quote for the Day), in which he shows his willingness to make the case for Satan, too. This is humorous on one plane and deadly serious on another. Twain is taking aim at the all-too-Christian tendency to demonize the “other,” a tactic which arose in the early days of the Christian faith and is best manifested in the doctrinal creation of Satan. In defending Satan, of course, Twain is taking issue with this entire process. We had to wait a long time to find a religious historian who could address this same topic with anything like the authority that Twain mustered. And as Prof. Elaine Pagels pointed out in The Origin of Satan, when the notion of Satan was introduced it served multiple purposes, but the first was the demonization of the Jews.
Twain addresses six points put to him by a letter-writer. They are:
The Jew is a well behaved citizen.
Can ignorance and fanaticism alone account for his unjust treatment?
Can Jews do anything to improve the situation?
The Jews have no party; they are non-participants.
Will the persecution ever come to an end?
What has become of the golden rule?
And each of these points Twain takes as a launching point for reverse demonization. So for instance on the first:
[The Jews are] entitled to be called the most benevolent of all the races of men… The facts are all on the credit side of the proposition that the Jew is a good and orderly citizen. Summed up, they certify that he is quiet, peaceable, industrious, unaddicted to high crimes and brutal dispositions; that his family life is commendable; that he is not a burden upon public charities; that he is not a beggar… These are the very quintessentials of good citizenship.
Does ignorance and fanaticism alone account for his unjust treatment? No, says Twain. Certainly ignorance and fanaticism play a major role, but jealousy far outstrips them. And this points to the difficulty of remedying the situation, since it is the very virtues of the Jews that provoke such animosity.
Can the Jews do anything to improve the situation? Yes. He argues for their full engagement in the democratic political process. This is the way to compel recognition and to still the voice of the bigots. Indeed, he chides the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for their lack of political engagement – a foolish tactic, he says. Indeed, the California Republican Party seems to have learned this lesson. It embraced a virulent anti-immigrant political program under Governor Pete Wilson. And the result was that it was shoved to the political sidelines in California for a decade.
Will the persecution come to an end? Twain believes in the force of civilization and its ability to soften prejudice, but not to eliminate it.
On the score of race prejudice and trade, I have the idea that it will continue. That is, here and there in spots about the world, where a barbarous ignorance and a sort of mere animal civilization prevail; but I do not think that elsewhere the Jew need now stand in nay fear of being robbed and raided. Among the high civilizations he seems very comfortably situated indeed, and to have more than his proportionate share of the prosperities going. It has that look in Vienna.
Twain spent 1898-99 in Vienna, impressed with what he saw in the glorious days of the Ringstrasse, a culture that shortly was to give us Schnitzler, Hoffmannsthal, Musil, Freud, Klimt, Schiele and Mahler. He can, I think, be forgiven for not seeing the great evil which was lurking behind this glittering façade.
And finally we come to Twain’s conclusion:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
It’s a remarkable, powerful piece, bent on shattering prejudices. And there’s no doubt that it had an important effect in America of the age. Twain’s voice was powerful and respected, with deep reach into what we now call “Red-state America.” Twain wanted to hit the bigots over the head and make them think. And no other American writer succeeded in this thankless task quite as Twain did.
But if Twain were with us today, and pecking at that Remington typewriter of which he was so notoriously fond, I have no doubt how he’d be heading his contribution to next month’s Harper’s. It would be called:
“Concerning the Mexicans.”
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature