Mark Twain

The Water Detail (Part 1 of 2)


“It’s not torture when U.S. forces are doing it…” by Carlos Latuff. (Credit:

Now, this is the way we give them the water cure…. Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.

Letter by a U.S. soldier in the Philippines during the Filipino insurgency, 1899-1902.

Abject hypocrisy will bring about the collapse of the US Empire and the end of American democracy. Our tragic flaw was in resplendent, sartorial display last week: hypocrites accused each other of hypocrisy; crocodile tears were in abundance; psychological projections were the order of the day; pious, self-serving justifications were rampant; and all throughout the garish spectacle we could do no less than agree with Mark Twain and feel ashamed of the human race. (more…)

Waiting for Monica

Mónica Puig at the 2014 China Open. (Credit: Tatiana / Wikimedia Commons)

Mónica Puig at the 2014 China Open. (Credit: Tatiana / Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks ago, after writing a series of posts about Puerto Rico for our Hunt the Devil blog, I sat at the bar of the Caribe Hilton in San Juan nursing a drink and watching the sunset on the beach. At such times, it is easy to understand how the first explorers believed they had found Paradise when they discovered the Caribbean islands.

Suddenly my contemplation was disturbed by a storm of police sirens, fire trucks blaring, PA systems screeching, TV news reporters and a mob of hotel guests rushing towards the entrance of the hotel. To the anxious question what is happening? the bartender answered with Beckettian simplicity: “Monica’s here.”

He was referring to the arrival of Monica Puig, first athlete to ever win a gold medal playing for Puerto Rico, fresh from her victory at the Rio Olympics in the single women’s tennis event. She was staying in the hotel complex to train for the upcoming US Open tournament, and to attend a scheduled parade in her honor. At this point in time my wife Margarita, who is a native born Puerto Rican, left the seat beside me to join the rushing crowd trying to get phone pictures of Monica. (more…)

Conspiracy Theory: You Cannot Live


Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia being marched away by British police at Croydon airport in March 1939. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories. They are based mostly on what Mark Twain calls a set of “corn-pone” opinions: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”[i] I find it endlessly fascinating to contemplate why a man or woman would entertain a belief that is patently false (the United States, for example, staged the moon landing in a Hollywood set), and yet reject an occurrence that is demonstrably true (the water in Flint, Michigan is full of lead).

To my increasing horror, I have begun to weave a personal conspiracy theory—probably as a result of losing my mind after listening to too many Republican presidential primary debates. Since my theory—if it ever becomes fact—signals a great danger for many of us, pray bear with me lest we suffer the same fate of Trojans who did not listen to Cassandra.


Afterthoughts on the Iran Treaty

Apadana of Persepolis — in Persepolis, Iran. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

Apadana of Persepolis — in Persepolis, Iran. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Is it not brave to be a King, Techelles?
Usumcasane and Theridamas,
Is it not passing brave to be a King,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?

Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine

Now that the U.S. Congress cannot block the nuclear treaty between Iran, the United States and other world powers, one can exclaim along with Mark Twain, without fear of imperiling the agreement: “There are times when one would like to hang the whole human race, and finish the farce.” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, chap. XXXI).

I have not read the agreement. One of the lessons to be learned from this recent process is that our politicians—and therefore we—do not need to read or know anything about anything before forming an opinion. Even before the agreement was drafted, 47 senators (all Republicans) wrote “an open letter to the leadership of Iran, warning them that any nuclear deal signed between Iran and U.S. President Barack Obama might not last beyond his presidency.” All we need now in these United States—if ever we needed anything else—is to consult God, and/or (the god) Money, not necessarily in that order, and our clear, firm opinion is given unto us. In that spirit, I offer the following maxims: (more…)

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide

Cover of "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism," 1927. (Credit:  Eric Ravilious / Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism,” 1927. (Credit: Eric Ravilious / Wikimedia Commons)

I have been getting my mind improved by examining, after many years of reading George Bernard Shaw, his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.[1]

The book is Shaw’s political and economic testament after decades of proselytizing for Socialism. It is written for women because in America and England, men are supposed “to understand politics and economics and finance and diplomacy and all the rest of a democratic voter’s business on the strength of a Fundamentalist education that excites the public scorn of … Sioux chiefs.” In reality, the male citizen is “ashamed to expose the depths of his ignorance by asking elementary questions; and I dare not insult him by volunteering the missing information.” (xi)

First written in 1928, Shaw gives a lucid definition of Socialism: “an elaborate arrangement of our production and distribution of wealth in such a manner that all our incomes shall be equal.” (377) He was fully aware of the traditional charitable justification for his economic ideas: “The Communism of Christ, of Plato, and of the great religious orders, all take equality in material subsistence for granted as the first condition of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.” (94) As a believer in Creative Evolution, he perceived Socialism as necessary for the survival of the race: “No civilization can finally stand out against the bane of inequality.” (298) (more…)

Mark Twain’s Animal World

Illustration from "Roughing It" by Mark Twain. Illustration by True Williams, 1872. (Credit:

Illustration from “Roughing It” by Mark Twain. Illustration by True Williams, 1872. (Credit:

In Animal Farm, George Orwell created an allegory about totalitarianism that put in doubt the notion that a government of animals would be superior to a government of human beings, or vice versa. In his satirical essay “Man’s Place in the Animal World,” Mark Twain left no doubt that a society of men and women is a de-generation from superior societies found in the Animal Kingdom.

The Great American Trickster explains:

Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out … and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.


Ambrose Bierce on the Meaning of War

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

Ambrose Bierce—Indiana youth, Civil War soldier, and newspaper writer—did not much like people. His infantry years were perhaps the highlight of his life, even though he killed men in battle and was, himself, shot in the head.

Bierce took a rather bitter view of human affairs. His two sons preceded him in death, one committing suicide and another dying from complications of alcoholism. He divorced his wife, suffered from asthma, and finally disappeared at age 71, supposedly into the chaos of the Mexican revolution, where maybe he joined up with Pancho Villa and perhaps wrote to a friend that he expected to be “stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags,” which “beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.” (more…)

Founding Mothers

Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrea, 1750.

Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrea, 1750.

Weary of the litany of yet another clownish politician invoking the Founding Fathers of the country without acknowledging Founding Mothers, I wrote down the following list of exceptional women who should be given no less credit for the formation of the soul and character of the nation.

The list parts from two premises: 1) following Mark Twain, the belief that political institutions are only a small part of the life of a country; and 2) that unless you are the goddess Athena, sprung motherless from Zeus’ brow, all human beings and activities can trace their origins back not only to fathers, but also mothers.

Borges once said that all lists immediately compel the memory of names and things that are left out of the list. He implied that the true purpose of lists is precisely to highlight the names of people and things that have been left out. In that spirit, and with no conviction of being complete or exclusive, the following personal minimal list is offered: (more…)

FOX Gets It

Fox News, is an American basic cable and satellite news television channel that is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of 21st Century Fox.  (Credit:  FOX News Channel / Wikimedia Commons)

Fox News, is an American basic cable and satellite news television channel that is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of 21st Century Fox. (Credit: FOX News Channel / Wikimedia Commons)

My nephew made a good point the other day when he asked, tongue in cheek, “Who would watch FOX if they didn’t constantly make it sound like the sky is falling?” I had been mocking the network’s cynical claim to render the news “fair and balanced.”

FOX’s motto is an affront to many of my political ilk. Embedding rightwing talking points into its “hard news” reporting is commonplace. Likewise, introducing a discussion of immigration policy with a Rush Limbaugh rant, conducting a rhetorical war on Obamacare with one-sided coverage and newsroom graphics such as “HEALTH CARE LAW INCLUDES 20 NEW OR INCREASED TAXES ON AMERICAN FAMILIES OR SMALL BUSINESSES,” or featuring former Reagan aide K T McFarland to discuss White House “excuses” for Benghazi—all of this is business as usual (Eric Wemple, “Fox News All Day: Hard and Conservative).

Bill O’Reilly, host of FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, knows the motto well. By his own account, he is “the fairest guy on the planet.” Mitt Romney knows that FOX News viewers are “true believers.” And nearly half the people in a 2011 poll (including 77% of the Republicans surveyed) believe FOX News is “fair and balanced.”

An academic colleague of mine vowed to watch FOX News only. I feared for his soul. A year later he was still sane and seemingly not possessed. (more…)

Two War Hymns Overturned

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manila, during the Philippine-American war, 1899. (Credit: Library of Congress)

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manila, during the Philippine-American war, 1899. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In 1861, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe heard Union troops singing at a review outside Washington D.C. She composed the well-known verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” In time, the song with her words became the most recognized hymn of the Civil War. Her last stanza:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on. (Civil War Heritage Trails)

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

In 1901, during the War in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, Mark Twain—most glorious of American Tricksters—mused that Filipinos, to whom we were extending the “Blessings of Civilization,” were surely saying to themselves: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” In Twain’s estimation, it was necessary that the Battle Hymn of the Republic be “Brought Down to Date” to conform to the kind of war the U.S. was fighting in the Pacific. (more…)