Samuel Clemens, Eric Garner, and the Ever-Elusive Shred of Hope for Humanity

I think you can tell where this is going.

But first, let’s analyze a thought-provoking, albeit depressing criticism of society by Mark Twain. In his Papers of the Adams Family, Twain calls out the “spectacular and meretricious ways” our society praises itself; example after example after example he demonstrates our ignorance and the hollow self-servitude that we call progress. In his lifetime, Mark Twain witnessed the greatest societal transformation to date: from a Mississippi-river-based trading town originally, Twain lived much of his life in the developing, bustling cities of the early Industrial Revolution and observed the corruption and destruction that accompanied it. In fact, Twain coined the phrase “The Gilded Age” in description of the era, criticizing the low quality of life and his disillusionment with civilization’s being overshadowed by false optimism and alarming change. These years saw the emergence of a new American identity: one of upbeat hardworkingness (not a word) and a drive to climb the newly-built (and wobbly!) economic ladder.

Naturally, for Twain, his sentiments regarding society permeated his writing. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he rebukes the South’s racism and closed-mindedness, as well as many “traditions”, such as the concept of Southern Justice and The Feud. Even today the South maintains a strong self-identity, distinguishing itself from other corners of the country with its unique culture. Twain, who grew up on the outskirts of this region, witnessed many of its unsavory traits, and did not hesitate to put them into words in his literature. Huckleberry Finn strongly emphasizes the fact that most white Southerners were not willing to even acknowledge the possibility that the ownership of another human being — and the degradation that it entails — is wrong. However, through his writing, Twain hints that this is just the tip of the iceberg; society is wholly unwilling to analyze its faults and attempt to right them. With no projection of a change in society’s self-perception, it is easy to label Mark Twain a cynic.

A cynic would argue that they are simply being realistic, and that blind optimism is akin to ignorance and idiocy. Put simply, I would agree.

These last few weeks, we, as a country, witnessed together an abominable failure of the most basic function of a government: to protect its citizens. This falling short on the government end of the social contract has been seen countless times before in our history, yet these instances are different: too many — mostly whites, I will add — believe that our society is post-racial, and that the execution of unarmed minorities at the twitch of a finger or the squeeze of a forearm is not an issue worth addressing. However, parallels can easily be drawn to the cynicism of some, including Twain, in the late nineteenth century. We strive for diversity in our police, not demilitarization. We ache for body cameras, not for enforcing already-established standards for brutality. We yearn for sensitivity, not an end to oppression.

It seems that history does repeat itself.

In fact, here’s an excerpt from a fantastic article from explaining my feelings exactly:

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates has written damningly of the American preference for viewing our society’s crimes as aberrations—betrayals of some deeper, truer virtue, or departures from some righteous intended path. This is a convenient mythology. If the institutions of white American power taking black lives and then exonerating themselves for it is understood as a failure to live out some more authentic American idea, rather than as the expression of that American idea, then your and my and our lives and lifestyles are distinct from those failures. We can stand over here, and shake our heads at the failures over there, and then return to the familiar business, and everything is OK. Likewise, if the individual police officers who take black lives are just some bad cops doing policework badly, and not good cops doing precisely what America has hired and trained them to do, then white Americans may continue calling the police when black people frighten us, free from moral responsibility for the whole range of possible outcomes.

In hindsight, perhaps we overestimated our progress. Just a tad.


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