What Can Mark Twain Tell Us About Syria?


After reading my last post (The Virus of the Mind: Imperialism, Syria, and Selective Accountability), someone directed me to an article written by the political scientist Dr. Joel Johnson (Augustana College). In “A Connecticut Yankee in Saddam’s Court: Mark Twain on Benevolent Imperialism” (2007) the author uses an analysis of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) to provide three different perspectives on foreign intervention. These perspectives and Twain’s commentaries, he argues, can serve as “hard won” truths that can be applied to current events: in his case, the Iraq War. Even if literature cannot always stop a war, he notes, at the very least it can inspire in us a moment to pause and reflect upon our motivations, beliefs, and goals.

A Connecticut Yankee is about a man named Hank Morgan who, after getting hit in the head, goes back in time to King Arthur’s Court where he uses his knowledge of the 19th century to become – in the eyes of the peasantry – a magician. While there he also tries to modernize/Americanize sixth century England but fails (terribly). Hank is not without his victories, though, and it is in this mix of success/failure that Dr. Johnson’s three interpretations can shed the most light.

  1. First, Hank can be seen as a “Benevolent Reformer” just trying to make the land a better place. He does this by building factories and educating a select group of Englishmen with the hopes that this will end the political and social hierarchy.
  2. Second, Hank is an arrogant “Boss” who in his reforms fails to understand the nuances/traditions of this medieval culture. Power hungry and at times a coward, he is inconsistent in his application and this ultimately leads to all of his work being for naught.
  3. Lastly, Hank is a “Justified Revolutionary” with a reasonable moral compass and he is legitimately interested in improving Camelot’s condition in every way. In many ways, because he has the capacity to act he is obligated to do what’s good for the land.

While these may conflict along the edges, this is not a weakness of the story as much as it is its strength: it’s an insight into the complexity of nation-building. For Twain, even his own views on imperialism were seemingly contradictory. For example, even though he was an anti-imperialist later in life, Twain hinted that there were circumstances in which foreign-intervention was not only desirable but obligatory.

On the one hand, one wishes to do what’s best for a people according to a whole charter of moral principles but good intentions don’t always win the hearts and minds of a populace. Furthermore, the projecting our values and mores onto another people can have the consequence of blowing up in our face — we assume everyone is climbing over themselves for liberal democracy but that’s not always so. It’s at this point in the argument where Dr. Johnson concludes with such a beautiful note on how these distinctions can give us insight into the process and motivations behind foreign intervention.

I apologize for quoting it at length, but it was hard not to (p. 58-59):

Assuming that each of the three interpretations is plausible to a significant degree (just as the claims to rule among the various classes within the Aristotelian polity are partially justified), what specific lessons can we take away from Connecticut Yankee? To proponents of benevolent intervention, Twain’s book warns of the impulse to Boss. This is, to some extent, a matter of human nature, for all people relish power. However, democracy exacerbates the problem by removing the formal hierarchies that lock people into static social roles. The desire for distinction is now joined with the institution of political equality; the combination makes for endless, anxious competition among individuals in the social and economic realms. The snobbery of wealth and education, which replaces the snobbery of noble pedigree, can easily carry over into international relations, as technologically advanced nations scorn the traditional societies that lag behind. Just as Hank repeatedly compares the people of Camelot to children, citizens in developed democracies are prone to view those living under authoritarian regimes as either (1) ignorant or (2) lovers of democracy and technology whom fear of punishment holds in silent obedience. In either case, the conclusion is that they are incapable of improving their lot without the intervention of a more “civilized” people—a conclusion Americans appear to endorse, as they attempt to restructure much of Asia and the Middle East. It is too easy for the benevolent nation to conclude that because it is the helper, it is morally superior to the helped. Needless to say, kind intentions are rarely sufficient, in Twain’s mind, to establish moral superiority.

Furthermore, Hank’s experiment in reform reminds us of the complicated nature of democratization. Straighter roads, cleaner water, better technology, and newspapers may all contribute to democratic progress, but unless the new regime can speak to the soul in the same way the old regime did, the revolution is doomed to fail. Hank knew the Church was powerful, but he could never fully understand the depth of attachment people had for it. Citizens living in rational political systems tend to discuss issues in terms of interests, but the language of self-interest makes little sense in Camelot. Both Arthur’s heroism in the smallpox hut and the flight of Hank’s fledgling democrats after the Interdict illustrate how other concerns (chivalric honor, fear of spiritual punishment, loyalty to one’s feudal lord) trump the sort of utilitarian calculation Hank is used to. It is an open question whether the ongoing infrastructure improvements in Iraq, which overlap significantly with Hank’s reforms in Camelot, will have a noticeably positive impact on the chances for democracy, absent a wellspring of democratic faith among the Iraqi people. The old regime is toppled, but will a democratic nation arise once the liberators have left?

On the other hand, Twain has little patience for those opponents of intervention who rely upon the notion of cultural relativism. He is confident that one can identify severe injustices when one sees them—as Hank does in Camelot—and he is committed to the idea that people have a moral duty to help the oppressed. There are better and worse regimes, and as long as one operates with the proper intentions, and with an adequate understanding of the people one is trying to help, then giving assistance can be a glorious thing. … Insofar as the war in Iraq is one of liberation, it must meet the same basic test. If America is in Iraq merely to provide for its own security, or to ensure a reliable energy source, then Twain would be highly suspicious. Only if the United States is truly committed to the democratic reform of Iraq, being willing to bear substantial casualties and economic strain in the process, could Twain possibly be satisfied.

So what can this tell us about Syria?

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