September 14, 2010

A Meeting of Twain in Something Old and Something New

A Meeting of the Twain in Something Old and Something New

2010 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Mark Twain. What better way to acknowledge the milestone than to read some classic works of the great American writer?
I have started to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it is one that has always interested me but one that I never seemed to have time to read. ( I don’t really now but I’m reading it anyway).

I’ve also been catching up on the news during my momentary rest on the road to my next art exhibition in October. A significant amount of this news has taken on the heat of upcoming elections with tensions mounting on all sides. The Tea Party and its proponents seemed to be more vocal as of late so I decided to read some of the transcripts of Glenn Beck’s rallying cries to find out for myself what the attractions were to his followers and the concerns were to his critics. This was no easy task because with any public figure, there are reams of commentators to mine through to get down to the actual transcripts - the downside of the information highway. But find a few transcripts I did. After reading them I am afraid that I would have to lean towards Glenn Beck’s detractors in my sentiments.

One transcript of a speech by Glenn Beck opens with his description of his vomiting from a hangover and concludes on the same note. I was completely baffled by how such a presentation could garner adulation from a crowd. I personally have greater appreciation for public figures who do not feel compelled to address their minions by speaking into, out of, or from on top of a toilet. I might add here that I am an equal opportunity critic of this particular technique. Some years ago the National Organization for Women organized a campaign to get Rush Limbaugh off the air that they dubbed “Flush Rush.” Creative assonance aside, I found that I could not donate funds nor could I sign any petitions calling for disposing a human being via a commode - albeit even metaphorically.

From an aesthetic point of view, then, the Glenn Beck rallies held little appeal for this reader. From a stylistic point of view as well an ideological one, they also fell short. As a former English teacher married to an English professor it was difficult to read lines from a transcript of a Glenn Beck speech and not see red. No, not the red of anger that infuriates most of his critics, but the red circles, lines and arrows one might find on a D minus freshman college composition paper. Some examples are:
“You do not know what you if you’re doing it because your family has done it?”
and “Do you wanted to be an invisible, magic sky god that you think is there?” One can only hope that the errors were in the transcript and that Mr. Beck didn’t actually mouth those words. If so, perhaps he needs a better speech writer, a bigger pencil eraser, or both.

The “Restoring Honor” speech was a peculiar amalgam of McCarthyism and libertarianism with a liberal sprinkling of sermonizing thrown in for good measure. There was something decidedly incongruent, though, about the actual tone of his speech and Glenn Beck’s claim to an ideological lineage spanning from Moses to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King.

I couldn’t quite figure out how to describe this spokesperson for the Tea Party until I began reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Glenn Beck has his own reading recommendations for people he wishes to alert to dangerous threats to the American way of life. Most of these threats, according to Mr Beck, are progressives and communists, which are actually one and the same, he tells us from his “history” lesson. But perhaps more on that later. I would argue that the best resources for understanding threats to civilized society come from the ranks of novelists, artists, and scholars - not from political pundits with a self-serving agenda. From the former, a character from Huckleberry Finn caught my attention.

In the opening chapters of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain introduces us to the ignoble character, Pap, Huck Finn’s father. Pap, an illiterate, abusive alcoholic , personifies the wicked streak that ran through American culture of Twain’s time. He is ignorant and proud of it, bullying everyone who does not join him in his ignorance. He beats Huckleberry Finn for going to school and tears up his academic award. Pap at one time claimed a religious conversion and a change of ways while secretly continuing degenerate behavior. In one scene, in a drunken rage, he rails out against the “govment” imagining that the “govment” is taking away his rights. Pap starts ranting about a legal loophole which allowed a light-skinned highly educated black man to vote - something that really got his goat.

Fast forward a hundred years from the death of Mark Twain to a rally in Washington DC. A man describing an alcoholic hangover rails against the government, entitlements to public education and the administration of the country’s light-skinned highly educated Black president. Perhaps there is a little less of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to this man’s address than he and his adherents would like to think and a little more of Pap.

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