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Jewish World Review June 5, 2001 / 15 Sivan, 5761

Dave Shiflett

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Never the Twain shall they meet

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE Disney Company has taken hostile fire for its movie on the Pearl Harbor controversy, mostly for putting a touch of the smiley face on the marauding Japanese. Critics point out that Disney does a great deal of bidness in contemporary Japan and doesn't want to seem too judgmental about bygone days, lest ill will impede the ongoing greenback harvest.

Most of us can understand that as sound business practice, and agree that Disney is merely part of a Hollywood culture that twists everything it gets its hands on -- including fiction. The chirpy version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the liberties taken with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter make the point. Studios may hire historical consultants, but only to make sure that Cleopatra is wearing the proper attire when she seduces Benjamin Franklin (coming soon from Miramax, it is rumored).

Far more troubling is a story out of Laconia, New Hampshire, in which a dramatic presentation by a Mark Twain impersonator was canceled at a public high school because the actor, Mike Randall, refused to portray Twain as a non-smoker.

In the uncensored version of his performance, Randall fires up a stogie, which is an object Twain honored greatly. According to author Alex Ayres, Twain smoked "ten cheap cigars a day" -- though, as famously observed on his 70th birthday, never more than one at a time.

In Randall's presentation, Twain fires up and observes, "I know it's not allowed in here, that's why I'm going to do it," which leads into a discussion of prohibition, which Twain summed up in another bit of wisdom: "The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become." It happens that his point is highly relevant. As I've pointed out elsewhere, studies show that anti-smoking programs in the schools have no apparent affect, no doubt in part because of assumptions of immortality and the desire to seek that which is denied.

In any event, Randall cannot portray Twain smoking because, as the "tobacco compliance officer" reminded everyone, state law forbids smoking on school grounds. Randall complained that dropping this particular section would require him to learn 30 additional minutes of material. Besides that, as he argued, he was the victim of a "goofball law." For his troubles, the actor was denounced, in the words of a participating attorney, because he "selfishly chose self-promotion, rather than the performance and the furtherance of the persona of Mark Twain. Everyone else be damned."

This is a reminder that we live in curious times. Practices and beliefs once believed to confer a direct flight to hell earn a pat on the back, and in some cases celebration, while practices and beliefs once thought normal and even ennobling (such as prayer) are forbidden by state decree. This causes some people to believe Beelzebub is now fully in the pilot's seat.

Others are somewhat reminded of Twain's observation that "In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made school boards." More to the point, Twain realized that one of the perks of being an educator is the opportunity to manipulate information: "All schools, all colleges have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal valuable knowledge."

We miss Mark, but he probably doesn't miss us.

Meanwhile, it is worth wondering what kind of person would be fit for public high school consumption. So far as smoking and drinking are concerned, the model seems to be the devout Mormon. Not a drop of beer or a puff of tobacco. This purity should probably be accompanied by a severe scowl for those who do partake, as one imagines Aunt Sarah scowled when poor Huck Finn committed his violations of this code. Prayer would certainly be controversial, but most other urges would be acceptable, including the short and long list of romantic possibilities. All told, a tea-totaling, smoke-free, finger-wagging atheistic male prostitute would probably pass muster, though it is worth wondering if such a person has ever existed.

Reality, of course, does not seem to be a major concern. Just as Hollywood relieves Japanese warriors of their most aggressive characteristics, school scrubbers can be relied on to snatch the cigar from Mark Twain's mouth, the martini from FDR's hand, and wipe clean a million unacceptable words from the lips of offenders too numerous to name. All of which may make the authorities happy -- while lending increasing credence to the notion that History is Bunk.

Mark Twain, as we know, entertained dark thoughts about humanity, perhaps darker than the facts always allow. Every once in a while, however, one is hard pressed not to agree with this grand observation: "I believe our Heavenly Father invented Man because he was disappointed with the monkey."



JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.

Up


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© 2000, Dave Shiflett