Somehow, I fell into reading bits and pieces of Mark Twain’s writings. It started with this piece linked from some mp3 blog. Then I started poking through the more obscure works at Project Gutenberg, and wound up with What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us. I don’t know the precise background of this, but I did find some great quotes.
Twain grabbed me with this paragraph, which may be repackaged for a permanent placement on this site:
I saw by his own intimations that he was an Observer, and had a System that used by naturalists and other scientists. The naturalist collects many bugs and reptiles and butterflies and studies their ways a long time patiently. By this means he is presently able to group these creatures into families and subdivisions of families by nice shadings of differences observable in their characters. Then he labels all those shaded bugs and things with nicely descriptive group names, and is now happy, for his great work is completed, and as a result he intimately knows every bug and shade of a bug there, inside and out. It may be true, but a person who was not a naturalist would feel safer about it if he had the opinion of the bug. I think it is a pleasant System, but subject to error.
I like the measured skepticism about our ability to truly understand the world, and his description of natural history is as good as any, I suppose
Twain then proceeds to a more precise consideration of M. Bourget, but could just as easily be talking about David Brooks:
The Observer of Peoples has to be a Classifier, a Grouper, a Deducer, a Generalizer, a Psychologizer; and, first and last, a Thinker. He has to be all these, and when he is at home, observing his own folk, he is often able to prove competency. But history has shown that when he is abroad observing unfamiliar peoples the chances are heavily against him. He is then a naturalist observing a bug, with no more than a naturalist’s chance of being able to tell the bug anything new about itself, and no more than a naturalist’s chance of being able to teach it any new ways which it will prefer to its own.
Moving on from Paul Bourget’s unfortunate tendency to classify people as “the American Coquette,” or “the Bobo in Paradise,” Twain addresses another unfortunate practice: credulity.
He entered those things in his note-book without suspicion, he takes them out and delivers them to the world with a candor and simplicity which show that he believed them genuine. They throw altogether too much light. They reveal to the native the origin of his find. I suppose he knows how he came to make that novel and captivating discovery, by this time. If he does not, any American can tell him–any American to whom he will show his anecdotes. It was “put up” on him, as we say. It was a jest–to be plain, it was a series of frauds. To my mind it was a poor sort of jest, witless and contemptible. The players of it have their reward, such as it is; they have exhibited the fact that whatever they may be they are not ladies. M. Bourget did not discover a type of coquette; he merely discovered a type of practical joker. One may say the type of practical joker, for these people are exactly alike all over the world. Their equipment is always the same: a vulgar mind, a puerile wit, a cruel disposition as a rule, and always the spirit of treachery.
In his Chapter IV. M. Bourget has two or three columns gravely devoted to the collating and examining and psychologizing of these sorry little frauds. One is not moved to laugh. There is nothing funny in the situation; it is only pathetic. The stranger gave those people his confidence, and they dishonorably treated him in return.
But one must be allowed to suspect that M. Bourget was a little to blame himself. Even a practical joker has some little judgment. He has to exercise some degree of sagacity in selecting his prey if he would save himself from getting into trouble. In my time I have seldom seen such daring things marketed at any price as these conscienceless folk have worked off at par on this confiding observer. It compels the conviction that there was something about him that bred in those speculators a quite unusual sense of safety, and encouraged them to strain their powers in his behalf. They seem to have satisfied themselves that all he wanted was “significant” facts, and that he was not accustomed to examine the source whence they proceeded. It is plain that there was a sort of conspiracy against him almost from the start–a conspiracy to freight him up with all the strange extravagances those people’s decayed brains could invent.
The lengths to which they went are next to incredible. They told him things which surely would have excited any one else’s suspicion, but they did not excite his. Consider this:
“There is not in all the United States an entirely nude statue.”
If an angel should come down and say such a thing about heaven, a reasonably cautious observer would take that angel’s number and inquire a little further before he added it to his catch. What does the present observer do? Adds it. Adds it at once. Adds it, and labels it with this innocent comment:
“This small fact is strangely significant.”
It does seem to me that this kind of observing is defective.
In this long, but illuminating passage, Twain essentially describes the problems in journalism today. On issues like the Iraq War, the 9–11 report and its uneasy relationship with its congressional counterparts, stem cells, Abu Ghraib, John Kerry and George W. Bush’s time in uniform, and a host of other issues, the press response is simply to report what was said, rather than to assess it’s accuracy.
Americans fear nudity, even in art
Dateline: America. Well placed individuals stated today that “there is not in all the United States an entirely nude statue.” This small fact is strangely significant. Great world powers including the ancient Greeks and Romans have appreciated the artistic representation of nude people. In many cases, the decline in this form of art correlates with the decline of those empires. The reign of Queen Victoria marked the end of the ascendancy of the British Empire, and is also noted for its repression of public sexuality. …
And so forth. I ask little of the world, but I do ask that reporters dig deeper. When John Ashcroft announces that his agents have averted dozens of attacks and convicted bajillions of terrorists, I’d like the press to report that only after reviewing documents. I’d like the press to announce that President Bush released all of his military records only after determining that all the records that must exist actually do. I’d like articles about Sam Brownback’s touting of adult stem cell research to make clear not only that he is trying to undermine embryonic stem cell research, but that medical researchers are in broad agreement that both approaches are important in the search for cures to devastating diseases. The story isn’t “Brownback touts adult stem cells,” it’s “Brownback asserts false dichotomy between adult and embryonic stem cells.” It seems like reporters who are given nicknames like “Steno Sue” are practicing the same defective style of observing that Twain skewers so brilliantly.
When Twain writes the paragraph beginning, “But one must be allowed to suspect that M. Bourget was a little to blame
himself,” he gets to the heart of the problem. We can and must blame administration officials who lie to a reporter because “they seem to have satisfied themselves that all he wanted was ‘significant’ facts, and that he was not accustomed to examine the source whence they proceeded.” But a journalist who allows that perception to stand is equally culpable. This is why people are so exercised about Robert Novak’s willingness to blow a CIA agent’s cover just because the White House leaked the information to him. Many people have pointed out that the story a good journalist would have written was “White House attempts to leak ID of secret agent.” Many – perhaps a dozen or more – reporters received the leak. Many did the honorable thing and refused to act on it. But the leaker knew he must “exercise some degree of sagacity in selecting his prey if he would save himself from getting into trouble.” He only leaked to people who would look the other way, and kept trying until someone actually ran the story.
This is also why the New York Times mea culpa was so frustrating. They admitted that they had been fooled as badly as M. Bourget – that there was, in Twain’s words, “a conspiracy to freight [it] up with all the strange extravagances those people’s decayed brains could invent”. The Times rightly calls the “conscienceless folk” what they are, but refused to make Twain’s leap and call the kind of observing defective, even as the liars lied.