Barring the natural expression of villainy which we all have, the man looked honest enough. — Mark TwainI really have enjoyed my copy of Cosmo Doogood's Urban Almanac (published by Utne Magazine) this past year. One of the features I have particularly enjoyed are the births (and other special events) listed on each day. It's interesting to see what different sorts of people were born on a particular day, and to imagine what connection there might be between them, aside from the coincidence of the day of their birth.
Today is a good example. Mark Twain (né Samuel Clemens) was born on this date in 1835. One hundred one years later, in 1936, Abbie Hoffman (aka Barry Freed) was also born on this date.
There are some striking similarities. Both men changed their names. Clemens more or less created this character, Mark Twain, who narrated the early success, Innocents Abroad. The name became a "brand", as we say, and it stuck. Abbie changed his name because he was on the lam from the law.
Both men were politically active. We don't often think of Twain as political, but Huck Finn is a novel which focuses on the inhumanity of slavery. One of Twain's better known short writings, The War Prayer, was a response to the Spanish-American War, which he vehemently opposed. Hoffman is best known as one of the Chicago Eight (later 7), arrested in connection with the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The demonstration in Chicago was a response to the VietNam War.
Both men were humorists. Twain was a type of Western humorists in the style of Brett Harte or Artemis Ward - men whose names most have forgotten, except students of the period. Hoffman was a sort of topical humorist, and was very much in the lineage of Lenny Bruce. We remember Twain's humor, because so much transcended his time. Hoffman's humor was, sadly, closely connected to his time, and does not translate so well almost 40 years later.
It's amusing to imagine what either man would have done with current events. Hoffman would have enjoyed poking holes in the B*sh administration. Twain's War Prayer, unfortunately, is as fitting for our current era as it was in his - today, "Christian" preachers blantantly call for the assasination of foreign leaders, and the attack on Iraq is defined as a new crusade or as God's will.
It has been said that there are only two responses when one honestly considers the human condition: either you laugh, or you cry. Both Mark Twain and Abbie Hoffman had high ideals for the human animal, and knew that people of good will shared those ideals. But humans are not ideal; they make mistakes. The human animal is king of unintended consequences. Humans are capable of self-deceipt, self-obsession, and rank double-dealing. When these two men seriously considered the ideal words coming from the politicians' mouths, and the tragic results of politicians' decisions, their choice was humor. They stood up and bravely said the king lacked the ideal cloak he claimed to be wearing. They helped the rest of us wake up, through laughter.