Mark Twain (1835-1910) is one of the most felicitous and rewarding authors in all of English-language literature. He started his writing career as a journalist, so in addition to the beloved novels like “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” Twain wrote several travelogues.
In “The Innocents Abroad,” Twain described his 1867 voyage to Europe and the Middle East. When he arrived in what is now Lebanon, he was shown Noah’s Tomb. Twain gently poked fun at naive religious certitudes:
The proof that this is the genuine spot where Noah was buried can only be doubted by uncommonly increduous people. The evidence is pretty straight. Shem, the son of Noah, was present at the burial, and showed the place to his descendants, who transmitted the knowledge to thier descendants, and the lineal descendants of these introduced themselves to us to-day. It was pleasant to make the acquaintance of members of so respectable a family. It was a thing to be proud of. It was the next thing to being acquainted with Noah himself.
He then reflected on the condition of the inhabitants. And sounded positively neoconservative.
But what does “neoconservative” mean? For many on the Left, it is simply a curse-word. Translation: “People to the Right of me whose politics I abhor.” It has replaced “fascist” as a mindless, all-purpose term of abuse.
But “neoconservative” actually means something. Unfortunately, since the original neoconservatives were mostly a bunch of New York Jewish intellectuals, just what it means has been endlessly debated. But the following points will serve as a rough guide.
The neoconservatives originally were liberals, who became increasingly disturbed by the growing influence of the illiberal Left in the Democratic Party. Eventually, instead of staying and fighting, they migrated to the Republican Party. (If this story seems unlikely, consider that if vintage-1960 JFK were to time travel to the present, he would be more at home in the Republican Party (at least, the pre-Tea Party GOP) than the Democratic Party.)
One of the most significant differences between the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives is their approach to foreign policy. Traditional conservatives tend to be “realists,” meaning they hold that American foreign policy should simply serve American interests, while defining America’s interests rather narrowly. By contrast, the neoconservatives tend to believe in the universality of liberal democracy, and that the United States should support the spread of liberal democracy. This benefits those who emerge out from under undemocratic regimes; and since democracies are rarely dangerous to one another, it benefits America, as well.
Back to Mark Twain. Here’s what he thought of the Arabs ruled by the Turks:
If ever an oppressed race existed, it is this one we see fettered around us under the inhuman tyranny of the Ottoman empire. I wish Europe would let Russia annihilate Turkey a little–not much, but enough to make it difficult to find the place again without a divining-rod or a diving-bell. [The Crimean War was then recent history]. . . These people are naturally good-hearted and intelligent, and, with education and liberty, would be a happy and contented race. They often appeal to the stranger to know if the great world will not some day come to their relief and save them.
Reminds one of Natan Sharansky or George W. Bush, doesn’t it? Echoes of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein! Like Sharansky, Bush, and like-minded people, Twain did not doubt that Arabs are capable of liberty and self-government. He did not doubt that they wanted it. He considered that free peoples should aid unfree peoples.
But wait–wasn’t Mark Twain an anti-imperialist? Yes. For example, later in life he came out strongly against America’s involvement in the Phillippines. But note that his objection was that “I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.” Spreading democracy is one thing, imperialism is another. So there’s no contradiction between his rejection of the Phillippine adventure and his words in The Innocents Abroad.
The illiberal Left attempts to discredit neoconservatism by sneering, “You can’t impose democracy by force.” But that’s a straw man. When America is forced to go to war, as it was when attacked by Japan in 1941, it should take the opportunity afforded by military victory to introduce democratic reforms. This makes the former enemy a potential friend, and lessens the likelihood of another war. But in other circumstances no one believes in spreading democracy at the point of a gun. Economic, political and moral leverage are the tools of choice.
I think Mark Twain would have understood this, and would have approved.