September 30, 2014

Mark Twain's Corn-pone Opinions: "He was a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man"

marktwaincornpone.jpgFIFTY YEARS AGO, when I was a boy of fifteen and helping to inhabit a Missourian village on the banks of the Mississippi, I had a friend whose society was very dear to me because I was forbidden by my mother to partake of it. He was a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man -a slave -who daily preached sermons from the top of his master's woodpile, with me for sole audience. He imitated the pulpit style of the several clergymen of the village, and did it well, and with fine passion and energy. To me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States and would some day be heard from....

One of his texts was this:

"You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."....

I think Jerry was right, in the main, but I think he did not go far enough.

1. It was his idea that a man conforms to the majority view of his locality by calculation and intention. This happens, but I think it is not the rule.

2. It was his idea that there is such a thing as a first-hand opinion; an original opinion; an opinion which is coldly reasoned out in a man's head, by a searching analysis of the facts involved, with the heart unconsulted, and the jury room closed against outside influences. It may be that such an opinion has been born somewhere, at some time or other, but I suppose it got away before they could catch it and stuff it and put it in the museum.

I am persuaded that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion, or any other matter that is projected into the field of our notice and interest, is a most rare thing -- if it has indeed ever existed....

The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. The Smiths like the new play; the Joneses go to see it, and they copy the Smith verdict. Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life -- even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man's self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter.

"A political emergency brings out the corn-pone opinion in fine force in its two chief varieties -- the pocketbook variety, which has its origin in self-interest, and the bigger variety, the sentimental variety -- the one which can't bear to be outside the pale...."

Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity. Sometimes conformity has a sordid business interest -- the bread-and-butter interest -- but not in most cases, I think. I think that in the majority of cases it is unconscious and not calculated; that it is born of the human being's natural yearning to stand well with his fellows and have their inspiring approval and praise -- a yearning which is commonly so strong and so insistent that it cannot be effectually resisted, and must have its way.

A political emergency brings out the corn-pone opinion in fine force in its two chief varieties -- the pocketbook variety, which has its origin in self-interest, and the bigger variety, the sentimental variety -- the one which can't bear to be outside the pale; can't bear to be in disfavor; can't endure the averted face and the cold shoulder; wants to stand well with his friends, wants to be smiled upon, wants to be welcome, wants to hear the precious words, "He's on the right track!" Uttered, perhaps by an ass, but still an ass of high degree, an ass whose approval is gold and diamonds to a smaller ass, and confers glory and honor and happiness, and membership in the herd. For these gauds many a man will dump his life-long principles into the street, and his conscience along with them. We have seen it happen. In some millions of instances.

Men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side; they arrive at convictions, but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand and are of no particular value. They swarm with their party, they feel with their party, they are happy in their party's approval; and where the party leads they will follow, whether for right and honor, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.

In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all? I studied that mighty question to the bottom -- came out empty. Half of our people passionately believe in high tariff, the other half believe otherwise. Does this mean study and examination, or only feeling? The latter, I think. I have deeply studied that question, too -- and didn't arrive. We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it the Voice of God.

Posted by Vanderleun at September 30, 2014 11:44 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

That piece moved beyond the excellent, Gerard.

Profound truth, eloquently wrapped up.

Posted by: Daphne at November 5, 2008 4:28 PM

How true.
What I heard today were people popping open champagne to 'celebrate history', and people saying that they couldn't find copies of our local rag to save, as apparently all the copies had been bought up.
It all smacked to me of people wanting to be a part of a 'happening' to be able say "I voted for and helped elect the first African American President" and have the tokens and mementos to brag about it with.
So many made the 'cool' choice, to show that they weren't racists, to give themselves yet another moral chit to put into the Bank of I'm Better Than You.
Fucking lemmings will drag us all over the cliff with them.

Posted by: Uncle Jefe at November 5, 2008 7:36 PM

This is why I keep friends who follow a stated opinion with the words proudly stated: "and here's why:"

The "here's why" always elucidates the reason for holding that opinion and moves the discussion, correctly, from the naked opinion to the independent reasoning behind it.

I think that's the mark of an "original opinion" that Twain referred to. I'll try to use that more often in my blog comments...

Posted by: Gray at November 5, 2008 8:56 PM

That's the problem with feeling as opposed to thinking.
Feeling is almost always based on having a warm and fuzzy about something, whereas thinking can be quite painful if done correctly.

Years ago, Brother Dave Gardner said "People ask me, 'Don't you have to watch what you say', and I say, 'No, I just watch what I think.'"

Posted by: ed in texas at November 6, 2008 4:53 AM

what is twain's thesis

Posted by: at August 20, 2010 2:07 PM

The Mark Twain House museum at Nook Farm, in Hartford, a couple of blocks away from me, is sponsoring a lecture series--speakers so far: Michael Moore and Juan Williams. I e-mailed to suggest that they get a couple of dignitaries whose work Twain would be more likely to appreciate: Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn.No response, and I expect Hell to freeze over before they take me up on it.

Posted by: Voton at November 30, 2011 12:45 PM

Regarding the question of which policy to follow in some situation which all agree needs to be improved in some ways, try the one that produces some benefit and no harm. Take small steps of change; a misstep is readily corrected [unless you've stepped off some kind of cliff, or into a deep hole].
Too often enthusiasts take too big a step in the wrong direction, in effect, onto thin ice.
Mathematicians have various routines for achieving the desired goal by clearly stating a comprehensive set of constraints on what steps in what directions are permitted for each constraint in searching out the goal's 'final' value within the constraints' boundaries. Pitfalls and blowups occur in highly unusual and unexpected terrains -- in social-political life these failures are common since we don't take the time to think through what constraints on the search are necessary. We miss anticipating probable and improbable dangerous consequences of our step changes.
The current Ebola hazard debacle is a great example of our actions and delays being inadequately considered as the dangerous situation worsens.
Where's the grand plan to assess why some Ebola sickened people recover with or without medications -- what treatments directly destroy the Ebola and which enhance what parts of the immune system to destroy the Ebola invader?
Why hasn't our beetle-brained national disease detection/control/elimination organizations advised the populace to enhance their immune systems by doing simple things like: avoiding sugary sodas and juices [sugar depresses the immune system], avoiding or minimizing starchy foods -- such as, breads, rice, potatoes -- all of whom are quickly metabolized to sugars, eating more green and other vegetables while minimizing meat products -- resulting in improved blood chemistry to enhance immune reactions to invaders, ... Well-respected health newsletters, on-line and off-line, have a host of immune system enhancement protocols based on clinical studies. Try [American College for Advancement in Medicine] for starters.
As Mark Twain might suggest, to save your life you may have to sometimes swim against the fecal flow of false and inadequate opinions. The name 'Mark Twain' derives from measurements made to prevent riverboats running aground. Measurements and experience, not wishful stinking, will serve your needs.

Posted by: Howard Nelson at October 3, 2014 6:05 PM

Michael Moore and Juan Williams speaking at the Mark Twain Museum? Ha! Let me know when they line up Puxatawny Phil, okay?

Posted by: Ray Van Dune at October 4, 2014 3:42 AM