Mark Twain was known in his early career as a western humorist, tied to places like California, Nevada, Hawaii. Later he came to be associated with the middle stretch of the Mississippi, and everything within a 50-mile radius of Hannibal, Missouri, is named after him. But here in New England, everyone considers Twain a Hartford man. I pass his house whenever I head down to Connecticut for pizza. The Prince and the Pauper serves as a pretty good signpost for the point at which Mark Twain became part of the "liberal elite."

The "liberal elite" is a favorite target among the "Shut up! Shut up! Cut his mike!" class, which is interesting as it seems to be at odds with the perennial charge that leftists are engaging in "class warfare." The bleat of "class warfare!" gets trotted out every time someone points out that wealth is unfairly distributed, and unlike the cool, manly sort of warfare that involves bombing other countries, "class warfare" is treated as despicable and shameful. The assumption underlying the abhorrence of "class warfare" is that the rich and the poor are both acting out of self-interest, the rich trying to keep as much money and power as possible and the poor trying to take it away — and that the poor are in the wrong. Why? Some point to those who have worked hard to amass their wealth, and (illogically) conclude that (a) all those still trapped in poverty must not be working hard enough and (b) all those who are doing well must have earned their privilege somewhere along the line. Others don't even go this far, saying, hey, life ain't fair — if you don't like the cards you're dealt, tough. See what you can make out of them. Don't go whining for a New Deal.

But here's the thing. When you hear the cries of "class warfare!", it's usually not directed at actual poor people. William Safire wrote this week that John Kerry and John Edwards are trafficking in (all together now) "class warfare," sighing that "envy still sells to a leftist constituency." Envy? If it were the envious poor who made up the constituency of the left, it'd stand to reason that they would have chosen Al Gore's populist rhetoric over George Bush's tax cut for the massively wealthy. But the poorest regions of the country make up a roll call of pro-Bush "red states": Montana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma... in 2000 Bush won the nation's five poorest states, nine of the poorest ten, and nineteen of the poorest twenty-one. This is the sort of thing Howard Dean meant when he talked about wanting to represent guys with Confederate flag decals on their pickup trucks: the people who could most benefit from policies like nationalized health care and a more progressive tax structure are those who most reliably vote against candidates espousing such policies.

So then who's calling for a more equitable distribution of wealth and power? Take a look at the other end of the spectrum, at the rich states where you'd expect voters to favor policies that protected their wealth. Thirteen of the richest nineteen ended up in Gore's column in '00. "Class warfare," it turns out, is largely being fought between a group of rich people who want to channel money to themselves more efficiently and another group of rich people who want to stop them.

What's the latter group's motivation?

If you assume that everyone acts out of self-interest, then it makes sense that porcine plutocrats would give themselves a huge tax cut. It even makes sense that, in a society with some mobility between classes — and which credits itself for a lot more than actually exists — you might find poor people supporting right-wing economic policies, expecting that they will someday benefit from them. Even appeals to empathy for self-interest play a role: people worth hundreds of millions of dollars say, "I want to leave all this money to my kids and none to the society at large — wouldn't you?" and people hovering around the poverty line agree, "Yep, sure would!"... and so university funding gets slashed while Paris Hilton gets a bigger wardrobe. But where's the percentage for rich members of the "liberal elite" to go the other direction? Insurance in case they fall on hard times? Seems like kind of a stretch. Could it be that the "liberal elite"... is not motivated by narrow economic self-interest?

I have a fair amount of contact with both ends of the economic spectrum: I live in the poorest city in Massachusetts, but most of the teenagers I teach go to Deerfield Academy and are well within the notorious "wealthiest one percent" to which the Bush Administration has been catering. But the Deerfield kids are the ones who spend their summers doing volunteer work in third-world countries, shaping their résumés to go to Washington and work to push the Republicans out of office... meanwhile, down at lower-middle-class South Hadley High School, where I used to sub, I'd hear lively discussions of why we need to execute more prisoners and bomb more Middle Eastern countries. The privileged can afford to be magnanimous, and a lot of them are. Which is a pretty damning indictment of those who aren't.

Mark Twain's upbringing was on the humble side, and in his early writing, he sounds more like a South Hadley kid than a Deerfield one. The Innocents Abroad, for instance, is full of racism, xenophobia, contempt of education — all traits you want to foster in the proles if you're a plutocrat. To a great extent the history of the US is of the poor fighting each other as if on puppet strings, from poor white farmers fighting displaced natives on the colonial frontier while company directors built mansions, all the way up to Jesse Helms winning elections by convincing unemployed whites to blame equally impoverished blacks for "taking their jobs" rather than blaming the profit-hungry capitalists who actually laid them off. Fomenting hatred of "liberal elites" with their fancy book-larnin' is another good one: better to be screwed over by good ol' boy millionaire Bush than benefit from policies championed by "condescending" blue-state Democrats. ("He talks about numbers. Huh-huh.")

But The Innocents Abroad, successful as it was, Twain later dismissed as "a boy's book" — something he'd written when he was young, uncultured and selfish. The Prince and the Pauper is a children's book, but not "a boy's book"; this is Twain the northeastern liberal, writing not tall tales of hicks in mining towns pulling pranks on each other, but researched and footnoted historical fiction. Largely about the sheltered Prince of Wales learning how people in his country actually live, the message of the book is simple: have some mercy for the unfortunate. Mercy is the dominant, explicit theme from the epigraph to the final page. And to show mercy requires two things. You must be in a position to bestow it, and you must have a generous heart. It's the sort of liberal elitist message that, in today's culture, would probably be greeted thusly:

"Shut up! Shut up! Cut his mike!"

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