When I had enough fingers to count the years of my life, I was already counting myself a fan of Mark Twain. I'd read Tom Sawyer and wondered if I'd ever meet a Becky Thatcher type; I'd read Huckleberry Finn and didn't even realize there was a controversy over the language. (When I found out, I shrugged; yes, this is a word we should generally shun, but inasmuch as the character to whom it was affixed was the character most deserving of the reader's respect, I figured it was a nonissue. Then again, said word was never applied to me.) I'd even read Pudd'nhead Wilson, decidedly less picaresque a tale, but just as pointed. A couple of years later, when I started buying books on my own, one of the first items on the shopping list was a collection of Twain's essays — specifically, the "Complete Essays" volume compiled and edited by Charles Neider in 1963.

Digesting this much Twain at an early age inevitably means that much of my own character is informed by things Twain had said. In fact, that very sentence was informed by things Twain had said. From the essay "Corn-pone Opinions," written in 1901 but not published until 1923:

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. 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.

Why corn-pone? Not so much because it was a stereotypically Southern food, but because one of young Sam Clemens' favorite orators, a black man toiling in his master's lumberyard, had come up with this point-blank observation: "You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is." It was just that simple.

In the four decades and odd since I first read this essay, I've often wondered just how many of my own opinions can truly be called my own, and how many were adapted, or directly imported, from books and movies and music and, most recently, from the Internet. If outside influences are a dominant factor, I assume it should be possible to trace the evolution of my current thoughts. But the sheer volume of those influences make it difficult to single out any one of them, and while public opinion shifts from time to time, my own opinions don't move so much. I did, however, admit in a normblog profile:

I keep changing my mind on the death penalty. At the moment, I favour it, but this is subject to change at any given moment.

Indeed, in the two and a half years since I said this, I have become a bit less enthusiastic about the state's putting people to death, with the exception of my own particular bêtes noires: spammers, people who run telemarketing operations, career criminals generally, and of course individuals who try to blow up aircraft.

Where I depart from Twain is in the idea that most of us don't have any particular reason to hold political positions. From the very last paragraph of "Corn-pone Opinions":

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.

You already know what I think of Public Opinion, as calculated and disseminated by various pollsters:

It's probably no surprise that the proverbial Man in the Street loves public-opinion polls: it elevates him to a level far greater than he could ever achieve on his own, his viewpoints taken as representative of many hundreds or thousands, his offhand utterances granted the status of footnotes to history. "They're listening to me!" he beams.

Sure they are. Political research and marketing research have the same ultimate goals: to sell people something they would never consider buying in the first place. The aforementioned Man in the Street is valuable to the research only to the extent that he can be counted on to buy this soap, or to vote for that bubblehead.

Which suggests a source for my beliefs. I care what you think; I give less than a damn about an ostensibly-scientific sample with an error rate of whatever.

And today, where the personal has been forced to become the political, it might be dangerous not to have an opinion on some arcane subject, especially if the government plans to do something with/about/to it.

But Twain was indisputably right when he said "We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking." I do some of that myself. I may have done some of that on this very page.

The Vent

#661
  16 January 2010

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