Category Archives: Rebel

Land of the Free because of the Brave


Brave?  You gotta be kidding

The sign out front on our yard which we were renting in Arizona said: “Land of the Free because of the brave.”  I agree with this sentiment, but this is not just because of the military. I admit a brave military is important. We all need a military to defend us in case of attack. This year Russia, under Putin, proved that there are still predatory countries out there willing to take astonishingly aggressive measures to exploit a country. It is naive not to have any defence.


However, I believe domestic enemies actually pose a larger threat than foreign enemies to countries such as the USA and Canada. Many of those domestic enemies falsely claim to be inspired by the ideal of freedom, but actually they actively work against freedom. To them freedom means the freedom to do anything they want. That is not freedom; that is anarchy. It takes even more courage to confront domestic enemies. For example, it takes a great deal of courage to speak up against our neighbours when they are speaking nonsense. Our domestic enemies must be resisted. The domestic mob is as dangerous as any foreign enemy and is often even more difficult to oppose. These domestic mobs typically demand conformity to their tarnished and narrow views. We must dissent from the views of those around us when they are based on fear and ignorance rather than critical thinking and compassion. Such oppression is every bit as bad as anything our foreign enemies could impose on us.

Confronting Truth and finding spiritual freedom


Authorities have known for a long time, at least since the time of Plato, that the rebellion of poets and artists is dangerous to established authority and power. Their alternative reality is also one that is deviant and defiant. The members of the Republic of the Imagination are always prepared to dissent. That makes them uncompliant to power that wants to dominate. That makes them subversive and hostile to arbitrary authority. Not all authority.


One can only belong to such a subversive group if one has not only the courage of one’s convictions, but as Nietzsche said, “the courage to attack one’s convictions.” No truths are too sacred to be attacked or challenged. Even those we hold most dear. There should be no barriers to pursuing truth. One should be free to challenge all conventional wisdom. Even the truths of patriots are open to question. The country cannot demand absolute obedience or obeisance. Great literature is always ready, willing, and able to attack any sacred cows. That is why, as Nafisi said, “If we need fiction today, it is not because we need to escape from reality; it is because we need to return to it with eyes that are refreshed, or as Tolstoy would have it, “clean-washed.

We must recognize that there are more freedoms than one. Nowadays the idea of freedom has been besmirched. In Canada we recently had the freedom convoy in our nation’s capital. The members of that convoy basically demanded the freedom to do whatever they wanted. They really recognized no limits on freedom, which of course, means they advocated for anarchy which is not freedom at all. It is an illusory freedom that they urge upon us. It is not the freedom to light out for the territory of Huck Finn.

Once again, Azar Nafisi made this point eloquently:

But of course, there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious, you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying.  The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty, unsexy little ways, every day.  That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

 This is the freedom of Huck Finn. He was willing to sacrifice not just his life, but put himself in peril of eternal damnation, to save his friend, a black slave. That was the freedom he wanted. And he would do anything to achieve it. It was not a selfish freedom; it was real freedom. It was not the freedom of the convoy for whom freedom was all about me.

In its essence this is the freedom to think. Even if it’s a “long think.” The freedom to think for oneself, not chained to the conventional wisdom. It takes courage to be free. And no one had more courage than Huck Finn. After, all he was willing to risk eternal damnation. This is the freedom of Huck Finn!

 That is what a spiritual declaration of independence is all about.

Books Matter in the Republic of the Imagination:


Perhaps people living under totalitarian regimes know better than the rest of us that books matter. In such countries people are not allowed to read any book they desire to read. They can only read the approved books. Those are the books that align well with the interests of those in power. If they want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn they may not be able to do so. Even in Canada and the United States some people want to control the books that the rest of us read. Such people don’t believe in freedom of expression or the freedom to read. They usually have a “good cause” to justify their intrusions into our reading lives.  I am not saying all restrictions are unjustified intrusions. I am only saying we must be vigilant to ensure that only the very rare books justify such an intrusion.

That is why we learn that books really do matter. As Azar Nafisi said,


“…books matter, that they open up a window into a more meaningful life, that they enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different form our own.”


In unfree states, or in states on the road to unfreedom, such as perhaps the United States is headed, some people want to prevent others from reading anything contrary to the truths they hold dear. In Iran that means no deviance from the form of Islam the regime has approved. In the southern US that means no deviance from the approved belief among the powerful that the US is not a racist country. In some parts of the US, like Florida, among conservatives, that means no books that foster a view of gender and sexuality that fails to conform to the conventional wisdom of evangelical Christians. At least the children should not be allowed to read such books. They do not want others to have fellow feeling for those living lives different from their own.

Huck Finn refused to give obeisance to the conventional wisdom about race. He was the consummate rebel from the conventional wisdom. Nafisi put it well:

Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the most memorable of those humble citizens of the imaginary America who stand up to forces great and terrible, but Huck refuses to return home, thus foreshadowing the destinies and shaping the choices of so many other fictional American characters who either leave home, never return, or long to do so. Those homeless protagonists of American fiction become the true guardians of what is best in American individualism, never identifying happiness with wealth or power. Perhaps in no other fiction, in fact, is materialism so frowned upon, or defined as the root of so many evils—an ironic but salutary reminder for a country so blatantly devoted to the pursuit of wealth and power.


Only brave rebels like Huck Finn can resist the lure of that materialism. They make the mistake Bob Dylan warned about namely, “don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.” Like Huck Finn who preferred the freedom of life on a raft to the comfortable but “smothery” home.

The members of the Republic of the Imagination are the writers, musicians and artists that are rebels who say no to the smothering ideology of the conventional wisdom. As Azar Nafisi said,

“All writers are strangers, or pariahs, as Hannah Arendt put it. They look at the world through the eyes of the outsider” but only the American writers turn this attribute into a national characteristic…we need to reflect on this constant restlessness, this unending questioning, this battle between the desire for prosperity and success and the urge to walk away from it all, to be wary of complacency—in short to perform the miracle of the small vagabond Huck, who followed his heart as he floated on a raft down the Mississippi.


That was why Huck decide to “light out for the territory” rather than be smothered in comfort. That is why Huck is a charter member of the Republic of the Imagination. But we can all join.

 Books matter in the republic of the Imagination; none more so than the classics like Huckleberry Finn.

Thinking not dying


Can great literature lead to great societies?

There is no obvious and direct link between democratic societies and great literature. As Joseph Brodsky correctly pointed out, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were all very literate men. That did not help societies in the countries they led. But that does not mean there is no connection.

Democratic societies, it has often been observed, need good citizens. Citizens who have not forgotten how important freedom is and know that to protect a fragile democracy—and all democracies are fragile—an alert and informed citizenry is essential. Azar Nafisi explained how books like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were important as a consequence:

For this they need to know, to pause, to think, to question. It is this quality that we find in so many of America’s fictional heroes, from Huckleberry Finn to Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. How can we protect ourselves from a country of manipulation, where tastes and flavors are re-created chemically in laboratories and given to us as natural food, where religion is packaged, televised, and tweeted and commercials influence us to such an extent that they dictate not only what we eat, wear, read, and want but what we know and dream. We need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music and the arts: we need to retrieve the third eye of the imagination.

Democracies can benefit from its citizens engaging in what Huck called “a long think.” Nothing is better for purpose than literature or art, or other works of the imagination. This is what Nafisi called “The Republic of the Imagination.” This is what allows us to live and avoid a smothery death.

In totalitarian societies people risk their lives to achieve this. The risks are clear and present. But even in democratic societies lives are at risk to, for smothered lives are not worth living.

People in totalitarian societies often appreciate the freedom to read much more acutely than citizens of democratic societies. But they are not the only ones. As Scout said in that wonderful book To Kill a Mockingbird, another classic, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.  One does not love breathing.”

In the Republic of the Imagination, as Nafisi says, “We must read, and we must continue to read the great subversive books, our own and others.”

And in my opinion there is no more subversive book than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That is why it is a great book. Perhaps the best novel of all time. That is a possibility.  It is my favourite novel.  That is a certainty.

Tom Sawyer, who appears in this book at the beginning and then returns to wreak havoc near the end of the book, is completely befuddled by what he has “learned” from reading books. It gets Tom into trouble and more importantly endangers the lives of others, such as the slave Jim. He keeps insisting how they must conform to the books no matter how absurd and no matter how little he understands of what those books actually say. Sawyer is continually barking up the wrong reality tree.


Tom asks Huck, “Do you want to go doing something different from what’s in the books and get things all muddled up?” Huck agreed, saying: “all kings is mostly rapscallions…You couldn’t tell them from the real kind.” Huck’s conclusion was a sound one: “Sometimes I wish we could hear  of a country that’s out of kings.” Huck would appreciate the wisdom of John Lennon.

We can think or we can die. That is the  choice.

Avoiding a Smothery Death


I know I have been going too long about the wonderful book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But it is a classic and classics are worth it. At least in my opinion they are worth the extra time. I promise to bring these posts to a close soon. But I think there is so much to learn from that novel.

It is obvious that totalitarian societies impose horrendous encroachments on freedom.  Democratic societies are more subtle.

Of course, in a democratic society the arts of the imagination don’t usually threaten the state, but they help seduce us into what Nafisi e called “a paralysis of consciousness” and what she also referred to as “an intellectual indolence.” Both of those were  recognized by Huck Finn, though he expressed it in other words such as “smothery.” Huck Finn demonstrated that in order to avoid the “smothery” embrace of a conformist society it was absolutely necessary to rebel and “light out for the territories.” Nothing else will suffice.

Nazar Nafisi put the issue this way:

“Every state, including a totalitarian one, has its lures and seductions. The price we pay for succumbing is conformity, a surrender of one’s self to the dictates of the group. Fiction is an antidote, a reminder of the power of individual choice. Every novel has at its core a choice by at least one of its protagonists, reminding the reader that she can choose to be her own person, to go against what her parents or society or the state tell her to do and follow the faint but essential beat of her own heart.”


No one better exemplifies this awful choice more than Huck Finn who is willing to go to hell for doing the “wrong thing” so that he can save his friend Jim. Who is a better emblem of freedom and dissent from conformity that that?

Huck knows that to give in to “sivilization” and the Sunday school marms like Miss Watson, is to accept a “smothery” death and he won’t accept that. Instead, he will “light out for the territory” because  “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Huck would not give up freedom for a comfortable home.

Huck was like the great artists mentioned by Nafisi when she said,

“What made Brodsky, Nabokov, Czeslaw Milosz and Hannah Arendt—all of whom took refuge in America (Einstein too for that matter)—resist the totalitarian states of their home countries and reject the empty temptations of Western democracies was essentially one and the same thing: they knew that to negate and betray that inner self was not just a surrender to the tyrant’s will but a sort of self-inflicted death. You become a cog in a vast and invisible wheel over which you have no control—Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, only without the comedy.”

Not for them a “smothery” death. Not for me either.

The Revaluation of Morals


When Huck Finn does what he thinks is wrong—helping a slave to escape his master and gain his freedom and deprive his master of her property—Huck decides he must be wicked, because to do “the right thing” is the wrong thing. He turns morality on its head. In doing so, Huck helps to turn civilization on its head too.


Hopefully this can help all of us to think better by making a “long think” about what is right and wrong. Is it what we were taught in Sunday school? Is it what our parents taught us? Or our friends? Or our betters? Or is it something we can discern for ourselves? Are Indigenous children slovenly brutes as many of us were taught? Do Jews really smell as many were told? What is respectable? What is civilized?  Don’t just believe what we are told. We must look for ourselves. We must give it a “long think.” We must be willing, if necessary, to turn the world on its heads even if means risking a place called hell.


Azar Nafisi said this is what she tried to teach her students when she was a professor,  in Iran, where they were indoctrinated from birth to believe what the Imams and parents told them. Who can do this in America? Who can do this in Canada? In her view, gleaned from Twain and other writers, “I tried to share with my students in Tehran , explaining to them that moral choice comes from a sound heart and from a constant questioning of the world and of oneself and that it is just as difficult , if not more so in society that appears to give you every freedom.


I think it comes from starting with fellow feeling and then a long think where all the relevant facts must be ascertained and then weighed.


I remember one time having a serious discussion with a young lawyer on an issue of morality.  His argument against what I said consisted of saying, “Well this is what I learned at home.”  It is all well and good to be taught at home. We all needed parents to do that as we could not have survived without their help. But when we become adults, we have to learn to think for ourselves too. Mark Twain once said elsewhere that “education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” And as much as we loved our parents and respected their viewpoint they were not always right. Just as our children won’t think we were always right.  Thank goodness for that.


The same goes for teachers. I know I have learned a lot from good teachers. But Friedrich Nietzsche that great German philosopher, said “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil.”


Azar Nafisi said this source of wisdom was “the rebellious heart that beats to its own rhythm.” What we really need, in addition to good parents and good teachers is critical thinking combined with fellow feeling. This is what I have gleaned from one of my old philosophy professors. I am eternally grateful to him for that.



Deep Freedom


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book about freedom.  It is about the freedom of young boys who are smothered by demands that they conform to narrow constraints of maiden aunts and Sunday schools. And that is important. Revolting from such constraints is the freedom Huck seeks. That is the freedom that Huck seeks and is willing to pay the ultimate price when he lights out for the territory. He wants it even if means hell.


But it also about freedom that a large portion of Americans didn’t enjoy, namely the indigenous and black people of America. The freedom extolled by Americans since the time of the Puritans that for some reason was not for them. Some of them in fact were enslaved—i.e., as unfree as they possibly could be in this land lauded as being the land of the free.  It was free only for some. Most them were white and most of them were men.

The novel is also about freeing humans like Huck from the ideas that enslave him. These are the ideas—like making humans into property—that Huck must learn to renounce. And it is hard to renounce ideas with which we have grown up.

How can anyone who believes in and relishes freedom as so many Americans and Canadians do, ever think that slavery is acceptable? Canadians have to remember that slavery was also prevalent in Canadian society. Canada was much more than the underground railway inviting in slaves to sanctuary.

When charlatans, murderers, and thieves join the “God-fearing” white folks of the community to chase down en mass Jim the runaway slave, Huck says, aptly, “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”

Mark Twain once said, “Lincoln’s proclamation…not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also.” I believe that is profoundly true.

This is beautifully materialized in the character of Jim the black slave. Jim frees Huck. In pursuing freedom for Jim, Huck is also freed from the chains of the Sunday school marms.

Smothery Civilization


Mark Twain in the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does not endorse what Huck calls “sivilization.” Huck cannot stand “sivilization” because it smothers the life out of him. It causes him at the beginning of the novel and again at the end to “light out for the territories.”


At the beginning of the novel he says:

“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me: but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular, and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. “


New clothes confine him too much too. He can’t stand them either .  As Huck said, about the widow: “She put me in them new clothes again and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat, and sweat, and felt all cramped up.” Later Huck said, “I didn’t want to go back to the widow’s anymore and be so cramped up and civilized as they called it.”


When Tom tells Huck that is how everybody lives Huck defiantly says, “I ain’t everybody and I can’t STAND it.” Then he philosophizes like a true rebel: “being rich ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s just worry and worry and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time.” He doesn’t to be rich and live in those smothery houses. Tom would rather live on a raft where life was “free and easy.”


One of the themes of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the fact that Huck and Jim are both on a voyage of discovery searching for freedom. Jim’s search is more obvious. He is enslaved and separated from his family and desperately wants to get to them. Eventually, after much hesitation and doubt, each of them makes a burst for freedom.


Too many Americans, according to Huck, have traded their freedom for respectability, and this is what he does not want to do. He doesn’t want to conform. He sees that as smothering death.  For Huck life of respectability smothers him so much that he “was a wishing you was dead all the time.”


That is why both of them loved the raft and were fearful of houses and civilization.  As Huck said,

“We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”


Huck Finn needs freedom like the rest of us need air. He can’t breathe without freedom.


At the end of the novel, after Jim is knows he was freed by Miss Watson in her will, that it was time for Huck to get away from ‘sivilization.’  As he said,

But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.


That is what the book is all about—taking a burst for freedom before one gets sivilized, before one is tamed. That is what Tom Sawyer was unable to do. Only Huck could do it. Americans constantly claim to be free when they seem tied slavishly to conventions that smother them. They need a better declaration of independence.


As Azar Nafisi said, “We must make a new declaration of independence, a spiritual rather than a political one this time.”



Conscience and heart


In a notebook Twain wrote in 1895 where  he described his Huck Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.”  Now conscience is a bit of an unusual word in this context.  Twain really meant “conventional morality” or “norms” by the word “conscience.” Twain was really speaking against conventional morality. Conventional morality or “conscience” was corrupt, for it allowed for the exploitation of slaves and discrimination against African Americans as being moral.


Huck thought he was immoral when he revolted against the conventional morality of his day that allowed a person to be declared worthless solely based on the colour of his or her skin.  The is a morality against which we must revolt. Nothing else will do. That is what Huck learned. The heart knew better than the “conscience.” Twain, like Nietzsche, wanted to turn morality upside down. This was the conventional morality or “conscience” that he  wanted to subvert in favour of a new morality.


Azar Nafisi summed up this purpose this way:

“From its first to its last page, Huck Finn shows us that everything that is accepted as the normal, respectable, is in essence not normal or respectable. It is s book in which “educated” people are the most ignorant, stealing is “borrowing,” people with “upbringings” are scoundrels, goodness is heartless, respectability  stands for cruelty, and danger lurks, most especially at home. It is a book in being “white” is not a badge of honor and you will go to hell if you do the right thing…Within the confines of this upside-down world, the only way for Huck and Jim to survive is to be dead.”


When such a conventional morality is confronted we ought to rebel against it. That is why Twain in his novel calls for a revaluation of values. They must be subverted, because the conventional morals are corrupt.

Original Sin




Mark Twain was not ignorant of what others have called the original sin of America—i.e. the catastrophic slaying of indigenous people and the slavery of African Americans. This is a sin so dark it is not clear how America can ever atone for it.


In 1881 Twain gave a dazzling speech to the New England Society of Philadelphia who were celebrating the anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing on Plymouth Rock. He challenged the good people of the society to avoid smugness at that history.  He began his speech by asking the audience what they wanted to celebrate. As Nafisi said,


Speaking to the descendants of the Mayflower he begins by asking his audience what they would wish to celebrate

“those ancestors of yours of 1620—the Mayflower tribe,” whom he describes as a “hard Lot” who “took care of themselves but they abolished everybody else’s ancestors.” Twain differentiates himself from his hosts, telling them, “I am a border ruffian from the state of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. I have the morals of Missouri and the culture of Connecticut , and that’s the combination that makes the perfect man…


Twain says his ancestors are precisely those people their ancestors abolished. As Nafisi said,


“Identifying with those “abolished” ancestors, he assumes the identity of America’s persecuted underdogs, and says his first American ancestor was “an early Indian.” Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. Not one drop of my blood flows in that Indian’s veins today. I stand here, lone and forlorn, without an ancestor”.


What a fascinating idea that his ancestors were the native American indigenous people who were slaughtered by Americans.


Twain also laments how “your tribe,” the Americans, chased the Quakers out of the country “for their religions sake.”  He added, They broke forever the chain of political slavery and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none!—none except those who  did not belong to the orthodox church.  Next Twain invokes others who were used and abused by their ancestors: the witches and finally the most persecuted and marginalized of all, the black slave. “The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite Mongrel. I am not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week.” Twain identified with the spat upon and beat upon.  As a result, Twain was able to create what Nafisi called “an epic of the first American rogue.”


Here we learn what Twain revolted from—the exploitation of others. And this was, I would suggest the classic theme of this magnificent novel that makes it one of the glories of literature anywhere.


Sadly, Americans have not taken Twain’s case to heart. As Nafisi said, “After Twain, it becomes difficult to talk about America without acknowledging those absent ancestors, conveniently airbrushed out of the preferred mythology of America’s glorious origins.” Unlike Twain, too many Americans are not able to take an impartial view of their own history. In fact, as has been seen in the last few years, the American conservatives are actively trying to scrub out the truth of American history. They can’t bear to look at it. These Americans, unlike the best Americans, are not able to look at the truth. And as Nietzsche said “the measure of a person’s worth is how much truth he can stand.” These modern Americans reveal they have little worth because they can’t stand the truth.


Unlike so many other Americans who blamed England for all the sins of America, Twain wanted Americans to see their own sins. This theme was then picked up by other great American writers.

Of course Huck and Jim, the heroes of the novel,  embodied the mongrels and ruffians that Twain celebrated. .