Eventually I settled down. I know the novel has "issues" and is difficult to teach because of the N-word. Good material should be hard to teach. Twain intended it that way.
But I think I was upset because it eliminated one of the most effective lessons I ever taught. I call it the Value of One Human Life, presentation.
You see, teenagers are especially prone to believing that life doesn't have purpose or meaning. They embrace depressions and negative news, defend ideas like suicide, and have no sense of history as to what real suffering looks like. So when they hear news of huge death tolls, or civilians in Syria dying of chemical weapons, they (like many of us adults) shrug and say, "eh. Whatever. This stuff happens all the time."
In relation to chemical weapons, NO IT DOESN'T! And no, death, despite CNN's front page being plastered with 1000 Ways To Die, should still be shocking news. Unfortunately, we have become desensitized to the value of life. Death, and especially killings, should always rock our worlds. But with 7 billion people on earth, killings have become entirely too common, and we have become entirely too lackadaisical to horrific news.
My favorite moment in Huckleberry Finn is when he announces, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." Huck thinks that by aiding a slave, Jim, on his voyage to freedom (and reconnection with his family), that he is breaking a moral, Godly, rule. The genius of Twain, is that he used, as comedian Louis CK labeled Huck a "dirty little homeless white-trash creep" to show the moral imbalance of what society says is RIGHT and what we all know in our hearts is RIGHT. Huck is not a good little societal boy, and yet he exudes goodness and mercy and love in the Godly sense; but not as much as Jim. Jim, despite being ignorant of education, and being a sub-human slave, is the most perfect example of humanity in the whole novel (allegorically, he sacrifices his freedom to save Tom Sawyer)
When Huck's two creepy con-artist passengers announce that they sold Jim down-the-river for 40 dollars in a desperate plan to escape being tarred and feathered...Huck breaks down and thinks:
"After all this long journey, and after all we'd done for them scoundrels, here it was all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that, and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars."40 dirty dollars. A
Obviously, Twain was using this as a message of the inhumanity of buying and selling lives. Thankfully, today, we as a nation have a clearer understanding of how important life is, right?
In 1860, a "Prime Male" slave sold for about $1500 at auction (for the same price one could buy between 300-500 acres of land). Obviously, even as they were thought as a subspecies of humanity, slave owners paid a hefty premium for a lifetime of slave labor. Most metrics value those slaves as having over $100,000 in today's value at auction.
Surely, you jest, an American life is worth more than that today? And you are correct. Most insurance institutes value life between $50,000-120,000 per year of life left. So if your life was unjustly taken away at say, 30, and the average life of a male is 73, you would multiply the years taken away by those numbers. In my example, the number is between $2.5 - $5 million dollars. The D.O.T. has valued life at over 6 million, as have the payouts by airlines after a crash. Almost all American institutions know that life is worth well over a million dollars, and just under 10 million.
So as you can see the average life has a ton of value. At my current salary, I will barely crack a million in earned income over the next 26 years. Yet, according to government and private sector analysis, I am worth another 4 million dollars? I knew my blog would eventually pay off (if only in death value).
So great. We as Americans have value beyond just our backbones. Obviously, as a capitalistic nation, we would probably value our lives as being worth more than other nations. But as the beacons of freedom and the light of the world that Reagan said America is, we must conclude that ALL the world's people have value.
Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of non-American civilians have died in our last few wars. Most estimates have the civilian death toll in the Iraq war alone at around 100,000 lives. If America were to pay out American life value for these deaths, we taxpayers would have had to shell out another 500 billion dollars (the physical war only cost $757 billion).
As a taxpayer, I guess you can say we are lucky we don't pay those costs. So what is a foreign life worth, a life that dies because of an American mistake? The answer? Between $1000 - $7500. That's right. We as Americans (inflation adjusted) pay less for lives killed by mistaken drones or errant bullets than slave owners payed as rewards for runaway slaves pre-Civil War.
“It’s hard to digest that the value of a human life is a few thousand dollars,” said Gordon-Bray, the general in Iraq. “But you know that in their economic situation, it is the equivalent of much more, and you feel better.”Oh, I feel so much better! We've come a long way, baby! Thank God we have evolutionarily evolved beyond enslaving people we think are subhuman, to trying to kill bad guys with radio controlled airplanes. It's glum that we accidentally make mistakes and kill the wrong guy, or girl, or wedding, or kids, or destroy a historical monument.
Twain would have to rewrite (and replace Jim) his novel in this regard, "...and to indiscriminately mutilate Ahmad, and by infidel video game operators, for 13 dirty, damn, dollars."
And yet, do I really want American troops on the ground in these nations risking their lives for nations that will not appreciate our sacrifices? No I do not. Many nations, dramatically less so than America, have not learned the value of life. The fact that somebody in Syria used chemical weapons on civilians only exasperates a desperate situation. The Syrian civil war is ugly, and America, despite our supposed high moral ground, has no place to intervene. They understandably distrust how much we value their lives. American intervention would only be a lose/lose situation.
Every nation needs it's own Abraham Lincolns and Mark Twains, who will unpopular-ily stand up for the morally right choices. Because life, whether it is unborn and impoverished, different or beautiful, atheist or Muslim, Christian or criminal, popular or minority, healthy or sickly, has value (even if the living being doesn't recognize its own worth).
So go out today and feel like a million bucks. You're worth it. No, wait, you're worth five times that. Hopefully we can convince people in our nation and nations much more desperate than ours, that they have value and meaning in this world as well. Because if we are an evolving species, it would be nice to see some actual positive change in humanity beyond dollar value worth.