Mark Twain offers some perspective on the biggest controversy going into this year’s Super Bowl.
When Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was interviewed after the thrilling end to the NFC playoff game against San Francisco, he responded with 15 seconds of adrenaline-fueled bravado on network television that broke with the usual script of humility and thankfulness.
Since then, he has been called a “thug” hundreds of times on Twitter, television and talk radio. Sherman has taken exception to that.
“The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now,” he said. “It kind of takes me aback and it’s kind of disappointing.”
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Mark Twain, too, felt the emotional charge of “thug.” He recalled hearing in his boyhood days of “vague tales and rumors of a sect called Thugs,” which scared him out of his wits. Later, on his visit to India, he explored the history of the Thuggee, a group of notorious bandits that waylaid and killed innocent travelers. It is from this group that “thug” made its way into the English language.
Twain was shocked at hearing of the brazen murders committed by the Thuggee. But for anyone who was quick to associate such criminality with the natives of the non-Western world, Twain was just as quick to point out that India “had a civilization long before we emerged from savagery.”
And Twain was surely tongue-in-cheek when he wrote that unlike the thugs of India, “we no longer take pleasure in slaughtering or burning helpless men.” Lynching was a horrific but common feature of the American landscape in Twain’s day, as the author of “Huckleberry Finn” knew well.
Twain also suggested that in the United States, we glorify violence in “hunting” and “sporting” — and sporting leads us right back to the Super Bowl.
As we try to sort out the histories of race and violence and the working of the media that have become tangled up in the Richard Sherman controversy, it is helpful to remember that Twain was insistent about turning the lens back on white America.
As he put it, “We white people are merely modified thugs.”
For all those who were made uncomfortable when Sherman’s so-called rant invaded their living rooms, a good next step might be to emulate Twain and take stock of our own capacity for thuggishness.
Russ Castronovo is a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.