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Finley Peter Dunne was famed both for his sportswriting, covering the Chicago White Sox, and for his humorous columns featuring the imaginary saloonkeeper, Mr. Dooley, who would spout his "wisdom" in a broken Irish brogue. Dunne had been writing these essays for nearly a decade when the Spanish-American War came and his (and Mr. Dooley's) criticism of it, as an imperialist enterprise, won him a national readership, plaudits from intellectuals, and friendship with folks like Mark Twain and, improbably, with arch-imperialist Teddy Roosevelt.

The essays rely heavily on wringing humor from dialect, something that got laughs more reliably in that era of minstrel shows and the like. What's most interesting today about their politics is that they're of a piece with Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Orwell's Shooting an Elephant, in that they're anti-imperialist because of the effect it will have on the colonizers, rather than the colonized. Here's a representative sample:

Wan iv the worst things about this here war is th' way it's makin' puzzles f'r our poor, tired heads. Whin I wint into it, I thought all I'd have to do was to set up here behind th' bar with a good tin-cint see-gar in me teeth, an' toss dinnymite bombs into th' hated city iv Havana. But look at me now. Th' war is still goin' on; an' ivry night, whin I'm countin' up the cash, I'm askin' mesilf will I annex Cubia or lave it to the Cubians? Will I take Porther Ricky or put it by? An' what shud I do with the Ph'lippeens? Oh, what shud I do with thim? I can't annex thim because I don't know where they ar-re. I can't let go iv thim because some wan else'll take thim if I do. They are eight thousan' iv thim islands, with a popylation iv wan hundherd millyon naked savages; an' me bedroom's crowded now with me an' th' bed. How can I take thim in, an' how on earth am I goin' to cover th' nakedness iv thim savages with me wan shoot iv clothes? An' yet 'twud break me heart to think iv givin' people I niver see or heerd tell iv back to other people I don't know. An', if I don't take thim, Schwartzmeister down th' sthreet, that has half me thrade already, will grab thim sure.

"It ain't that I'm afraid iv not doin' th' r-right thing in th' end, Hinnissy. Some mornin' I'll wake up an' know jus' what to do, an' that I'll do. But 'tis th' annoyance in th' mane time. I've been r-readin' about th' counthry. 'Tis over beyant ye'er left shoulder whin ye're facin' east. Jus' throw ye'er thumb back, an' ye have it as ac'rate as anny man in town. 'Tis farther thin Boohlgahrya an' not so far as Blewchoochoo. It's near Chiny, an' it's not so near; an', if a man was to bore a well through fr'm Goshen, Indianny, he might sthrike it, an' thin again he might not. It's a poverty-sthricken counthry, full iv goold an' precious stones, where th' people can pick dinner off th' threes an' ar-re starvin' because they have no step-ladders. Th' inhabitants is mostly naygurs an' Chinnymen, peaceful, industhrus, an' law-abidin', but savage an' bloodthirsty in their methods. They wear no clothes except what they have on, an' each woman has five husbands an' each man has five wives. Th' r-rest goes into th' discard, th' same as here. Th' islands has been ownded be Spain since befure th' fire; an' she's threated thim so well they're now up in ar-rms again her, except a majority iv thim which is thurly loyal. Th' natives seldom fight, but whin they get mad at wan another they r-run-a-muck. Whin a man r-runs-a-muck, sometimes they hang him an' sometimes they discharge him an' hire a new motorman. Th' women ar-re beautiful, with languishin' black eyes, an' they smoke see-gars, but ar-re hurried an' incomplete in their dhress. I see a pitcher iv wan th' other day with nawthin' on her but a basket of cocoanuts an' a hoop-skirt. They're no prudes. We import juke, hemp, cigar wrappers, sugar, an' fairy tales fr'm th' Ph'lippeens, an' export six-inch shells an' th' like. Iv late th' Ph'lippeens has awaked to th' fact that they're behind th' times, an' has received much American amminition in their midst. They say th' Spanyards is all tore up about it.

"I larned all this fr'm th' papers, an' I know 'tis sthraight. An' yet, Hinnissy, I dinnaw what to do about th' Ph'lippeens. An' I'm all alone in th' wurruld. Ivrybody else has made up his mind. Ye ask anny con-ducthor on Ar-rchy R-road, an' he'll tell ye. Ye can find out fr'm the papers; an', if ye really want to know, all ye have to do is to ask a prom'nent citizen who can mow all th' lawn he owns with a safety razor. But I don't know."
There are some mild chuckles there and you get a sense of how the Mr. Dooley character enabled him to prick America's civilizing pretensions rather gently. On the other hand, Mr. Dooley seems right to wonder what we should have been doing in places like the Philippines and Cuba. The former seems to have benefitted significantly from our involvement, even if its people resented us, and the latter would certainly have fared better had we gotten reinvolved as recently as forty years ago. Yet, if you look at how ambivalent we all are about the prospects for democratizing the Middle East and about whether that's even a fit role for the U.S., you have to wonder if we can ever resolve the tension between our desire to "do good" and out fear of being morally tainted by our involvement with cultures so clearly "other". One's admiration for Mr. Dunne ends up being tempered by the knowledge that what he's making fun of something that's actually rather admirable in our national character, our uneasiness over our role as the world's crusader for peace and democracy.


Grade: (C+)