Saturday, September 25, 2010

Harvey J. Kaye's "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America"

This is an excellent biography, intellectual history, and analysis all wrapped up in one book. The biography is of Thomas Paine but occupies less than a third of the book. The majority is looking at how the right and left politics dealth with Thomas Paine during the subsequent two hundred years of American history. It is an analysis of how radical thought has emerged and re-emerged throughout American history under the guise of different movements. If you want to learn the bits about American history that the history books don't usually cover -- the push for real democracy and the struggles of the working peoples and the poor -- this book will give you a lot of names and events that you won't find elsewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. But I would complain that it is too much like taking a drink from a firehose. There is too much to densely packed together. This book should have been twice the length and provided more context and more analysis and more description. When I finished the book I wanted to start it again, but this time with pen & paper and a library at hand so that I could explore and research the fragments touched upon in the book.

Here are some bits and pieces to let you appreciate the book. First, some words from Thomas Paine to understand his deep democratic sentiments:
When it shall be said in any country in the workd, "My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend because I am a friend of happiness"; when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.
Wow! Those Paines words and they are an indictment of contemporary America. The recent news is that poverty has risen steeply to levels not seen since the early 1960s. US prisons hold a higher percentage of the population than in any other democratic country. For 40 years the streets of America have been filled by the homeless and the mentally ill as the broader society has stepped back from taking responsibility as "their brother's keeper" to put it in terms that those hypocrites, the Republican "family values" crowd, should understand from their religious upbringing. The aged are currently not in want because of Social Security but the political right has been trying for years to destory that social program and the recent Great Recession has ensured that millions will enter "retirement" impoverished because they lost their jobs in the fifties and will be unable to find another job for the rest of their lives. The taxes are not oppressive but the rich and the right wing groan about "onerous" taxes and keep destroying the commonwealth in order to privatize big chunks behind "gated communities" while the great majority live in public squalor.

This observation is highly relevant to today:
Paine refused to blame the poor for the economic circumstances to which they were reduced,for "poverty is a thing created by ... civilized life," which, he believed, did not exist "in the natural state." In the face of increasing disparities, he grew increasingly impatient: "the present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and ... a revolution should be made in it." And even more strenuously than he had in Rights of Man, Paine propounded that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare. This "ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation," he insisted, and its aim should be to "preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which is has produced."
The fact that the gap between rich and poor has turned into a gulf over the last thirty years of "trickle down" economics from the Reagan right would have appalled Paine.

This book points out that book burning wasn't limited to Nazi Germany. It has had its heyday in the US. Everybody knows of efforts by religious bigots and "family value" conservatives to remove books that cross racial lines or expose stories of non-traditional gender roles. But American history goes beyond simply censorship by removing books. It includes book burning:
In sermons, publications, and town hall deliberations, attacks on Paine's memory continued right through the 1850s -- no doubt further instigated by Painite enthusiasms of radicals and reformers. At the University of North Carolina pro-slavery students burned Paine's works in bonfires along with those of Voltaire and Rousseau. And in Philadelphia the city council snubbed the offer of a portrait of Paine for Independence Hall.
One of the lowpoints in American history was during the supposedly liberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Sadly when the US entered WWI, draconian laws to suppress free speech and anti-immigrant laws were passed. Kaye writes about how the famous socialist Eugene V. Debs was mistreated by this supposedly "progressive" Democratic presidency:
Debs himself was no pacifist. Like Wilson -- hough far more acknowledging of Paine's inspiration -- he believed in America's world-historic purpose and promise and the imperative of extending democracy, if necessary by force of arms. Nevertheless, he opposed American involvement in the First World War, seeing the conflict as a struggle to enhance the power and profits of capital, not the lives of working people.

... outraged by the administration's jailing of dissidents, he [Debs] undertook a speaking tour in June 1918, "determined either to open prison gates or to swing them shut behind myself." ...

That afternoon -- before a gathering of more than a thousand people (which included a U.S. attorney and his hired stenographers) -- Debs proclaimed his antipathy both for "Prussian militarism" and for America's own political and social order. Noting the irony of its having become "extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world," he attacked the Wilson admininstration for suppressing Americans' liberties. Titling the nation's capitalists "Wall Street Junkes" (after the Prussian aristocracy), he chastised them for wrapping themselves in the flag while exploiting the American people. And referring to a Supreme Court decision striking down a child labor law, he accused the justices of allowing industrialists to "continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits." Finally he beseeched American workers to struggle for industrial democracy. "It is our duty," he said, "to build the new nation and the free republic."

As he had sought, Debs was indicted and arrested a fortnight later and tried in September on charges of obstructing enlistment and encouraging insubordination in the American military. Refusing to allow his lawyers to call any witnesses on his behalf, Debs requested and received permission to address the court himself, not so much to get himself acquittted as to advance a conception of patriotism critically different from that of the Wilsonians.

Taking the stand, Debs granted the "truth of all that has been testified to" and fully admitted to opposing the "present form of government" and the"prsent social system." Yet he stated he had "never advocated violence" and explicitly denied he was guilty of sedition. The trial, he contended, was not even really about him. "I am not on trial here," he declared. "There is an infinitely greater issue that is being tried ... American institutions are on trial here before a court of American citizens. The future will tell.

Making his case -- that is, America's case -- Debs imparted a narrative of the nation in which radicals served as the leading agents of America's political and moral progress, and in those terms he called George Washington, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and his foremost hero, Thomas Piane, to appear alongside him. These "rebels of their day," Debs recounted, started out, like him, as minority voices, "but they had the moral courage to stand erect and defy all the storms of detraction." He next summoned abolitionists Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Thaddeus Stevens, and Wendell Phillips to join them, recalling that they too had been "regarded as public enemies" and yet Americans now taught their "children to revere their memories, while all of their detractors are in oblivion." And lastly, to show the unprecedented charactger of the government's actions, he pointed to Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, and Daniel Webster and noted that as much as those eminent and now-honored men had opposed American wars and denounced presidents, they never suffered criminal indictment. ...

In the course of his remarks, which lastede almost two hours, Debs reaffirmed his love ofAmerica and its "symbol of freedom," the American flag. But he did not leave it at that. Those same feelings, he explained, compelled him to object "when the flag is prostituted to base ends ... by those who, in the name of patriotism, would keep the people in subjection." And reciting Paine's words, "My country is the world. To do good is my religion," he declared his commitment to a "wider patriotism" and, like his heor, presented himself as a citizen of both the United Staets and the world.

The jury found Debs guilty, and the judge sentenced him to ten years in prison. Nearly sixty-five years old, Debs would spend almost two years behind bars. But his address had "electrified Socialists throughout America." In 1920 -- while still incarcerated -- he would again "run" for preisdent and as in 1912, receive almost a million votes.
The above bit of history should be an antidote to those "sunshine patriots" who proclaim "America, love it or leave it" or who proclaim "my country can do no wrong". American history is filled with injustices from slavery to Indian massacres, from the Palmer raids to the McCarthy era. Thomas Paine understood that democracy was always a "work in progress" and would require periodic efforts to keep the enterprise alive.

One last bit from the book. This is from the blacklisting era of post-WWII when authorities attacked anybody who had reacted to the horrors of the Great Depression by joining the Communist party out of the despair at finding any political party willing to undertake the hard work of saving a quarter of the population from the ravages of starvation, unemployment, and homelessness. Kaye recounts the story of Howard Fast who had written a biography of Thomas Paine:
Fast's literary works also came under attack. In 1947 the New York City Board of Education announced that it was withdrawing Citizen Tom Paine from all public school libraries -- not, the Board's spokesman dubiously claimed, because the author was a Communist but b ecause the novel contained too much "vulgarity." Belying the suggestion that this decision was motivated by colorful language, in 1949 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent agents to the nation's major libraries bearing instructions that all of Fast's titles be removed and destroyed. Meanwhile, federal loyalty reviews were asking questions such as "Do you read Howard Fast? Tom Paine? Upton Sinclair?" Even truman's special counsel, Clark Clifford, was compelled to explain why he had distributed fifty copies of Citizen Tom Paine as gifts.
Again... this is a very good book. It will teach you some history. But more importantly it will teach you about the ideals of the American Revolution and give you specifics of how that struggle to fully achieve the goals of that revolution continue to this very day.

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