Sunday, July 31, 2005

Like trying to plant cut flowers

And just when I become interested in Thomas Paine, along comes Harvey J. Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. From Joseph Ellis' review in the Sunday Book Review:

"Though a self-confessed partisan, Kaye provides the most comprehensive assessment yet of Paine's controversial reputation, and the results congeal into three categories: first, the Paine haters, like Theodore Roosevelt, who called him a 'filthy little atheist' because of The Age of Reason (1794-95), a frontal assault on Christianity; second, prominent American statesmen and authors like Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, who quoted selectively from Paine but only to serve their own political purposes; third, the longer list of radicals, a kind of roll call of the American left, who drew inspiration from Paine's uncompromising convictions. A selection from the last, in rough chronological order, includes Robert Owen, William Lloyd Garrison, Victoria Woodhull, Henry George, Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow, Henry Wallace, Saul Alinsky, C. Wright Mills, Tom Hayden and Bob Dylan.

"Oddly enough, however, over the past 30 years Paine's chief fans have appeared within the conservative wing of the Republican Party, making Paine, like Jefferson, the proverbial man for all seasons. Though weird, and surely not the legacy Kaye has in mind, the Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich persuasion has a plausible claim on the libertarian side of the Paine legacy, which is deeply suspicious of all forms of consolidated political power and views government as ''them'' rather than 'us.' Paul Wolfowitz would also be able to cite Paine in support of George W. Bush's Iraq policy, since Paine believed that democratic values were both universal and self-enacting. History makes strange bedfellows.

"Which is to say that 'the promise of America' that Paine glimpsed so lyrically at the start cannot be easily translated into our 21st-century idiom without distorting the intellectual integrity of its 18th-century origins. Paine, like Jefferson, was a product of the Enlightenment who sincerely believed there was a natural order of perfect freedom and equality that had been hijacked by medieval kings and priests. If only, as Diderot put it, the last king could be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, the natural order would be restored, naturally. Marx's later formulation of the same illusion was that the state would wither away, leaving a harmonious and classless society. In the wake of Darwin's depiction of nature, Freud's depiction of human nature, the senseless slaughter of World War I and the genocidal tragedies of the 20th century, Paine's optimistic assumptions appear naïve in the extreme.

"What a reincarnated Paine would say about our altered political and intellectual landscape is impossible to know. Kaye hears his voice more clearly and unambiguously than I do, a clarity of conviction that I envy. My more muddled position is that bringing Paine's words and ideas into our world is like trying to plant cut flowers."

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