Tilting at windbags

America’s amnesia about Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine on Glenn Beck: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Thomas Paine on Glenn Beck: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Jon Stewart did a good job on The Daily Show of skewering Fox’s over-the-top right-wing radio host Glenn Beck last month. He used Beck’s blackboard full of Rube Goldberg-esque diagrams, lots of phony knuckle biting and sudden dramatic hand gestures to depict this paragon of supposedly conservative virtues as the loon that he really is.

But was Stewart’s “fair and accurate” depiction of the unbalanced Beck in action really enough to undo the damage already done to the reputation of a man whom Beck and his teabagging minions have been shamelessly mischaracterizing, the very man credited with inventing our democracy?

The man in question, of course, is Thomas Paine.

“The idea that Glenn Beck and others whose ideas are opposite to Paine’s have adopted him to distort his ideas is extremely disturbing, but not surprising,” writes Alaine Lowell, executive director of The Thomas Paine Society based in Pasadena. “It is almost humorous to observe the Christian Right quoting and fawning over the man who blasted Christianity in ‘The Age of Reason.’ Clearly Beck’s disciples haven’t read any of Paine’s works and are merely parroting the few quotes from Paine that fit their agenda.”

These “assaults on the truth,” as Lowell called them, “have made our mission more difficult and have robbed Americans of learning about a true hero of the American Revolution.”

But therein lies part of the problem: Who was Thomas Paine? Yes, it was Paine who wrote in December 1776, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” to inspire weary troops a few days before George Washington led them across the Delaware River to defeat mercenary Hessian troops in the new American army’s first real win of the war. But it was also Paine who nearly 20 years later ticked off so many folks with his critiques of organized religion in “The Age of Reason” that only six people attended his funeral in 1809.

Let’s also remember that the man who penned “Common Sense,” the bristling 46-page pamphlet calling for separation from England five months prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was also a staunch supporter of abolition, justice for the poor and women’s rights—causes that didn’t make him very popular in the eyes of his white male peers.

For whatever reason, there is still no statue erected in honor of the man in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, although the place is loaded with monuments to his fellow Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Maybe that explains why Beck and his ilk feel so free to trample Paine’s ideas and mangle his words.

Truth be told, Paine was the very antithesis of people like Beck, an ideologue who will stop at nothing—including distorting the truth about a Founding Father—in order to deceive, which, as Paine also wrote in “The Age of Reason,” isn’t all that difficult to do, because “the sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related that it is difficult to class them separately.”