Summer is turned up to eleven in southern California with temperatures regularly topping one hundred degrees Fahrenheit inland from the (crowded) beaches. Just up the coast, an anthropogenic forest fire rages in the hills behind Santa Barbara while Trump threatens to reduce the budget of the U.S. Forest Service – guardians of California’s National Forests. Days ago, the Donald was playing musical chairs with Ivanka in Hamburg, the G-20 got momentarily downgraded to the G-19; and strawberries with cream were being served up to tennis fans at Wimbledon, not so very far from the burnt-out hulk of Grenfell Tower, a public housing project whose $15M refurbishment privileged its aesthetic impact on wealthy neighbors rather than the health and safety of its majority non-white and low income inhabitants. Last week, National Public Radio took flak from overly sensitive right-wingers who interpreted its tweeted rendition of the Declaration of Independence as a call for contemporary revolution. @JustEsrafel responded with, “So, NPR is calling for Revolution. Interesting way to condone the violence while trying to sound “Patriotic”…..You’d be excused for thinking that the Silly Season has begun. Isn’t it time for a little un-tweeted Common Sense?
This plain-spoken pamphlet by Thomas Paine, published on January 10, 1776 was the blunt instrument of insurrection of which our Declaration of Independence (published, you’ll remember, early in July that same year), was the Cliffs Notes; the Reader’s Digest condensed version; the abridged, potted, synoptic, broadsheet version. Better to read the pamphlet.
There is, for instance, in Common Sense, a short disquisition on how to build a navy on a budget – a necessary adjunct to successful revolution if the inevitable counter-revolution was to be resisted. In the event, barely. In 1812, the British bloodied its cousins’ noses,
blackened the White House and chased the Americans into Canada. Today, might we righteous citizens draw up a laundry list of drones, cruise missiles, automatic weapons, depleted uranium ammunition, Humvees, helicopters and MRE’s with which to fight the next existential threat to the glorious freedoms bequeathed to us by our Revolution (were that function not so gleefully and gratuitously already practiced by our government)? Some lessons, it seems, can be learnt too well.
We now face, not an aging, demented king, his pliant parliament and the wealth of Great Britain as the agents of tyranny but instead, an oligarchic president, a captive congress, an accommodating judiciary and a hydra-headed bureaucracy whose self-serving, un-elected leaders are Trump appointments – who collectively pay little heed to our hard won liberties: thus it is that should you, dear reader, care to undertake a little light paraphrasing, Thomas Paine’s words will spring into a tight, contemporary focus.
Firstly, despite the dearest wish of the Founding Fathers, our presidency has devolved into a kind of cut-rate monarchy or into the role of an Imperial Caesar (that owes more to Vegas than to Rome). Hereditary or not, our system all too often serves up mediocrities. As Tom has it,
“One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.
Next, a nod to the esteemed family patriarch, the former Klansman (with links to the mob) and political patron: Fred Trump, the first of his line (a fact now known to the world via John Oliver’s racist dog-whistle which suggested that his erstwhile Germanic family name of Drumf somehow signified a person of less probity, integrity and intelligence than the anglicized Trump).
“This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers”.
Or, as Timothy Snyder predicts, Trump may forgo future elections based, perhaps, on some false flag emergency such as the Reichstag fire, and then assume dictatorial powers – this gambit, Snyder claims, is one that “it’s pretty much inevitable they will try”, (Salon, May 1st. 2017). There may indeed be a terrorist threat that conveniently demands an extra-constitutional response, its necessity crammed, as Paine suggests, “down the throats of the vulgar”.
“…..hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditional history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar”.
Then a paragraph that needs no alteration to secure its contemporary relevance: our incumbent president having been nurtured from his earliest lick of a silver spoon in the arts and attitudes of entitlement.
“Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions”.
The aforementioned Timothy Snyder, bastion of the academy, author recently of Bloodlands, 2010, and Black Earth, 2015 – revisionist histories of the twentieth century Stalinist and Nazi atrocities in Central Europe, turned this Spring, to the writing of a pamphlet very much in the tradition of Tom Paine. Barely longer than Common Sense, it proposed certain prophylactic actions an engaged American citizenry might take to ward off the onset of a Trumpian tyranny. Number nine, in his work titled On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017, counsels, “Read Books”.
Snyder notes in his introduction that “both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them”. Trump is now the beneficiary of the failures of neoliberalism and the collapse of the White American Dream over the last four decades, after its careful nurturing by Truman and Eisenhower in the 1950’s. He suggests that “We (have) allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could only move in one direction: toward liberal democracy”; what is ignored in this elitist presumption is the roiling rip-tide of populist resentment that has lately surfaced with the American election of 2016 and Britain’s Brexit vote.
Some have questioned (notably Jeet Heer in the New Republic, March 2017) whether it is necessary to invoke Europe’s totalitarian boogeymen when we have so many home grown nativists to which we might compare our current president. He reels off his list of suspects: Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan, while suggesting that both Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot were, like Trump, well-practiced in condemning the inequities of international trade and of our free-loading allies. A wider net of proto-Trumpian politicians might include Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and most scurrilously of all, Thomas Watson of the People’s Party who, in 1910, spewed the following venom,
“…the scum of creation has been dumped on us. Some of our principle cities are more foreign than American. The most dangerous and corrupting hordes of the old world have invaded us. The vice and crime which they have planted in our midst is sickening and terrifying”.
We can reasonably hope that Snyder’s implicit comparison of Trump to Stalin and Hitler is a shock-tactic to awaken us from our complacency and is, historically, an overreach. But it is surely time, as he suggests, for the common man and woman to begin building their Libraries of Insurrection to ward against the onset of tyranny. His injunction to ‘Read a Book’, however, might be simply reduced to ‘Read a Pamphlet’ – his own, On Tyranny and the eternally on-point, Common Sense.For the words of Thomas Paine now ring truer than ever, who cannot be stirred in these dark times by his rousing call for a truly noble American exceptionalism:
“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind”.