I have an ongoing friendly political back-and-forth with a neighbor, Dick, here in my small Vermont town. He's a rock-ribbed Republican, I'm a left-of-Democrat liberal. We have strong but civil disagreements. Knowing, as he does, of my fondness for Thomas Paine, my neighbor emailed me a link to a video promoted by Glenn Beck, in which an angry right-winger invokes Paine in calling, Howard-Beale style, for an uprising against, well, everything. No surprise that at the end, the video promotes the limp Tea Party protests staged of late. My neighbor asked me what I thought of the video.
My reply -- in all its crude, unpolished email style -- below the fold...
Thanks for sending the video link... I watched it with interest because as you know, Tom Paine is one of my personal favorites... He was anti-slavery, pro-universal suffrage (that is, the vote for ALL people, not just male real property owners), a champion of dissent, and suspicious of civic religiosity (especially since it had been used for centuries to justify monarchy, as in "the divine right of kings"). First and foremost, Paine was a critic of hereditary monarchy (which made him a forceful proponent of inheritance taxes, which the founders enacted as a check against the re-establishment of monarchy based on accumulated, inherited wealth).
"Common Sense" is, more than anything else, a devastating indictment of the supposed divine right of those with inherited wealth to rule over all civic, religious and commercial affairs. Reread the first few pages of "Common Sense" right now and note: it's all about how the King is nothing more than the most recent inheritor of accumulated capital and how, just because he may be the richest guy in the land, that doesn't mean he's the one who should run everything and determine everyone else's fate. That was Paine's genius -- he used logic, history and effective argument to utterly destroy the legitimacy of the King's assertion of power at a time when a majority of Colonists were not sure they wanted full independence from the Crown. I mean, the forcefulness of Paine's argument against inherited wealth (read: "the King") is what really stands out in the first pages of "Common Sense." The power of the pen, indeed.
So, that is why I find it puzzling, and more than a bit ironic, a Bush/Cheney apologist and promoter like Glenn Beck has now adopted Tom Paine as a role model. Beck and that crowd (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the rest of the conservative dominated media, including Rush and the Little Rushes who dominate talk radio; the US Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street; the corporate-funded "think tanks" like American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, etc etc) spent the last eight years (and really, decades before that) defending the richest, most powerful elites in the nation -- the corporations and their executives -- and the policies that vastly increased their wealth and power at the expense of 98 percent of all other people (and I mean literally 98% of Americans -- those like you and me who make less than $250,000 per year)... I think their basic premise is, in my paraphrase, "If you're rich, it's proof you have more smarts and more virtue than anyone who isn't rich, and therefore more right to determine the course of politics and policy." That thought is exactly what Paine so forcefully and effectively destroyed in "Common Sense."
Beck and Rush and Hannity and Cheney et al spent a lot of energy condemning people like me who dared to question the president in time of war, even when the administration and Congressional Republicans were aggressively asserting the sort of powers formally claimed by divine-right monarchs:* the right to detain anyone indefinitely, including US citizens, without charges and without legal representation; * the right to wage war unilaterally, based on lies and deliberate deceit of the citizens, and the right to tax common people to fund the illegitimate warmongering of the rulers; * the right to spy on citizens' personal communications and even enter their homes without warrants (ever heard of "national security letters"? -- google it); * the right of those with the greatest economic power to operate without regard to fair-market practices or the common good; * the exemption of business and governing elites from the same laws (that is, accountability) that we little people are held to; * I could go on and on with examples....
The point is, Thomas Paine would have been the biggest Bush/Cheney critic in the world -- and now apologists like Beck are wrapping themselves in Paine's mantle? How ironic. How twisted and cynical. Paine thought dissent was the most patriotic thing -- indeed, a moral obligation -- but remember after 9/11 when all the right-wingers in the media and politics told us how unpatriotic it was to dare criticize The King -- uh, excuse me, President Cheney? The word "treason" came all-too easily and frequently off the lips of Rush, O'Reilly, Hannity and all the other bloviator/apologists.
Now, in response to the video I just watched: there are a lot of specific points the guys utters, too many to respond to here, but a couple of thoughts:
There is a dangerous mix of half-truth, untruth, and genuine populist anger in the presentation. I will say this, Dick: you and your conservative grass-roots companions need to be wary of the New Monarchists who run the GOP (by that I mean the Wall Street market fundamentalists who provide virtually all the funding for the party -- and lest you think I'm picking on GOPers, I would hasten to add the same donors have a lot of influence on national Dems, too, which is why I am not a registered Dem).
Those economic elites have very effectively used hot-button issues like abortion and illegal immigration and gay marriage to manipulate the conservative rank-and-file into supporting an economic-policy agenda that is actually against your interests (and mine and all the "98%ers" who make less than $250,000 per year). I mean, didn't you get the irony of CNBC's Rick Santelli turning to a trading floor of white, wealthy men, saying they pretty well represent a cross-section of Americans, and then declaring outrage at the gall of anyone who might suggest we might use a few billion to help working- and middle-class homeowners stay in their homes even as we spend TRILLIONS to insulate the Masters of the Universe from the consequences of their irresponsible risk-taking with our invested savings and pensions? Didn't you get that irony, Dick?
The elites are throwing red meat at you guys hoping your genuine anger at the highjacking of our governing systems by the unaccountable Wall Street and Big Biz CEO class will be obscured by their hyping of abortion and immigration and the generalized demonization of "liberals" and "the left." The GOP elites have money, they have lungs (via the establishment-friendly, corporately biased if not "conservative" media), they have the political connections and the paid representation (lobbyists) -- they need grassroots people to help their push for New American Monarchy seem populist. So, what do they do? Just two examples:
- They push the utterly silly and demonstrably false notion that defaults on loans made under the Community Reinvestment Act are to blame for the current economic crisis. They expect you to just read what Heritage publishes and listen to what Hannity tells you, but the least bit of simple research will tell you this about CRA: The CRA was passed to insure that banks that take deposits in a community (like our small town, say) actually lend those savings to home buyers and businesspeople IN that community. That's the traditional role of banks -- giving a boost to local self-reliance by pooling our collective savings and lending them back to us for developing our community. But before CRA, it had become common practice to deny loans to people in the communities that saved the money, and instead, banks were exporting money, lending it to high-rolling speculators and others outside the community. CRA simply said that a minimal amount of a community's savings must be loaned in the community -- hence "Community RE-INVESTMENT Act." (It's worth readingthis positive review of CRA made by that noted radical leftist, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.) And, BTW, three decades of experience show that the small-time, working-class borrowers and small businesses who get loans because of CRA have a LOWER rate of default than wealthy borrowers, and banks actually make money on them. Go to any of the big bank web sites and search "community reinvestment act" and see the positive things the banks themselves say about their CRA programs. Why would the right-wing leaders spend so much effort to convince their grassroots followers of a falsehood about CRA? Perhaps, just maybe, to distract you from a class-based analysis that might lead you to put blame at the feet of the GOP and its patrons?
- Immigration: Sure, there is a seed of truthful concern about immigration in the video, but the rhetoric spread by right-wing leaders is again misleading grassroots conservatives. One detail in the video is ridiculous: the presenter says something about illegal aliens collecting social security. Ummm, no, that is not right -- they are ILLEGAL. They don't have SS cards, so they cannot collect. However, many of them DO have SS taxes withdrawn from their paychecks, so don't we owe them our thanks for paying but not collecting SS? I'm not saying illegal immigration is not a problem -- it is. But again, ask yourself: Why would the right-wing leaders spend so much effort to hype the issue? Perhaps to distract you from a class-based analysis that might lead you to put blame at the feet of the GOP and its Wall Street masters?
Why doesn't the "Tom Paine" in the Beck video -- for all the many times he mentions immigration -- why does he hardly mention the culpability of Wall Street in creating the mess we're in? Why does he not rail against the active removal of safeguards (that is, regulations) that prevented such irresponsible business behavior since the last time it happened in the 1920s? And just so you know I'm an equal-opportunity critic, Dick, I will remind you that it was DEMOCRATS CHRIS DOOD AND BILL CLINTON, along with conservative Phil Gramm, who had a big hand in repealing the Glass-Steagall Act in 1998 that set the stage for today's economic disaster -- all of them under the financial influence of Wall Street lobbyists and donors. And is it any wonder that even with this Democratic-run Congress, we're getting a lot of deference to Wall Street when Wall Street is such a heavy investor in Dems Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, who run the key committees overseeing the financial sector? Could it be that the guy in the video doesn't want you to look at Wall Street and the corporate elite, but would rather mislead you by pointing to other alleged causes of today's problems (illegal aliens don't have a lot of power in DC, so they are easy to blame)?
I would think a lot more of the video if I didn't think it was an attempt to manipulate the genuine concern of grassroots conservatives by drawing their attention away from the real culprits -- the wealthy elites who got us into this mess, and who have vastly increased their wealth at the expense of the middle class and working class. Yes, socialism is alive and well and living on Wall Street -- but we can't get a public health care program that would save all of us money, improve our health, and make our businesses more competitive globally. For a trillion dollars we could have endowed a public fund that would provide gold-plated health care for all Americans forever, but no, we couldn't come up with that money until we needed to bail out the poor millionaires and billiionaires who screwed all of us with their irresponsible gambling. They have always championed the "free market" until now that it threatens to eat them. They demand/extort a taxpayer bail out, but they hate "big government." Go figure. The modern Tom Paine in your video has nothing to say about that hypocrisy -- no, it's all the illegal immigrants' fault.
The real Thomas Paine pulled back that curtain in his day. If you want to use him as a role model, Dick, you must accept his CLASS-BASED analysis of history: it is the wealthiest class that is running things, and the rest of us need to actively guard against the manipulations enabled by their accumulated capital if we hope to have true democracy in this republic. "Left" versus "Right" is a distraction created and perpetrated by the HAVES to keep the HAVE-NOTS and the LESSER-HAVES from getting to the root of the analysis. Note what a tizzy the Wall Streeters throw when anyone dares to raise a "class" argument -- they wage class warfare but criticize anyone who points that out as waging class warfare. But that is what the real Paine did -- your video Paine barely touches that, just alludes to it enough to strike a chord -- and no wonder: it appears he is at least inspired, if not funded, by the Tea Party people who are a front for the Wall Streeters.
Why you and your fellow conservatives would give so much power to Rush, Hannity, Cheney and Wall Street et al is a mystery to me. Why you would think government is the problem and instead put your faith in the benevolence of CORPORATIONS and accumulated capital is a mystery to me. Why you can't or won't see through the manipulations of the monied interests is a mystery to me.
And a word about revolution: I endorse what Jefferson said about the wisdom of a little revolution now and then. But to think that conservatives can, with a straight face, now claim the need for a revolution against the status quo is amazing. Conservatives have occupied the Oval Office for all but 12 of the last 41 years, and about half that time they controlled Congress. Last November, a decisive majority of citizens soundly rejected the best arguments the GOP could make for continuing that legacy. Why can't you guys accept that judgement?
And where was your indignity and revolutionary fervor when Cheney, Bush and the Congressional GOP were further enriching and empowering the wealthiest and most powerful among us, trampling civil liberties and the Constitution, torturing people who were not then and have not now been convicted -- much less even charged -- with ANY crime, and otherwise destroying this nation's economic foundation and standing in the world?
I can tell you that I, for one, was raising my voice and paying a price for doing so (at the hands of some of your heros). Where was your indignity then? With all due respect Dick, I and my fellow critics could have used a little support back then, and with it, all of us together might have prevented some of this.
Dick, I say all this with respect to you as a neighbor. We have always had civil civic debates, and I look forward to more of that. With that said, let me urge you to reject the false populism of Glenn Beck, Rush, Fox News et al. Don't buy it. It's a crock. They helped create this disaster with their fact-free flacking for the GOP. When working- and middle-class conservatives reject their manipulations, it might be easier to make some real progress in this country.
Respectfully, your neighbor,