Sunday, September 25, 2011

On "Common Sense"

An old friend of mine, and I mean that in both ways, just retired from the classroom two days ago and it's an odd kind of feeling. It is the end of an era. As he said himself "It's been a long time coming." I first met him in the fall of 2001, and he was talking about retiring then. I'll spare you the metaphors and similes about what kind of guy he was, although I'll give you a cliche: he was often his own worst enemy. He would start almost every argument with something along the lines of "If you weren't such an idiot, you'd see..." That he was usually right mattered little to the people who stopped listening at the gratuitous insult. I'll admit he knew when diplomacy was critical, and surprised me with his skill; he just had little use for it outside of those rare circumstances. Those of us who managed to get past that (or through it) were privileged to know a man of rare intellect whose warmth and humor were genuine and surprising.

Last week he passed along to me a weathered copy of Howard Fast's Citizen Tom Paine, convinced that I would enjoy it; he was thoroughly right. I'm always amazed at how much more I learn from good historical fiction than I do from even the best non-fiction. The ability to get into the thoughts and feel the emotions of a person living the times is a territory that the unfortunate historian must retreat from. My sentiments on this are perhaps why, despite my deep fascination with history, I teach English.

The most surprising thing that came out of reading this text was the realization about 70 pages in, that I had never read Thomas Paine's Common Sense. I graduated with a double major in Literature and Government, from a school consistently ranked top 20 in the nation (13th the year I graduated), and whose reputation in Politics and Economics exceeded even that ranking. Yet, I never read one of the most profound and important era defining documents of all time. Perhaps Paine chaffed the conservatism of Claremont McKenna; they certainly plied me with much of the ridiculous dogma of the right. One course assigned Charles Murray's willful stupidity The Bell Curve--a fools magnum opus if ever there was one. And, before someone tries to salvage my professor's intellect or honesty, he did not intend it as an excercise in critical reading.

Paine's power to crystallize an era was simply an unwillingness to be anyone's fool. He called into question everything that did not square with the logic of human equality, and in that vein refused to see the common man as inherently flawed or incapable of mastering his destiny.

The dream Paine fought so valiantly for, in word and deed, has faded and decayed. Like da Vinci dreaming into the future and imagining machines that allowed men to fly, but too far ahead of his time to have the tools available to see it correctly, Paine imagined commerce to be the tool that would liberate humanity from the yoke of serfdom and subservience, but he could not recognize how want and enslavement would remain, and indeed become critical components of modern commerce.

Paine could not but rebel against the triumph of commerce which, despite the downfall of aristocracies nearly across the globe, has renewed that very hereditary privilege Paine so bitterly railed against. We didn't read Paine in my college, in all probability because if you see past the words to their meaning, the intellectual legacy of Paine is Marx.

Read Howard Fast's Citizen Tom Paine. It will be impossible not to come away from the text without a deep appreciation for the man and a sense of how desperately we need a new Common Sense.

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