Give Me Serendipity or Give me Death!: Revolutionary Education in the Fifth Grade & Happy Birthday, Tom Paine!

Mr. Bib lives in a rich, and likely solipsistic world where themes, events, excitements and art conspire to help things make sense for him. This takes amazingly little effort if one pays attention, or gooses it a bit. Consider the following, and then decide whether to play along with me this weekend. There's room for all, friends. First, my son comes home with an assignment to complete a research profile. Delighting his old anarcho-socialist dad, the Little Bibster had chosen Thomas Paine. Which gets Dad to rereading some Paine, admiring one of Paine's best biographers, seeing Arthur Miller's The Crucible while thinking of Paine, listening again (and loud) to a musical  tribute to Paine, and considering the legacy of the reliably revolutionary Dr. Martin Luther King in light of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, a man who quoted Paine four years ago. 
Obama did not offer that his "own mind was his own church," or otherwise challenge the religious-military-industrial complex, but it was a hopeful (sorry!) start, and I wonder which anarchist-atheist revolutionary the President might invoke this weekend.  It's a well-orchestrated celebration (and why not!), and falls on the same weekend as we celebrate that life struggle of another of Paine's disciples in the small if meaningful victory of a moderate Democrat corporate capitalist over the nutty Mormon reactionary, and the work of the American civil rights movement, part of it organized by Dr. King. As an aside (I have quite a few), the Bibliofella notes that some of us will certainly not celebrate, not either occasion.  A neighbor recently referred rather pointedly, unshyly, to Mr. Obama as "your president," a bit of typically pissy revanchist snottery popular with Rightists, a la Glenn Beck, who yet imagines Paine a hero of his, too.  Such is the appeal of Tom even to morons, who was born Pain and changed his name only upon decamping to the colonies. Glenn Beck was born Charles Edward Coughlin. Or reborn.

So, yest the salutary, challenging, and fun circumstances of parenthood have brought 
Thomas Paine, an Englishman born in Thetford who became an American revolutionary and was elected to the French National Convention for an extended stay at our house. To help the boy along and make our Dead Revolutionary in Residence feel at home, I pulled out and reread the biographical meditation of everybody's favorite pamphleteer by my favorite Socialist revolutionary anti-theist writer, activist, polemicist and man of letters, Christopher Hitchens. His Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography is only a bit over the tiny and lovely head of my fifth grader, so we listened together to the NPR's Talk of the Nation show featuring Hitch, whom I met once, chatted with briefly about Harold Pinter of all people, and miss a whole lot. Literature was his "religion" and he is immortal. Just check out all the YouTube videos of Hitchens, dead but still beating back the silly superstitions of fundies, rabbis, Christian anti-scientists and other goofs. It will cheer you right up, or more, if you are as happy as I am just using this weekend as occasion to talk King, Paine and books advocating freedom and liberty.

Somewhere in there the whole family attended the Orange County High School of the Arts production of The Crucible, and I found myself even happier, what with all the kismet and serendipity and synchronicity, whether it was really happening or was just, as I warned earlier, only in my brain. The play, sixty years old, remains urgent and present, not only for its obvious parallels to our own hypocritical and coercive political culture but because of its multiplicity of really, really radical ideas, attacks and scoffing directly (!) at, yes, religion. It was his ridicule of religion, finally, which condemned Paine, who died penniless and friendless. He had plenty of enemies, and still does, and good for him. A life without enemies means you didn't do much, say I, not to fight evil. If you can live your whole life and not piss off Republicans, Nazis, homophobes, Objectivists, gun nuts - pick one! - well, your life is wasted, friends. Even those who admire Paine often seem to obscure his anti-theism in favor of some cherry-picked version of him. It is in his totality, of integrity and obstreperousness, of consistent resistance to illegitimate authority that he must be understood.

Hitchens' book is actually sort of about this problem of friends and positions and the enduring ideas, hidden in plain sight, that Paine preached in opposition to his friends, including Edmund Burke, who seemed not to like too much democracy, and really could not stand the rhetoric. Paine wrote back at Burke, as Hitchens points out, trying to figure out his former friend.  "Rights of Man has its private and emotional dimension: a note of plaintive disappointment from a former admirer that at times can sound almost like the tone of a despised lover." Other "friends" and friendships come up, from Bonaparte to Marx to Jalal Talabani.  Paine wins and loses friends, and Hitchens wins, naturally, the argument about the enduring impact of Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason and The American Crisis. Independent of me and this theme, my kid's brilliant mother came up with the idea of making a Thomas Paine Facebook page mock-up, a nifty cardboard poster 
version of an 18th C. social media deal. As it happens, there are already a few real ones.  They're pretty fun. Though I suspect that if TP had one, its fate might have been the same as Julian Assange's WikiLeaks site, shut down by banksters and other whores.

Speaking of (more) fun, there's so much more of it, and serendipity.  It turns out that January 29 is Paine's birthday, making this blog post your first Happy Birthday, Tom Paine Meditation and also that the great actor Ian Ruskin is back in town doing his one-man Paine show, To Begin the World Over Again, in Southern Cal.  You can learn more about him, and his other great projects by watching a recent show broadcast by PBS courtesy (who else?) of Bill Moyers or going to his site or his Harry Bridges Project.

No birthday would be right without song, so I'll recommend a CD by two of my favorite singer-songwriters, the great Leon Rosselson and his pal Robb Johnson.  Last year they put together a spoken word-musical review on the Painester.  It collects some of the best of his writing, and theirs, with humor and history and footnotes and real nice musical notes, new and old songs sung and performed by heroic veterans of the folk and punk revolutions who are friends of Tom, atheists and Socialists from England.  Probably my favorite album, as we used to say, of the year.

Tom Paine was a rebel, hated lies and tyranny
and from the clear spring of reason his words flowed free.
From the clear spring of reason his words flowed free,
and they watered the roots of the liberty tree,
watered the roots of the liberty tree

Tom Paine set his mind against all authority. 
I will think for myself, he said, for thought at least is free.
You must think for yourself, he said, for thought is free!
Then you may water the roots of the liberty tree...

Born to Quaker parents in a sleepy market town,
What star decreed that he would turn the world upside down...?

For a sample, and to order your copy, go to the PM Press website.  Play loud! 

Back to President Obama, a friend of Tom Paine who in his own way turned the world upside down. Lots of smart elected officials are coerced by religion. I am hoping for another quote by Paine, this one announcing that the president, who "changed his mind" about gay marriage, has changed his mind about humanity's enslavement to superstition.  Alas, he has to play along.  Liberating people from their self-imposed prison ain't on the agenda.  In fact, for Obama just one Bible is not enough, it seems, for this weekend's ceremony. He is being sworn in on Lincoln's and on Dr. King's, too.  Great.  Why not Tom Paine's?  

Ha!  Don't you love it when the joke doesn't even need a punch line?

Common Sense, Thomas Paine, Penguin Books (Great Ideas), 104 pgs., $8.95

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man

, Christopher Hitchens, Grove, 320 pgs., $13.00

The Liberty Tree: A Celebration of the Life and Times of Thomas Paine, Leon Rosselson & Robb Johnson, PM Press, $20.00

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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