Lewis Lapham Speech at the 2012 International Conference for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College

On being asked ten years ago to speak to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association here in New Rochelle, I assumed that it would be a simple matter of stringing together the literary equivalent of a laurel wreath and setting it upon the head of a statue. It had been several years since I’d read The Age of Reason or Rights of Man, but in my own writing I’d borrowed more than one of Paine’s lines of argument, often unwittingly nearly always to good effect, and I didn’t think I’d have much trouble placing the figure of Paine on the pedestal of the heroic American past.

Before appearing on the lectern I fortunately took the precaution of re-reading Common Sense, and instead of finding myself in the presence of a marble portrait bust I met a man still living in what he knew to be “the undisguised language of historical truth,” leveling a fierce polemic against a corrupt monarchy that with no more than a few changes of name and title, could as easily serve as an indictment of the complacent oligarchy currently parading around Washington in the costumes of a democratic republic. Invariably in favor of a new beginning and a better deal, Paine was speaking to his hope for the rescue of mankind in a voice that hasn’t been heard in American politics for the last forty years, and the old words brought with them the sound of water in a desert:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world, ‘My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive…when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.’” “Why is it that scarcely any are executed but the poor?”

The abundance of Paine’s writing flows from his affectionate and generous spirit. During the twenty years of his engagement in both the American and French revolutions, he counts himself “a friend of the world’s happiness,” believing that the strength of government and the happiness of the governed is the freedom of the common people to mutually and naturally support one another. Republican democracy he conceived as a shared work of the imagination among people of disparate interests, talents and generations and therefore, as the holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are beautiful or rich or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens. His thinking about the mongrel splendors of democracy echoes that of Plato in The Republic: “like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, the city, embroidered with every kind of character, would seem to be the most beautiful.”

The force of Paine’s writing is of a match with his purpose, which is to empower his readers with the confidence to know the value of their own minds. He frames his thought in language plain enough to be understood by everybody in the room, his remarks addressed not only to the learned lawyer and the merchant prince but also to the ship chandler, the master mechanic and the ale-wife. Paine’s writing is revolutionary because it is a democratic means to a democratic end. His learning is not bookish; it is drawn from the wide reaching of his experience as corset-maker, privateer, magistrate, engineer, tax collector, Methodist preacher. Unlike the political theorists employed by our own self-important news media, Paine doesn’t think it the duty of the political writer to keep things running quietly and smoothly. His aim is to arm ordinary individuals with the weapon with which to defend themselves against organized deception and arbitrary power. The intention is explicit in the composition of Common Sense, which is why it excited so welcome a response among readers everywhere in the colonies when it was published in January 1776.

The sale of 150,000 copies within a matter of months furnished Thomas Jefferson with the proof of a national resolve that encouraged him to fit Paine’s reasoning to the writing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. During the course of the war Paine countered the frequent news of American defeat with the heartening rhetoric of The Crisis Papers that were passed from hand to hand around military campfires at Saratoga and Valley Forge, but the victory at Yorktown brought him little else except the prize of unemployment, his services no longer required by the proprietors of their new-found American estate.

The wealthy and well-educated gentlemen who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame the Constitution shared Paine’s distrust of monarchy, but not his faith in the abilities of the common people. From Aristotle the founders borrowed the theorem that all government, no matter what its name or form, incorporates the means by which the privileged few arrange the distribution of law and property for the less fortunate many. Recognizing in themselves the sort of people to whom James Madison assigned “the most wisdom to discern, and the most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society”, they undertook to draft a constitution accepting of the fact that whereas a democratic society puts a premium on equality, a capitalist economy does not. Unlike Magna Carta the Constitution doesn’t contemplate the sharing of the commons inherent in a bountiful wilderness; it provides the means by which men of property can acquire more property, and it was remembered that Paine opposed the holding of slaves and the denying to women the same rights granted to men, a man on too familiar terms with lower orders of society and therefore unfit for the work of dividing up the spoils.

By the end of the 19th century the several 18th century envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Paine) had been rolled off-stage by the industrial behemoth that was the glory of the Gilded Age. Mark Twain coined the phrase to represent his further observation that a society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed “is not a society at all, but a state of war.” In the event that anybody missed Twain’s meaning, President Grover Cleveland in 1887 set forth the rules of engagement while explaining his veto of a bill offering financial aid to the poor — “The lesson should be constantly enforced that the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”

Twenty years later, Arthur Hadley, the President of Yale, further simplified the lesson, “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other. The forces of democracy on the one side…and the forces of property on the other side.” In the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression the forces of democracy mounted the populist rising in the 1890s, the progressive movement in the 1910s, President Teddy Roosevelt’s preservation of the nation’s wilderness and his harassment of the Wall Street trusts—but it was the stock market collapse in 1929 that equipped the strength of the country’s democratic convictions with the power of the law. What Paine had meant by the community of common interest found voice and form in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, also in the fighting of World War II by a citizen army willing and able to perform the acts of public conscience, Paine’s love of liberty carried forward into the 1960s with the sexual revolution, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements.

But that was long ago and in another county.

Ronald Reagan’s new Morning in America brought with it in the early 1980s the second coming of a Gilded Age more swinish than the first. Paine had construed democracy as a representative assembly asking as many questions as possible from as many different sorts of people as possible with the thought that all present might learn something from one another. But as the country has continued to divide ever more obviously into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor, the shaping of the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a privilege reserved to the country’s equestrian classes, a.k.a. the 5% of the population that now holds 84% of the nation’s wealth and that can be defined as the happy few who run the big corporations and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, write the laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the policy institutes, the gambling casinos and the sports arenas.

Whether Democrat or Republican, the administrations occupying Washington for the last thirty years Paine would have recognized as royalist in sentiment, imperialist in character, the legislation emerging from Congress, like the rulings handed down by the Supreme Court, granting more freedom for property, less freedom to individuals. The privatizations of the public good accompanied by the letting fall into disrepair nearly all of the infrastructure—roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges, hospitals — that provide the citizenry with the foundation of its common enterprise. The domestic legislative measures align with the ambitions of a national security state backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war that arms the government with police powers more repressive than those available to the agents of the King George III. The Justice Department reserves the right to tap everybody’s phone, open anybody’s mail, to decide who is, and who is not, a patriot. President Obama enlarges President George W. Bush’s notions of arbitrary and preemptive strike to permit the killing of any American citizen believed to be a terrorist or a friend of terrorists, whenever and however it suits his exalted fancy.

Troubled op-ed columnists sometimes refer to the paradox implicit in the waging of a secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open and democratic society. They don’t proceed to what would have been Paine’s further observation that the nation’s foreign policy is cut from the same tyrannical cloth as its domestic economic policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the predatory finance engendering the Wall Street collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that sets itself above the law. I read the newspapers, and I think of what Paine might have had to say:

About powers usurped under the government under the Patriot Act — “Arbitrary power of an encroaching nature, like a beast devouring its natural prey — liberty, law and right.” About the Republican budget proposals — “The greedy hand of power constantly robbing society of the fruits of its labors, inventing alibis for the never-ending collection of taxes.” About the surveillance cameras and the airport security procedures meant to instill in the American people the habit of obedience—“A thousand little rooms of unfreedoms springing up at each castle of despotism whose lines of power crisscross and boss every individual subject, even to the point of corrupting an individual’s language, subjecting them to the designs of despots who treat them as dumb and submissive animals fit only for the herding through the wilderness of turnpike gates.”

The lack of vigorous objection in Congress accords with the monetized spirit of the times, which doesn’t rate politics as a valuable commodity. It is the wisdom of the age that money rules the world, transcends the boundaries of sovereign states, is the true and proper name for liberty. What need of statesmen, much less politicians, when it isn’t really necessary to remember what they say?

To read the writing of Tom Paine is to be reminded that our own contemporary political discourse is for the most part the gift for saying nothing. Forbidden the use of words apt to depress a Q score, or disturb a Gallup poll, this year’s presidential candidates stand as product placements meant to be seen instead of heard, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. Choreographed along the lines of a Superbowl half-time show, the election campaign is the ritual performance of the legend of democracy—the bursting in air of star-spangled photo ops, the candidates so well contrived that they can be played for jokes, presented as game show contestants, posed as crusader knights setting forth on vision quests, enduring the trials by Klieg lights until on election night they come on last to judgment before the throne of cameras by whom, and for whom, they were produced. Best of all, at least from the point of view of the corporate sponsors spending upwards of $3 billion dollars for the politicians, the press coverage and the balloons, there is no loose talk about the word what is meant by the word, democracy, or how and why it refers to the cherished hope of liberty embodied in the history of a courageous people. The campaigns don’t favor the voters with the respect owed to their standing as valuable citizens participant in the making of such a thing as a common good. They stay on message with the parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the acts of citizenship into the arts of shopping, to choose wisely from the fall collection of ornamental talking heads, texting A for yes, B for no. The sales pitch bends down to the electorate with a headwaiter’s condescending smile, deems the body politic incapable of generous impulse, selfless motive or creative thought. How then expect the people to trust a government that invests no trust in them? Why the surprise that over the last thirty years the voting public has been giving ever louder voice to its contempt for any and all politicians, no matter what their color, creed, prior arrest record or sexual affiliation.

As with Congress, so also with the mainstream news media that regard themselves as government factota, enabling and co-dependent. Their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known to Wall Street stock market touts as “securitizing the junk.” Explain to us, my general, why the United States must maintain 662 military bases in 38 foreign countries, and we will transmit the message to the American people with a waving of the flag. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why the banks and the insurance companies produce the paper that Congress doesn’t read but passes into law, and we will show the reasons to be sound. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be scornful or suspicious. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your stupidity and greed in the rose bushes of inside-the-Beltway gossip. We play the game of show, not tell; the words don’t count.

The cable news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment so safely labeled as sound-bite spin that it threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something that they don’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher offer jokes as consolation prizes for giving up the hope of political or social change. The ever-rising cost of staging the fiction of democracy reflects the ever increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be seen to exist. The change of venue accounts for the current absence of honest or intelligible debate in Congress, also for the subservience of the news media. People trained to the corporate style of thought exchange the right to freely speak for the right to freely purchase. When intended to draw blood instead of laughs, the speaking truth to power is not a good career move. To lend to words the force of deeds is as rare as it is brave, and usually it brings with it misfortunes like those that accompanied Paine throughout the whole of his uneasy life.

Without a market for lines of thought suddenly become both suspect and irrelevant in Philadelphia, Paine in 1787 sailed for Europe, still bent on his great project of political transformation and social change. In England he wrote Rights of Man, the book in which he sought to give programmatic form to his plan for a just society and which, 150 years ahead of its time, anticipates much of the legislation that eventually showed up in the United States under the rubric of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—government welfare payments to the poor, pensions payments to the elderly, public funding of education, reductions in military spending, an estate tax limiting the amount of an inheritance. The book appeared in two volumes, in 1791-92, instantly and immensely popular with readers not only in England but also in America and France. The sale of 500,000 copies ranked it the best-selling book of the entire 18th century and prompted the British government to charge its author with treason and declare him an outlaw.

When Paine crossed the Channel to Calais in the summer of 1792, a rejoicing crowd of newborn citizens accorded him a hero’s welcome. To the makers of the French Revolution The Rights of Man bore the stamp of revelation, and as testimony of their appreciation they promptly elected Paine to the political assembly then at work in Paris on the construction of yet another new republic. He remained in France for the rest of the century, arrested by Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety when the revolution degenerated into the Reign of Terror, writing the second volume of The Age of Reason while in the Luxembourg prison awaiting a summons to the guillotine.

On his eventual return to America in 1802 he was met at the dock in Baltimore with newspaper headlines damning him as a “loathsome reptile,” a “lying, drunken, brutal infidel.” When he died in poverty in 1809, he was memorialized by John Adams as “an insolent blasphemer of things sacred and transcendent. Libeler of all that is good.”

I’m sometimes asked why no voice like Paine’s descends from a computer cloud to rouse the American people to a regaining of their independence. The answer is in the 20th century’s shifting of the means of communication. Our contemporary political discourse is a commodity made for television, the medium defined by the late Marshall McLuhan as “the huge educational enterprise that we call advertising.” McLuhan didn’t mean the education of a competently democratic citizenry, but rather “the gathering and processing of exploitable social data” by “Madison Avenue frogmen of the mind” intent on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of human credulity and fear.

Like the music in elevators, our machine-made news comes and goes in a familiar loop — the same footage, the same spokespeople, the same reassuringly empty smiles. What was said last week certain to be said this week, next week and then again six weeks from now, the sequence returning as surely as the sun, demanding little else from the constant viewer except devout observance. The proof of being in the know defined as the making of the correct responses — Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Paris Hilton is not a golf ball, Miller beer is wet, politics is crime. To the degree that information can be commodified, as corporate logo campaign contribution or designer dress, the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling of things rather than from the making of them. Never have so many labels come so readily to hand, streaming in the firmament of the blogosphere, posted on the wall behind home plate at Yankee stadium. The achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of “innovative delivery strategies” that “broaden our horizons” and “brighten our lives” with quicker access to A-list celebrities and subprime loans.

Maybe I miss the key performance indicators, but I don’t know how a language that’s meant to be disposable enriches anybody’s life. I can understand why words devoid of meaning serve the interests of the corporation and the state, but they don’t “enhance” or “empower” people who would find in their freedom of thought a voice that they can recognize as their own. What Thomas Paine meant by the truth doesn’t emerge from a data bank; nor does it come with a declaration of war or the blessing of Christ; it’s the courage that individuals derive from not running a con game on the unique character and specific temper of their own minds.

The vitality of the American democracy rests on the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant, the habit of mind that James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 associated with his definition of the word candor. “By candor,” Cooper said, “we are not to understand a trifling and uncalled expositions of the truth; but a sentiment that proves a conviction of the necessity of speaking truth when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality…the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.”

George Orwell spoke to the same point in his essay, “Politics in the English language,” published in 1946. Social and political change follows from language that induces a change of heart. “The slovenly use of words,” he said, “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…if one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

Oligarchy prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. Advertising isn’t interested in political regeneration. It’s the voice of money talking to money, in the currency that Toni Morrison, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, denominated as “the language that drinks blood, happy to admire its own paralysis, possessed of”no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of narcotic narcissism…dumb, predatory, sentimental, exciting reverence in school children, providing a shelter for despots. Language designed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege.

The vocabulary is limited but long abiding. Aristocrats in ancient Athens didn’t engage in dialogue with slaves, a segment of the population classified by the Aristotle as “speaking tools,” animate but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app. The sponsors of the Spanish Inquisition ran data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the Gestapo in Nazi Germany.

I’m content to regard the Internet as the best and brightest machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden tongue. It is one thing to browse the Internet; it is another thing to write for it. The author doesn’t speak to a fellow human being; he or she addresses an algorithm neither willing nor able to wonder what the words might mean. The search engines scan everything but hear nothing, equip the fear of freedom with more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Heinrich Himmler.

The strength of language doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm, “is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. “We die,” she said, “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day and offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality — “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

So does the writing of Thomas Paine.