Thomas Paine: an always-relevant radical

The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!

As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.

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Paine, before injustice gave him grey hair. Portrait by Matthew Pratt

What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.

So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.

Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.

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Paine seemingly never wrote anything that didn’t make at least some powerful people mad.

The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.

So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.

The action fallacy and Syria

The UK House of Commons finished marathon debate over authorizing airstrikes in Syria. The government motion passed 397-223. In 2013 the same body defeated a similar intervention bill, with a united Labour joined by minor parties and defections from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

It is not surprising that this vote will succeed, and do so by a considerable margin. The Paris attacks have turned dozens of Labour MPs into hawks. Jeremy Corbyn, the most anti-war party leader in recent memory, was unable to get his delegation into line. Ed Miliband, who led the opposition to the 2013 bill, also voted against airstrikes.

Corbyn is being pilloried by the press and by members of his own party, who has been given almost no breathing room despite an overwhelming mandate in his election.

This whole debate reeks of historical blindness. Corbyn and his anti-war brethren are just being consistent- 12 years ago the same debate occurred, about intervention in Iraq.

Is there a record of Western military intervention creating stable, secular nation-states?

No.

Was there an exit strategy before intervening in Iraq?

No.
Is there one now?

No.

Will an escalation of force undermine ISIS recruitment? Former hostage and journalist Nicolas Hénin thinks it’s a trap to rally support around ISIS.

The “good war” of today will be, just like Iraq, the “bad war” of a decade in the future. Each time a Noble Defense of Liberal Democracy(tm) turns into a bloody, expensive quagmire, there’s a whole round of editorials about a powerful lesson learned. Acquired wisdom will prevent the same mistakes.

I’ll forward the title of this post: the action fallacy. In times of crisis, it is always easier to defend doing something over not doing something. A wide range of people, including some of the Labour shadow ministry, see anti-war principles as weakness. Strength involves using people and money to destroy other people. Intervening in Iraq was worth creating free university, housing, investment in clean energy. Put this way- to dive into war with no evidence that it will improve the situation is to say you oppose programs that are guaranteed to improve a situation- not just in the United Kingdom, but Syria as well. For several million dollars you can build housing or turn one into a smoking crater.

Would ISIS exist in 2015 if there was no coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003? Highly unlikely, as its leadership in part are Sunnis who were displaced, and when the army was disbanded, they took their weapons and went home. If money was actually invested in creating a strong Kurdish state in northern Iraq, ISIS would never have been able to invade east.

The Western countries which are bombing (or will soon) talk about Western values and international cooperation. They’ve been completely unable to stop Turkey from bombing the Kurds, who are those secular anti-ISIS rebels that Westerners are always talking about. Never mind that the Kurds are the only thing keeping ISIS from having a long border with a NATO nation.

I’d like to finish by shaming one MP and praising another. Alison McGovern, a Labour MP who is voting for war but wants to couch it in humanitarianism, said this in her speech:

the biggest recruitment for vile extremism is want. It is dissatisfaction with the chances the world is offering you, whether in the back streets of Britain or the cities of Africa and the Middle East where young people find that the powerful in our world forget them far too quickly.

This is an awful chunk of hypocrisy, and exactly the sort of hawkish rhetoric you get from ostensibly liberal Democrats in the United States. The biggest recruiter for “vile extremism” are civilian casualties, creating the narrative that Islam is being attacked by a coalition of Western countries and needs people to come and save it. That ISIS is not in any way a genuine Islamic organization is irrelevant- violent intervention turns logical analysis on its head. Conflict narrows the focus of all involved. It stirs up the blood and legitimates cruelty.

Yet that’s not the most troubling part. It’s an argument about poverty being a key issue of the problem. This is in part true, and would make sense were it not in a speech justifying expensive military operations. Ending poverty requires money, which is wasted on weapons and a misguided form of ‘nation-building’ that failed to turn Iraq into a stable country. And many people in the Middle East do end up joining ISIS out of poverty- Western-created from warfare. The War on Terror has been a fourteen-year long lessons that attacking terrorism with military force both kills extremists and creates new ones. This ignores all the recruits from the West, including Paris, whose poverty is also Western-created through capitalist exploitation and inequality.

Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, had a speech that had its issues, but summed things up well here:

we are being asked to intervene in a bloody civil war of huge complexity, we are being asked to do it without an exit strategy and no reasonable means of saying we are going to make a difference

Good point, Alex.

My inherent issue with Facebook solidarity

So I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture for Paris. Or Beirut, or Syria, or Kenya, or anywhere else. Nor do I have strong feelings about what people should or should not do after a tragedy, as long as it’s not rooted in bigotry. For me, I have an issue because I know Facebook solidarity is incomplete, and that my friends only focus on certain types of events.

First, as people have pointed out before, there are many places on Earth in perpetual crisis. Syria recently, but also the Rohingya refugee crisis that extends from Burma into Bangladesh and various surrounding territories. Central Africa has been in a series of ongoing conflicts where rape is a major weapon of war. Billions of people are in varying degrees of poverty, most of which is long-standing. There is something ethically troubling about showing visible solidarity with other people when there is an acute incident. Haiti has never recovered from the earthquake several years back- we had a brief period of solidarity, money was raised, and much of the humanitarian crisis was not solved. It still hasn’t been, but our Haiti Facebook pictures have long since been taken down.

Second, since I am an American (along with my race, class, sex . . ) I have a bias towards places and people I can directly relate to. I’ve been to Paris, I’ve never been to Beirut or Nigeria. The entire way I receive information about the world is skewed, and even with wonderful outlets like Al Jazeera English, the lack of coverage of Africa, south Asia, etc. creates an unconscious tendency to think that even when atrocities are reported from there, they aren’t as important as events of a similar magnitude in the developed world.

Which is a long way to say that I feel not changing my profile picture is not a signal that I don’t care about terrorism and imperialism. Rather, it’s an acceptance that the world is immensely fucked up all the time, and only recognizing a tiny portion of the new evils introduced to the world seems somehow wrong. It goes without saying that ultimately fighting global problems on an individual level is about donating money, donating time, and standing against imperialism and exploitation. But don’t lose the past when the unpleasant present roars into view. Because the Haiti crisis is still here, and they don’t get their flag on social media anymore.

The (forgotten) radical politics of liberal idols

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So another year, another day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King is perhaps the single most warped figure in contemporary America, where his legacy is used to defend the entire spectrum of opinion- anything from social services to Gun Appreciation Day. What is clear each year when his life and work is celebrated is how much of King’s radical politics have been sanded off. Indeed, “there is a crucial fact of his life, activism and thought that no major commemoration has ever celebrated: that King was a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism”. Here’s one of many relevant quotes by King on economic justice:

“There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” (source).

This phenomenon is entrenched to the point where it now has a term- “Santa Clausification“. This is the most public case of the sanitizing of important modern figures, but it’s far from the last. I’m here to argue that the most guilty party are liberals, in particular white liberals, who celebrate figures like King but omit the philosophy that make their dreams and ideas so powerful.

Let’s just stick with people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize like King. How about Nelson Mandela:

“Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro … Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our destiny … There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death. The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” (source)

That was from a speech made in 1991.

Mandela held anti-imperialist ideas that had much in common with Castro and Guevara. While his long imprisonment and his role in ending apartheid is appreciated, the radical politics that led him to attack the racist system are ignored.

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What about the Dalai Lama? He speaks to packed crowds all over the world, and he’s very popular in my Unitarian Universalist church, and among American liberals and progressives. He’s more complicated than just the spiritual messages and peaceful ideology-

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won’t play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.

For decades, the Dalai Lama has spoken openly of his Marxist politics, once stating “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair” (source).

And finally, the most recent Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. Malala has in her short lifetime been appropriated by Westerners, who use her near-death experience to justify military action against Muslim countries and paint places like Pakistan as impoverished, backward, and in desperate need of Western intervention. White man’s burden, version 2.0.

But Malala tries as much as possible to distance herself from the actions being taken in her name. She states that drone strikes are “fueling terrorism”, and sent a message to a socialist conference in Pakistan that reads in part:

I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation. (source)

So four Peace Prize winners, four political radicals, and four figures who are often softened or used selectively. This is disheartening, because their awards and legacy (living or dead) were meant to get the whole world to learn from their example. Even if you are not a socialist or have radical politics of any strain, to celebrate these people without those aspects is to see the world through a warped glass.

We talk so much about Dr. King’s dream, about what kind of society he wanted, with racial and social equality. But that dream, that society, is not a capitalist society. An illusion is that his dream is achievable with the current economic and social system in place, when it’s clear that the issues of imperialism and militarism he spoke of in the last three years of his life are still rampant, and connected to a lack of radical political solutions.

Besides a lack of depth, these four figures, all non-white and from three different continents, have been skewed by a media and consumer culture that mainly caters to white Westerners. The Dalai Lama is glued to a whole meditation and enlightenment industry that has popped up in America. But if he speaks of peace and love in the world, he is speaking of a world crafted by socialism. Often he is portrayed as an exotic wise man coming from the East to bring wisdom. I think some of his wisdom is being selectively ignored.

I don’t mean to demonize the modern American liberalism, nor say for a moment that integrating other cultures into your own religious practice is bad. Unitarian Universalism as a faith is all the more stronger for being open to incorporation. There is a danger, though, of placing radical and unorthodox world figures into a conventional mindset. Radicalism gives the ideas and aspirations of these four, and many others in a similar situation, weight and makes them something more attainable. King’s dream of a racially and socially equal country without true economic democracy is a fantasy. We can get filled up with the hope that these individuals espouse, but not stay around for the heavier course of methods and practice.

You don’t have to believe the radical politics, but you have to engage with them. Otherwise you’re wasting a great part of their characters, and leaving wisdom on the table.

Poverty: don’t treat the symptoms, treat the disease

From Chris Rhomberg, sociology professor at Fordham University, is this editorial “We Forgot to End Poverty“. In the season of Toys for Tots, soup kitchens, and in-the-spirit-of-Christmas altruism, it’s important to figure out why the United States still has tens of millions of its people living in poverty. As he writes:

Both sides attempt to “reform” poor parents to push them into the low-wage labor market, but neither side questions the failure of that market to provide families a secure way out of poverty.

Even as unemployment edges downward, millions of Americans remain poor, exposing a basic flaw in the TANF approach: the lack of jobs that pay a living wage.

It comes down to this: there are two ways that welfare ceases to exist. Either poverty is eradicated and people no longer need state assistance, or welfare is gutted or transformed without dealing with structural problems in labor and education. The United States with the bipartisan welfare reform bills in the mid-1990s, assistance was capped and shortened, continuing to shrink in its scope and amount in the past two decades. This would make sense if welfare reform was getting rid of poverty, but it hasn’t. Escaping poverty requires jobs that don’t exist and wages that are not offered- plenty of people in poverty work full-time.

Source: http://www.nj.com/njvoices/index.ssf/2011/09/census_us_poverty_rate_broke_1.html

So policy needs to keep in sight the major social problem. If the goal is to reduce welfare, make it cheaper and more efficient, you can do that. But that requires a narrow view that ignores why welfare exists in the first place. Never lose sight of the core problem. Welfare is the symptom of an underlying illness. To erase welfare does not cure anything, merely remove a way that we are reminded of poverty’s extent and persistence.

Unequal progress: the case of LGBT homeless youth

Taken from a Williams Institute study, 2012: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Durso-Gates-LGBT-Homeless-Youth-Survey-July-2012.pdf

September’s issue of Rolling Stone will include a magnificent feature on LGBT homeless youth. The personal stories are gripping; they may also be totally alien if your upbringing was not that religious. Above all, the key part of this story is how mainstream institutions misread LGBT progress. Carl Sicialiano, a former Benedictine monk turned homeless LGBT advocate, distills things:

“I feel like the LGBT movement has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to this,” he says, running his hands through his closely cropped hair and sighing. “We’ve been so focused on laws – changing the laws around marriage equality, changing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ getting adoption rights – that we haven’t been fighting for economic resources. How many tax dollars do gay people contribute? What percentage of tax dollars comes back to our gay kids? We haven’t matured enough as a movement yet that we’re looking at the economics of things.”

Social movements tend toward an optimistic framing of their struggle. It’s empowering to talk about the slew of pro-marriage equality court decisions made in the past year. Although legal equality is making strides, the issue of gay youth being expelled from their homes is worse now than at any point in the past. The pro-equality environment for adults in loving relationships, who may also want children, does not transfer down to youth. As Alex Morris writes in the feature, openness about sexuality has driven average age of coming out into the high school years. When people come out as gay, lesbian, or trans* they are more economically and emotionally vulnerable than ever before. The social support system for the homeless is deficient, it’s even more deficient for youth (very little funding is earmarked for youth in particular), and a complete mess for LGBT youth.

As with many issues, solutions will come from two corners: lessening the spread of the problem and improving the structure to deal with it. Religious intolerance, activist Mitchell Gold says, is not addressed by major advocacy groups; he states “they don’t want to come across as anti-religion . . . But the number-one hurdle to LGBT equality is religious­-based bigotry.” The social system needs to pivot away from middle and upper-middle class gay politics to the survival struggle of hundreds of thousands at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Leaps forward do not benefit all members of a given social group or social movement. While one section of my friends rejoiced at the Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, another mentioned that a large population of LGBT people do not aspire to be married, and may view marriage as rooted in patriarchal power relations. It is a mistake to neglect the economic inequity, both between the LGBT and straight, as well as within the LGBT community as a whole. Mainstream media outlets will, as they usually do, paint a very bourgeoise conflict. However, that misses the key conflict as it exists today.

Money I didn’t ask for: a UU Sunday quandary

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Sunday I received a Presidential Dollar coin. Andrew Johnson, one of the most incompetent and ineffectual executives in American history. Everyone else in the congregation received their own coin- Washington, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant. Some of the older Sacagawea designs as well.

This was an attempt to drive home the sermon’s main point on money- that money is just another name for power. And in the current economic system, using money is exerting power. It buys goods and services. It influences people’s emotions, ideals, and motivations. It separates groups of people into classes and castes.

So I still have this coin, despite having options to use it. I’ve paid for transactions in cash, passed tip jars and fountains. But it’s still here. Even as just one dollar, there is something profoundly unsettling about being given money you did not earn or ask for. Since the coins were provided by the lay member giving the sermon and not the church, I can’t view it as a rebate or credit for my church giving.

How do you deal with random money? Randomly, I suppose. It’ll end up with the first homeless individual I encounter. This dollar is not only unearned and unasked for, but unneeded. Money gains its greatest value when it’s used to meet clear needs for people. And there are always those in need.