Predicting an Age of Paine

Thomas Paine was the most radical of the main founders. He was close friends with many of the other founders and they respected him. Some of them even saw him key to the success of the Revolution. Even John Adams, in criticizing Paine, acknowledged his importance — referring to the “age of Paine”. Most Americans don’t realize how radical was the American Revolution. Originally, the word ‘revolution’ just meant a cycle, as it was referred to astrology and astronomy. Civilizations rose and collapsed, in cycles. But the American Revolution didn’t just demonstrate a cycle for it created something entirely new. That is how the word ‘revolution’ gained a new meaning.

I’ve had a prediction. I don’t make too many predictions. But this one I’ve been saying maybe since the Bush administration. Here it is. If there is ever a major Hollywood movie or cable series about Thomas Paine (like the HBO series about John Adams), it will be a sign that the US is on the verge of revolutionary-scale changes.

We haven’t yet seen such a major production about Thomas Paine. But I did notice a smaller production. It is a one-actor play written and acted by Ian Ruskin, To Begin the World Over Again. It was filmed last year, recently played on PBS, and is available online. Sadly, few people probably have heard about it, much less watched it. I can only hope that it might inspire someone else to do something further with the story of Paine’s life. He wasn’t just the most radical of the founders, as he also led the most interesting life. If the life of the excruciatingly boring John Adams can be made into a successful HBO series, then an HBO series about the adventurous, rabble-rousing and wide-traveling Paine would be pure entertainment.

I watched Ruskin’s portrayal with my father. He enjoyed it, I suppose. He had a hard time understanding my prediction, why more Americans learning about the radicalism at the heart of American history would in any way inspire change or indicate change already under way, something that seems obvious to me. From a conservative perspective, Paine came off as a bit socialist to my father, which misses the context of that era of feudalism ending while colonial corporatism and plantation slavery took its place. And he thought Paine had a bit of a bad attitude, constantly complaining.

But I noted that Paine didn’t make it a practice of personally attacking others, particularly not others who didn’t first personally attack him or betray him, as he perceived having been done by George Washington in abandoning Paine for political convenience. Besides, how does one have a positive attitude about a world full of suffering? And how does one relate well to those benefiting from that suffering? It’s specifically Paine’s bad attitude that I respect to such a degree, as it was a moral righteousness fueled by compassion. I will never judge anyone for hating oppressive power with all their heart and soul. If that is a bad attitude, then I too have a bad attitude.

Washington was a man of respectability who dedicated his entire life to playing the role of enlightened aristocrat, even when that meant suppressing his own beliefs such as deism and sacrificing personal relationships such as with Paine. That is something Paine couldn’t understand for all the suffering, oppression, and injustice in the world was extremely personal for those who were its victims and for those who put their lives on the line. Paine identified with the downtrodden, as he didn’t have the privilege of an aristocrat to stand above it all. Paine knew poverty and struggle on a concrete level of life experience, in a way that was simply incomprehensible to someone like Washington who existed in a world of wealth, luxury, pleasure, and slaves serving his every need and want.

Obviously, ‘revolution’ meant very different things to these men. The Federalists like Washington simply wanted to reestablish centralized power as quickly as possible in order to put the people back in their place and once again enforce a social order ruled by an elite. There was no question that the same Americans who fought British oppression should be oppressed by Washington when they kept on demanding their rights, as happened in the violent attack on Shay’s Rebellion. The revolution was over when the elite said it was over. Washington had no intention in allowing a democracy to form. Neither did John Adams, who as president passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a pure expression of anti-democratic authoritarianism that demonstrated the true intentions of the (pseudo-)Federalists and proved right the Anti-Federalists (i.e., true Federalists advocating the democratic republicanism of decentralized Confederation). Those like Paine understood all too well the game being played and they had no interest in trading one oppressive rule for another.

Thomas Paine represents the radicalism that many Americans have forgotten, not unlike how many British had forgotten the radicalism of the English Civil War. Anything that would cause the scales of historical amnesia to fall away from the public’s eyes would be a radical act. Radicalism always begins in small ways, often by a few people standing up and speaking out. From there, no one knows what will follow. In a recent post, S.C. Hickman described Paine’s left-wing politics and asked, “Where is the Thomas Paine for our time?” Well, centuries ago, those like Paine asked similar questions. The simple truth is that no one is born a radical. There are potential revolutionaries among us at this very moment. The question is how do the rabble-rousers get noticed and get heard in a political and media system more tightly controlled than the pre-revolutionary British Empire. Radicalism is already in the air. It’s just a matter of what will follow.

 

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The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

LILLA’S FORTHCOMING SHIPWRECK
By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth

I prefer peace. But…

My mind often drifts back to Thomas Paine, one of many reluctant revolutionaries. He spent most of his life as a fairly normal person. There was nothing that particularly stood out about him. He didn’t come to America until he was middle aged.

Before that, he had tried to be a good husband and father, a good citizen and civil servant. He was an active member and leader in some communities he lived in back in England. When there were problems or injustices, he sought reform from within the system. He was a respectable figure at one point, a loyal subject of the Crown and a hardworking Englishman.

Then he realized what was needed was for him to be a good rabble-rouser and firebrand and eventually a good revolutionary. I’m sure he’d rather his life turned out easier with less suffering and struggle and instead more comfort and wealth. But that wasn’t the situation he found himself in and he had to deal with reality as it was, not as he wished it were.

As a moral person, this brought him to a simple and unavoidable conclusion. He wrote that, “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” I agree. I prefer peace. But…

There Are Always Reasons

“During the war, we all learned to stop looking for reasons why things happen.”

Those are words from the ending monologue of How I Live Now. The movie is about World War III. The storyline concludes with the conclusion of fighting and the return to living. It is shown through the very personal view of someone still very young. The viewer, like the protagonist, has no understanding of the war. It came and went, as if a force of nature with no human meaning.

My thought, upon hearing that monologue, was that there are always reasons. One may not like or comprehend the reasons, but they exist. She speaks these words in reference to death and violence that is, from her perspective, best forgotten. Completely understandable.

A retreat from reasons or from reason entirely is a natural response to the utter shattering of what had previously seemed like a reasonable world, a society of law and order, of stability and certainty, of family and community. All gone in an instant, as nuclear war begins and martial law is declared.

 * * * *

I imagine revolution would feel very similar, maybe even more traumatic than even a nuclear bomb going off in a nearby major city leading to a World War. What is so horrifying about revolution is that it is the enemy from within, the danger lurking among us. Even revolution far away in a foreign country poses the threat that revolution might be contagious.

There is a strange dynamic of reason and unreason. When it comes to what feels like mass chaos, no reason ever seems satisfactory. Yet, in the case of the French Revolution, Reason itself was blamed by the counter-revolutionaries. It’s not as if the counter-revolutionaries lacked reasons of their own or lacked the capacity or desire to reason when it served their purposes. Many of the criticisms of Reason ironically take on the appearance of being reasonable.

The fearful vision of ‘Reason’ is an imagined demon haunting the collective mind. It’s symbolic of or, maybe more accurately, a conflation with something greater. But what is it pointing towards? Also, what makes the reasons of the revolutionary supposedly different and more dangerous than the reasons given by their opponents?

* * * *

The world is full of reasons. What the revolutionary does is question and challenge the reasons that have become unstated assumptions. Most reasons that motivate us go hidden and those in power wish to keep them hidden. That is the secret of power and its Achille’s heel. To question and challenge this is to pull back the curtain and show what is behind. This action, to those with power or aligned with it, is in itself an act of violence, even before a single drop of blood is shed.

Reasons can be scary things. The best and worst within humanity is motivated by reasons of all kinds. There is always a reason, usually many reasons. What revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries both understand is that ideas have power. A reason unleashed can destroy or transform entire societies. And, once unleashed, it is impossible to put it back in Pandora’s box.

It isn’t the violence of revolution that is so horrific. States in non-revolutionary times regularly commit more violence than any revolution. The fear is that reason will lead to unreason, that an ideal will lead to a Reign of Terror where the outcome is uncertain. The fear is the uncertainty. The everyday violence of police and militaries is predictable and known. Most of the time, we humans prefer the familiar, like an abused child who returns home everyday to a parent who both beats them and feeds them. It is all the child knows. To stand up to the abuse would lead to possibly unforeseen consequences.

Still, there are those who do stand up to abuse. In politics, these sometimes become revolutionaries. They have their reasons, of course, but ultimately it is the unknown that excites them or gives them hope. They refuse to accept the status quo, what is established and known.

* * * *

As argued by revolutionaries of centuries past, this world is for the living, not the dead. This is why many revolutionaries believed no social construct (whether property, patent, or law) should outlive the lifetime of a single generation. That is what defines democracy in its only true form. It’s the ideal of establishing revolution itself as the norm, every generation its own self-ruled governance, the future’s unknown made into a familiar element of present society.

No reason is a sacred cow, no matter how long it has been passed on nor how deeply institutionalized. It is easy to attack the other guy’s sacred cow, but to be consistently principled is something entirely else. This principled stance is what made the counter-revolutionaries so fearful of ‘Reason’. They realized that revolutionaries would make no exceptions, that if possible they would follow justice to its inevitable conclusion.

Conservatives and libertarians will judge harshly the views of opponents, even going so far as demonizing them. They say taxation is theft, except for the tax laws they favor and when used to fund their preferred policies and programs. They say that the state is oppressive, except when it’s oppression against their enemies and against convenient scapegoats. They say that government is the problem, except when it supports their agenda and serves their interests.

Liberals can have similar problems, although typically being more subtle in their hypocrisy. Liberals don’t tend to argue for principle, come hell or high water. Liberals at least openly admit that they aren’t against any of these things on principle. Their principle, instead, is moderation. They are less concerned about taxes, governments, and states as general categories, while being more concerned about what purpose these serve, what ends result. The failure of liberalism is within this moderation. The weakness of liberalism is a fear of going too far and so never going far enough. Liberals, pathetic and weak as they can be, often play into the hands of their adversaries. This is taken as excusing them of blame for their own failure.

Conservatives and libertarians might have a point in their complaints, if they were only to act as though they genuinely believed what they said. If conservatives followed their principles without exception, that could be seen as admirable and liberals might then merit the criticisms lodged against them. But, in that case, conservatives and libertarians would then be radicals instead.

Principled consistency is the sole possession of the radical. Only those willing to go to extremes are willing to both acknowledge the unanswered questions and demand they be answered. The answers, the ideals, the reasons they offer may be deemed wrong or undesirable, but it is harder to accuse them of avoiding the difficult problems that afflict both left and right.

* * * *

Those who wish to escape reason often turn to God or Nature. They say that is just the way the world is. They refuse to take responsibility for their own beliefs. Instead, they project their beliefs outward, just as they project their fears. Still, to less extreme degrees, we are all resistant to the demands of reason. Human capacity for reason is imperfect, but it is nonetheless very real. Reason exists within human nature as much as does reason’s failure.

No matter what our response, in this post-Enlightenment age, we all live under the dominion of reason. Revolutionaries won that battle, even as they lost the war. The new order of reason we’ve inherited is battle-scarred and shell-shocked. In the light of reason, even when a mere candle flame in the dark, our collective madness has a hard time hiding its true nature. But what are we to do with this unsavory knowledge? We can reason ourselves literally to the moon. What reason hasn’t achieved is peace and justice. We use reason to build more devastating weapons and yet we can’t find a way to reason ourselves into not using them.

Faced with self-induced horror, our instinct is to deny reason, to escape the sad truth that it would whisper in our ear, to blame the light for what it causes us to see. Yet to say there is no reason leaves us also without hope. There can be no return to Eden’s innocence. Existing without reason is not a choice available to us. But where will reason lead us? What reason, what ideal and hope will we put forth as a guiding light?

Our reasons form the path we take. This is why we should choose our reasons carefully and with awareness. The reasons we give for the past will determine the reasons that shape our future. There are always reasons and maybe that is a reason for hope.