Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

These are the times that try men’s souls. I’ve been watching the news coming out of Iran and find my soul being tried, Gentle Readers. So I’m breaking from my tradition of writing about recent book bannings and am instead, reaching back about 200 years or so. Today’s topic is a man well known to all Americans who went to Burlington Elementary School and possibly even our rival school, South Point No. 2 (but who really knows what went on in that place?). I’m talking about Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense (1776), The American Crisis (1776), and Rights of Man (1791). Paine was smart enough to publish Common Sense (a brochure containing powerful and persuasive arguments for American independence from England) in the US, so it was never banned. By 1791, Paine was living in England (why? why? why?) when he published Rights of Man. It is among the most banned political works in history.

Here’s the basic gist of it (and I am truly boiling it down here because there’s a lot of stuff about why governments exist and the social covenant of the governed, etc.): Governments can exist through: 1) superstition and be led by priests; 2) force and be led by conquerors; or 3) reason and be led by the will of the people. He then goes on to dispute the inherent right of any specific leader or family to rule and points a big finger at the English aristocracy, saying that they fall into Category Two. Then, our boy Paine cites some examples of Category Three countries that are better than England and lists both France and America. England was all “Oh yeah? Well, so’s your face!” and proceeded to issue a warrant for his arrest. Paine escaped arrest by fleeing to France but was tried in absentia and found guilty of libel and high treason. The English court sentenced Paine with death should he ever enter England again, which he didn’t. All copies of the Rights of Man found in England were routinely seized and burned for years after its publication.

It seems silly, doesn’t it? That a simple concept like governance at the consent of the governed should cause such an uproar? To us it does because we’ve had 200 years to get used to it. We are very very lucky in America. We had brave people who rose up and said “You know what? Your Category Two system is bad. We’re going to try something different over here. We’re going to take our shot at being a Category Three country. Go away and leave us alone.”

I guess every oppressed nation has its time where the people stand up and say “Enough!” I look at what’s happening in Iran and wonder if now is their moment. If it is, I wish them well. Freedom isn’t free and the road is long and hard. Look no further than Thomas Paine himself to learn that lesson. Because he never failed to speak his mind, at the end of his life Paine was labeled a blasphemer and worse. He survived a murder attempt and was ultimately stripped of his right to vote. A century later, Teddy Roosevelt referred to him as “a filthy little atheist.” Hard to believe isn’t it?

Unfortunately, I think Iran has the dubious distinction of being both a Category One and Two country. I’m no political scholar but I imagine that will make their freedom twice as hard to achieve. If this doesn’t turn out to be Iran’s moment, I hope their brave citizens who are so very publicly saying “Enough” survive it.