In the magazine Wired, Jon Katz christened Thomas Paine the patron saint of the Internet and urged the making of a movie about the founder of America (1995 May 1). Here’s an abbreviated version of his fascinating article.—JJS
Thomas Paine, who invented contemporary political journalism, should be resurrected as the moral father of the Internet.
Statues of the man should greet incoming journalism students. His words should be chiseled above newsroom doors and taped to laptops, guiding the communications media through their many travails, controversies, and challenges. Yet Paine, one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon, has fallen from fame—which had reached a fever pitch.
During the latter third of the 1700s, revolution terrified Western monarchies, feudal lords, and corrupt businessmen. Paine’s bold declarations—“We have it in our power to begin the world over again”—put him in the forefront. He barely escaped execution—in America dodging British patrols, fleeing England 20 minutes ahead of warrants ordering his arrest, and coming within hours of being guillotined in Paris.
From his pen poured the first three bestsellers in English.
* Common people quoted Common Sense to one another, sparking the American Revolution.
* Rights of Man defended the early days of the French Revolution.
* The Age of Reason questioned religion's grip on commoners. And …
* Agrarian Justice proposed compensating the landless.
His American Crisis kept citizens and soldiers in the struggle that Common Sense had ignited. At dusk on Christmas Day, a desperate George Washington ordered what remained of his hungry, ill-equipped army—the snow was spotted red from their bleeding bare feet—to gather into small squads and listen as their officers read them excerpts from Paine's entreaty. Later, soldiers in countless letters and diaries recounted how they wept when they heard what Paine wrote. They found in his now-famous words the strength to continue: "These are the times that try men's souls."
That power of his pen perturbed the privileged. Plus, Paine broadened the definitions of democracy, universal suffrage, representative government, and "the people" to include women, artisans, fishermen, laborers, and slaves—unpopular, even seditious, notions with the elite. We owe Paine, our silenced ancestor.
Paine made more noise in the information world than any messenger before or since. His fingerprints influence every Web site, his voice every online thread. We need to resurrect and hear him again, not for his sake but for ours. Media exist to spread ideas, to allow fearless argument, to challenge and question authority, to set a common social agenda.
Had Paine kept his royalties, rights, and speaking fees, he would’ve earned a fortune. But he kept prices low and donated proceeds to the war effort and worthy causes. During much of his life, Paine made do with bare necessities.
Vocal about public issues, Paine kept mum about his private life. As a teen he joined a ship of privateers. As a young man, he lost his first wife and son in childbirth. He was divorced by his second wife, frustrated by Paine losing his job for asking for a raise. In London Paine soothed his wounds. At a lord’s dinner party, he met Benjamin Franklin, who urged him to move to America, and who became a lifelong friend.
Paine gave Thomas Jefferson feedback on a draft of the Declaration of Independence, fought and froze with his buddy George Washington, and helped persuade Louis XVI of France to lend the Yankee rebels gold.
With peace declared and back home in England, Paine urged an end to the monarchy. Prime Minister William Pitt ordered Paine to stand trial for treason, then impatiently sent thugs to murder him, which would obviate any courtroom speeches.
Paine fled to France, where Maximilien Robespierre ordered him killed because he urged leniency for the members of the overthrown regime and peaceful relations with Great Britain and her powerful navy.
Running out of time, Paine penned his religious views in The Age of Reason. It also became a blockbuster, stoking the envy of the clergy. When Paine retired to his beloved America, America’s ruling elite, as had their English counterparts, slandered Paine in their newspapers. Taking their cue, men of the cloth told their flocks Paine was a heretic, an unwashed, drunken infidel.
Both church and state twisted the minds of the gullible. Forgetful of his service and welcoming a scapegoat, they insulted him on the streets and in public places and aggravated Paine’s remaining years. Not only had the children forgotten the father, they had turned on him.
The idea that ordinary citizens with no special resources, expertise, or political power could sound off, reach wide audiences, even spark revolutions, was brand-new to the world. In Paine's wake, writes Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, “every conceivable form of printed matter—books, pamphlets, handbills, posters, broadsides, and especially newspapers—multiplied and were written and read by many more ordinary people than ever before in history.”
For Paine, moving an idea from one place to another was a miracle. He imagined a global means of communication, one in which the boundaries between the sender and receiver were cleared away. That to Paine was one of the fundamental rights of mankind.
Printing technologies post-Paine made it possible to mass-market newspapers, yet led publishers to tone them down to not risk offending new readers. Opinionated private citizens could no longer access any media. A.J. Liebling 150 years later: "In America, freedom of the press is largely reserved for those who own one."
Thomas Paine urged, You will do us the justice to remember that he who denies the right of every man or woman to his own opinion makes a slave of them, because he precludes their right of changing their own minds.
Paine considered humankind one entity. "My country is the world," he wrote. He saw himself a member of a "universal society, whose mind rises above the atmosphere of local thoughts and considers mankind, of whatever nation or profession they may be, as the work of one Creator."
Paine was the first modern political writer to write in a short, spare, unadorned language that everyone could understand. Paine's style is the style of the Internet: spare, blunt, economical, and efficient. If his values no longer have much relevance for conventional journalism, they fit the Net like a glove.
Journalism no longer shares a definable value system—a sense of outsiderness, a commitment to truth-telling, an inspiring ethical structure. Journalists seem increasingly disconnected from one another as well as from the public. In America's media capitals—New York, Washington, and LA—there’s no sense of common ground.
Media moguls still have power, but the press is disconnected and resented. Opinion surveys confirm pervasive public mistrust. Individuals with computers and modems fragment readership. Mainstream media’s narrow opinions have made it difficult for nations to come to grips with sensitive issues—race, gender, and violence. Paine would find today's newspapers unbearably bland and write angry letters to editors canceling his subscription.
Today’s technology has brought Paine's vision full circle. The Internet has redefined citizenship as well as communication. It is the first worldwide medium in which people can communicate directly, quickly, personally, and reliably.
Where would Tom Paine go today to prescribe cures for the injustices that still afflict the world? Online. And there find happiness.
Sir Richard Attenborough, the famed British actor and director, has struggled for years to get studio backing for a film about Paine. It would make a socko TV miniseries, too. Imagine Tom escaping the Reign of Terror.
A fellow prisoner said Paine was the confidant of inmates, the counselor of the perplexed. Many a victim in the hour of death confided their last cares and wishes of tenderness to Thomas. Then it was Paine’s turn.
A turnkey carrying his death warrant walked quietly down the corridor, chalking the cell doors of the condemned. Usually the turnkey marked the outside of the door, but Paine was seriously ill, and his cellmates had been granted permission to leave the door open so that a breeze could help cool Paine's profusely sweating body. So the turnkey marked the inside of Paine's door. That evening, the weather cooled, and Paine's cellmates asked a different turnkey for permission to close the door.
At dawn, the occupants of the cell waited, Paine murmuring on his cot. The death squad slowly made its way down the corridor, keys jangling, pistols drawn. One of Paine’s friends cupped his hand over Paine's mouth. The squad paused, saw no mark, and moved on. Before jailers could rectify their mistake, the party in high office turned on Robespierre and guillotined him. Paine and his fellow prisoners were spared.
Spared, but to what purpose? May it be to inspire Americans once more. To that end, some of us are producing a solo performance on his life. Write for details or to volunteer to help … to remake the world again.
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JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.