Paine and the Digital Age (2/2)

Pt. 2- Revisiting attempts to use Thomas Paine as a model for the digital age.

  • In this edition: An interview with President of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association Gary Berton revisiting an article that sought to make Thomas Paine, the great radical of the revolutionary-period in America, the model for the digital age.

Share The Stringer by Daniel Mollenkamp

In 1995, when the internet was young, columnist Jon Katz wrote an essay, “The Age of Paine”, published in WIRED Magazine.

Katz’s article attempted to use Thomas Paine, the great radical from revolutionary America, as a model for the digital age.

I asked Gary Berton, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, one of the organizations which was quoted in the piece, to re-evaluate Katz’s article from the reflective perch afforded by twenty-five years of living in the digital age.

Note: What follows is a kind of narrated and condensed form of the interview.

Katz argued that Paine offered the ideal model for a more just, sustainable, and lively society in the age of the internet. According to Katz’s vision, Paine represents the blend of fearless, plainly phrased, truth-speak which should be an ideal for journalists and digital activists. In the end, truth will win out. 

We now have, for reasons we will briefly explore, ample reason to think this doesn’t hold up. 

In response to Katz’s argument, Berton claims that Katz’s article leaned too much on the “universal society” ideals in Paine’s writings, skipping over the “first principles” established by Paine.

Indeed, Paine had more or less created the category of an “embedded journalist,” writing from the front lines of revolution, not exactly a precursor of the keyboard warrior.

History as Propaganda

Rather, Berton argues, the relevance of this long-dead radical comes from the “first principles” the man struggled to establish, principles which Berton sees as still relevant today.

“Truth, reason, and first principles are the only basis for viewing the world, and most importantly, changing it,” Berton said. “The people in power now act the same way they did in Paine’s day, and the spirit of Paine lies in his revolutionary world view, not in the vehicle of personality, or stubbornness, or tangential ideas such as a free press.”

More than a ‘free press’

The hopeful belief of the mid-1990s—that more information equals more truth—is flawed. Fake news, misinformation, and propaganda have become more dangerous (not less) with the nearly-unlimited access to information. QAnon has captured positions of power and fueled riots. The COVID-19 epidemic has triggered a deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Facebook made it easier to organize ethnic cleansing in Nairobi and Myanmar. Politicians lie more frequently and recklessly than even they can keep track of. A question plays in the background: Is this the free speech we’ve all craved?

“We should not extol an internet flooded with obfuscation as freedom of speech,” Berton said. Don’t call anarchic speech “free speech,” in other words. Free speech must be linked to action, to the ability to realize the ideas one is exploring in the actual world. An internet flooded with obfuscations, propaganda, and lies does not hold the solution to the problems now facing people because it muddles action and unlinks ideas from power. Bullshit is bullshit.

The real legacy of Paine can be found in his unique ability to take an idea which is easy to understand, like equality, and to midwife it into existence in real world, practical terms. He was a practical radical, Berton reflects. He was not a reformer. He was not a utopian. If the system doesn’t work, replace it. Trial and error is the way to figure these things out.

Everything must be judged based on that first principle.

First Principles

In Paine’s time, in the 18th century, this meant making oneself an enemy of the monarchy and of superstition, as well as the reactionary forces in power in American politics. The government must be overthrown—and religion must be overthrown—to open the space for people to free themselves. Equality meant clearing out these institutions, like one would weed a garden. Reason, cleared from superstition and other mind-made shackles, was important because it offered a basis for freedom, but only when it looked at the world the way it actually is.

Berton argued that Paine labored to create the means for this freedom, and therefore his thought is inherently revolutionary. Paine did what he could to build the idea of modern constitutions, to establish democratic norms, and to seize power from “antiquated forms of government.”

The response of the ruling class was to muddy the waters. The political philosophy of Paine took the Enlightenment ideas to new heights, Berton said. He was in some sense the ultimate communicator, emphasizing common sense reasoning. But his staying power comes from his principles. And those principles threaten the ruling class of today as much as they did the ruling class of the 18th century.

In America, the conservative oligarchy owned about two-thirds of the newspapers. They also paid printers to only publish politics that were friendly to their interests. The monarchies and aristocrats of Europe, likewise, slanted opinion through public media.

We find ourselves, Berton argued, in the same prevailing dynamic in the 21st century.

“The internet has been corrupted alike, and the space for genuine free expression is flourishing with no real change, because it is not a spur to action so much as a lifestyle of malaise. Mass demonstrations happened before the internet, so they will after it loses its hold,” he said.

Paine’s relevance

Berton’s idea of Paine’s importance rests more on the ability of popular movements to curb the excesses of power. In this, it is certainly relevant to contemporary America.

“If Paine were sitting here now, taking aside the technological shock, he would ask ‘what are the political movements doing to ensure the excesses of power are permanently eliminated,’” Berton said.

Freedom of speech and other mirages

So, yes, Paine did say that, “Where opinions are free, truth will prevail.” However, most people ignore the implied questions beneath that comment, which are: (a) What would it look like for truth to prevail?, and (b) How will it prevail?

“The mirage of freedom of speech is no different than talking in an empty room if it is not coupled with actual forms of organizing to enable the first principle of equality,” Berton said.

Paine argued that religion is dogma, not grounded in reality, and is a tool of oppression, Berton said. Compromise with the monarchy was impossible for Paine because it violated the principle of equality. In contrast, today: inequality is at a staggering, all time high. Repression will be required to safeguard that inequality.

“What is it today, when Enlightenment thinking is becoming just an opinion, and religious training merely opens people up for QAnon to get a foothold?,” Berton emphasized.

  • Usual disclaimer: I want to flag that I usually don’t share the views of the people I’m interviewing (only find them interesting enough to warrant publishing), just as they don’t share (and can’t be blamed for) how I frame the pieces.

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