Screw fat old Ben Franklin and his 300th birthday. This city should be celebrating a real revolutionary, the man without whom there'd be no America.
Conservatives downplay Paine's role in the creation of the U.S.A. for the same reasons they prefer to disguise the revolution as a "war of independence." And I guess for the same reasons official Philadelphia is going all gooey over Unka Ben but totally ignores his way more radical protege, Paine reminds us the revolution was fought and won by ordinary Americans.
His writings remind us that economic, racial and sexual oppression in all their forms are incompatible with true democracy, that a death penalty applied almost exclusively to the poor is an abomination, that right-wing Christianity is an absurd oxymoron, and that any society that tolerates poverty is fundamentally sick and in desperate need of radical change.
Jan. 25, I phone Cara Schneider at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation to ask about any upcoming events celebrating Tom Paine's birthday.
"Well, I'll be reading Common Sense and sipping Johnny Walker with a friend, but apart from that, nah, not a stitch!"
Last year Alaine Lowell of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Thomas Paine Society visited Philadelphia in search of her hero-and was horrified to discover just how effectively we've airburshed him out of our history in favor of his fatter and more conservative friend. "We've got buses coming, packed with kids from all over America, to learn about the revolution, and yet we've got almost no mention of the man who was so instrumental to it, who was at its center. And you've got to ask yourself, if that's the case, are we even telling them the truth?"
George Holtz, a Philly expat who moved to Pasadena, died in 2001, leaving the Thomas Paine Society a legacy to build a Paine museum in Philadelphia. If past events are anything to go by, they're facing an uphill task.
Paine has been at the center of a centuries-long culture war in Philadelphia. On one side have been the Painites-liberals, socialists, suffragists, labor unionists, antiracists, freethinkers, atheists and Walt Whitman. On the other, a mostly faceless ragbag of bureaucrats, reactionaries, right-wingers, jobsworths and religious bigots determined to prevent Philadelphia from raising any monument to the greatest Philadelphian.
In the 1940s the Fairmount Park Commission blocked a Paine statue that, it was felt, might possibly offend the sensibilities of passing Christians. No one was surprised. For decades there was a ding-dong battle fought over the bust of Paine in Independence Hall. The bigots won and-after languishing for years in the Hall's basement-the bust now resides in the librarian's office at the American Philosophical Society (which is also home to a large collection of Paine's papers).
Thomas Paine Cronin is president of District Council 47 of the government workers' union AFSCME. As a teenage Philadelphia boxer, he once sparred with the young Joe Frazier.
He's spent his entire adult life living up to the radical standards set by his namesake.
In the '60s and '70s he was a civil rights organizer and anti-Vietnam War activist. In the '80s he fought against poverty and apartheid. Today he campaigns against another stupid and futile war.
Sharing Paine's name has been a mixed experience.
"Some people get frightened. No, really. Usually when I get called for jury duty, they hear the name and I get dismissed immediately. They assume I'm sort of radical-and they're right."
So far Cronin hasn't been invited to any of the Benjamin Franklin birthday events. "I'm not exactly A-list," he laughs. "I'm more S-list."
"I understand why Paine's not here in Philadelphia," says Cronin. "It's clear to me the fear that someone like Paine would inspire in bigots and morons. There's been a conscious attempt to write Paine out of the American revolution because of his political and religious ideas. I think they're too advanced for the powers that be. He was way ahead of his time. I mean Paine was the first one to use the term 'United States of America.' Paine has even been credited with being the real author of the Declaration of Independence-not the watered-down version that exists now. Paine's declaration had prohibitions against slavery, had universal suffrage. Women had the right to vote. He spoke about a united nations. I mean he was light years ahead of even most people today.
"I think Bush's America would make Paine roll over in his grave like a rotisserie," Cronin continues. "Bush is the antithesis of Paine. I don't think Paine would've been happy with us going into Iraq based on lies and deception.
"If you really talked about what Thomas Paine really talked about, you'd have a different country."
Paine's big mistake-the reason why it's Unka Ben's name plastered all over Philly and not his-was that he didn't know when to keep his goddamn mouth shut.