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.
Tom Paine's lodgings were around here someplace. Nowhere important. Just the place the most influential piece of writing in the history of the United States was composed.
Nothing worth a historical marker. Not like around the corner, where you'll find, carefully preserved, the remains of Benjamin Franklin's privy. God help us if we should forget to sanctify the place where Unka Ben shat.
It's Jan. 29, Tom Paine's birthday. Today there are Paine parties in England, New York, New Jersey, California and Florida. And in Philadelphia? Nothing. No roses, no fireworks. Just dudes in transparent-plastic-covered state trooper hats, keeping half an eye on the smattering of hardy tourists wrapped in brightly colored Gore-Tex who, hunched over against the rain, walk from Paine-free attraction to Paine-free attraction.
The Parks official behind the desk at the Independence Visitor Center is nonplussed. Birthday celebrations? None that he knows of. Anything in the displays about Tom Paine? Or Common Sense? Not really. "Nothing big."
Can he direct me to Tom Paine Plaza? He has to look it up in the phone book.
"It's near the statue of Mayor Rizzo," he says. "You'll see it. He's got his hand up, kinda like this, like he's seig heiling. Which is kind of ironic if you know anything about Mayor Rizzo."
Turns out the Rizzo statue is down the road a way. On Thomas Paine Plaza itself, there's a statue of ... Benjamin bloody Franklin!
There are hordes of rotund, bifocaled, frock-coated Ben Franklin impersonators currently working in Philadelphia, led by the brilliant Ralph Archbold, who plays Franklin as a cross between Saturday Night Live's Ladies' Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
The real Franklin was much nastier. Ben spent most of his political career as an ardent monarchist and convinced imperialist. He wasn't above using ethnic slurs. He profited from and apologized for slavery.
"But for all that, Franklin was more universal and egalitarian than most of the founding fathers," says David Waldstreicher, history professor at Temple University and author of the Franklin biography Runaway America. "But he doesn't stand comparison to Paine. The only, the only thing you could possibly criticize Paine for was that he was a good hater. And it's difficult to do that when you look at what he hated.
"I'm all for celebrating Paine. In fact, I'd rather we celebrated Paine. Franklin spends a lot of his time elsewhere. Philadelphia's not big enough for him, so for 25 years he left it-and he didn't want to come back. But Paine, unlike Franklin, spends the crucial years of the revolution here. He's here when things happen. He's right here when things turn really radical.
"Paine is much, much more revolutionary than Franklin. That's why some historians see the revolution as a middle-class revolution-which gave us rights-but a revolution with limits. But we need to look at who wasn't getting their rights. We need to think about slavery."
But that's not the history we're being taught this tercentennial year. We're told America's rebels were conservative revolutionaries, guys fighting for real American values. The values of Disney, Wal-Mart and Nike. And it's been incredibly easy to hammer Franklin into that hole. Ditto most of the other founding fathers.
None of these guys was that radical. Heck, some of them even owned slaves. But that's okay. Because you can't judge the founding fathers by the standards of 21st-century liberal PC America.
Or maybe you can.
Because then there's Paine. Thrice-damned Paine. The radical, shit-stirring, rabble-rousing, antiracist, internationalist, pro-women, pro-working class, antiprivilege, antityrannical, super-democratic throbbing heart and soul of the American revolution. A man who, if he were alive today, would have an FBI/Homeland Security file as thick as the Hulk's thigh. Hell, they'd probably deport his commie ass back to England.
The trouble with Paine is that he makes the rest of the founding fathers look bad. He makes all the excuses made on their behalf about slavery and elitism and snobbery and sexism look halfassed. And although modern Tories of all stripes-from Reaganite Republicans to wild-eyed right-wing libertarians-have claimed Paine as their own, in the end Paine is the American revolutionary who can't be defanged, forced into a business suit, swathed in a flag, shrink-wrapped and sold to the masses as a Stepford revolutionary.
Because Paine didn't stop with Common Sense. He wasn't just a revolutionary democrat. He was a witty and eloquent critic of all forms of oppression. He raged against slavery, poverty and female subordination. And he mercilessly dissected and mocked the absurdities of religion.
In short, the guy fucking rocked.
And for this he was never forgiven. He died poor and alone, his reputation destroyed by the slanders of reactionaries and religious bigots (who even accused him of raping his cat).
PW's Winter Coffee Tour
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