Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine)

The Rights of Man
Thomas Paine
Open Road Media
Nonfiction, Politics
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Noted patriot and diplomat Thomas Paine, witness to both the American and French revolutions, pens a rebuttal to criticism of constitutional governments, along with thoughts on the origins of basic human rights and the perpetuation of inequality.

REVIEW: The Rights of Man was written in a time of political turmoil, when old monarchies were falling and the Western world attempted to create a new, more just and fair method of government essentially from scratch. It was, and remains, a truly revolutionary concept, though like most human endeavors it carried pitfalls that were unforeseen at the time, pitfalls that threaten the great progress made.
Many of Paine's observations and thoughts are still valid, and he approaches the topics with clarity and reason, though in some aspects it can't help showing its age. For one thing, it was written primarily as a rebuttal to one Mr. Burke, a royalist and defender of the old-school English aristocracy; this far removed from both the era and Mr. Burke, a rebuttal is bound to lose some context. For another, Paine's perception that constitutional governments were inherently immune to the faults of the corrupt old regimes has, sadly, proven to be naive, built on an obsolete and unrealistic model of human behavior - behavior that isn't as responsive to truth or logic as Paine might have hoped, which often goes to great lengths to defend pre-existing beliefs and deny its own ignorance. His descriptions of the deadly faults of the old system, of party over country and wars being used as an excuse to tax the lives out of the populace and power concentrating in a few greedy hands without benefiting the many, could unfortunately describe the current (2018) political climate in the very country whose revolution kicked off the whole constitutional government wave; it was downright chilling at many points, moreso when Paine assures the reader that this could never happen in a nation where the general populace held the power to choose or discard their representatives. (It seems he never anticipated the adaptability of old corruptions and prejudices, not to mention the idea that education and information - the means by which a nation could make informed choices - could be co-opted by those forces constitutional governments were created to guard against.) Through the lens of times, some of Paine's own blind spots become apparent; he remains mystified how aristocracy gained the roots it ever did and remained in power for so long when it was so clearly unjust and broken, while seeming to deliberately dance around the influence of religion as a driving factor in creating some classes of people more equal than others and entrenching traditional inequalities through fear of divine retribution. (This was, however, written before the concept of evolution and the possibility of a world that came into existence without a benevolent humanoid creator gained mass traction; Paine takes it for granted that the world was created by something, though denies any one religion a monopoly on understanding or interpreting that something, just as he denies that any person or country would be closer to or more beloved of that something than any other. It's as close to a logical approach as one can likely get in a creationist mentality, especially given the culture and climate Paine lived in.)
I admit I skimmed some parts, particularly toward the end when he outlines a specific plan on tax reform in England (a plan that may have been stolen, uncredited, between writing and publication), and other parts lost some relevance through my ignorance of the specific political details of his era, not to mention the individuals whom he was citing and rebutting. Overall, though, it remains a relevant and thought-provoking examination of governments, and an example of a sadly lost art: the use of logic and reason to weigh the merits of politics.

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