So Glenn Beck and his Teabagging minions -- never the sharpest students of American history -- have now appropriated Thomas Paine, the staunchest radical of the American Revolution and later a persecuted moderating figure in the French one, for their own rancid and incoherent purposes. At the Beck-backed 9/12 rallies and the various Tea Party whine-offs nationwide, historically-challenged high school dropouts have been donning revolutionary motley and declaiming the words of the Founders, men whose ideas, if studied in any kind of depth, would most likely repulse and repel them. Hell, most of these people - the supposed neo-Paine-ists - wouldn't get ten pages into Paine's anti-clerical tract The Rights of Man, without feeling the urge to build a pyre and burn it to satanic ashes.
The buffoonish Beck has recently given a platform to one Bob Basso, an eccentric motivational speaker (he claims to have created "laughter-therapy"), and onetime Hawaii Five-O recurring guest star who went viral on YouTube when, dressed up as a speechifyin' Paine, he threw in his lot with Beck's 9/12 and Tea Bag mobs, and called for a "Second American Revolution." A former TV sports anchor from Hawaii, Basso once delivered the news stark naked and, on another occasion, from atop a pile of manure, which means that he comes from the same idiotic, "look-at-me, Ma!" local-market, drive-time media hothouse that gave us self-professed "rodeo-clown" Beck. No wonder they get along so well.
Basso and Beck share a blissfully logic-and-facts-free version of US history that should have Francis Parkman and George Bancroft throwing up in their coffins, and it certainly takes a lot of gall to sign Paine up for service in the right-wing Tea Party Militia. Beck says that Tom Paine helped us "take back America," thus glueing his own nauseating agenda to a thoughtful dissenter who would have fled puking from the likes of Beck and his ululating aficionados. You can quote Paine's line about "sunshine patriots and summer soldiers" until you're blue in the face, but one paragraph of his writings, ripped from its context, does not Tom Paine a rightie-wingnut make. Dick Armey's addled army would run screaming for their mommies and/or the hills if they acquainted themselves with Paine's radically progressive thoughts on universal suffrage, democracy, free public education and minimum wages and living standards. He hated slavery, monarchy, organized religion and capital punishment, the last two of which certainly feed the more noxious fever-dreams of the Beck-fetishizing far-right. Paine once led his fellow excise workers in England on strike for better wages, scathingly denounced organized religion and church dogma, and ridiculed Christianity in The Rights of Man. Worst of all, he was, like so many of the Founding Fathers, an honorary French citizen (and in Paine's case, a member of the post-revolutionary French National Convention). Paine was so radical and unswerving, even by the standards of the Age of Revolutions, that only six people total attended his funeral in New York City in 1809 - two of whom were freed black slaves. It's hard to get a lot of Democrats to endorse him these days, let alone Republicans and their allies on the bleakest fringes of the know-nothing Right.
This isn't the first time the far right has appropriated the costumes and rhetoric of our Revolutionary forebears. The paranoid and racist Arizona Minutemen of recent years weren't even the first racist group to besmirch those plucky colonial militiamen by stealing their name. That honor goes to '60s neo-fascist (and veterinarian-products salesman!) Robert DePugh, whose clandestine anti-semitic, white-supremacist micro-grouplet - another Minutemen, also Arizona-based - had a major boner for heavy artillery and pipe-bombs. (De Pugh, incidentally, was an early member of the loonies-only-please, far-right John Birch Society, which was financially inseminated by Koch Industries, which also backed the group that spawned Armey's Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity, the two main Tea Party "astroturf" backing groups. Really, this tendency, and its ever-present, immensely wealthy and cynical corporate backers, is harder to eradicate than termites or H1N1.) All I'm saying is, it's odd to see the 60s-loathing right-wing don the same period clothing that we last saw worn at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the subsequent Chicago 7 Conspiracy Trial - by Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, people unaffiliated with any known right-wing group or sentiment, then or now.
All this begs one question -- which of the Left's towering progressive heroes will next be appropriated by the wingnuts? I'd like to see them re-brand socialist leader and sometime jailbird Eugene Debs, or perhaps radical anarchist Emma Goldman, with a Red State glaze. Perhaps Sacco and Vanzetti, the Wobblies or the Molly Maguires will be next for the right-wing makeover. Judging by the precedent set by the Paine-theft, it would scarcely matter that they were in fact communists and socialists, anarchists and union leaders (after all, aren't fascism and socialism the same thing these days - can't we all get along?). The right seems to have no compunction whatsoever about scrubbing the rhetorical record of everything -- except that some context-free sentence that seems, superficially, to endorse the entire Tea Party agenda.
Follow Kara Vallow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Teenagesleuth