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What It Takes to Be Honored in America

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Today was the 170th birthday of Tom Paine, who died destitute and despised by the nation he helped create--a nation of which he could, as much as George Washington, be called "the Father". For even the conservative John Adams, who hated Paine and called him "a blackguard" and an "insolent blasphemer", admitted that, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain."

Born a Quaker, Paine lived a completely selfless life, following a consistent path of voluntary poverty and non-violence. Yet the Quakers refused to bury him.

The author of two phenomenal bestsellers--one in America, one in England--he never made money out of either.

He worshipped George Washington, served with his troops as an ADC, writing pamphlets to bolster morale ("These are the times that try men's souls") during times when Washington himself was discouraged. And when Paine was finally paid some back wages for service to his country he gave a third of it to start a fund to support Washington's army. Yet years later, when he was languishing ill in a French prison (courtesy of Robespierre) Washington refused to lift a finger to get him released. Henry Kissinger once said that power was an aphrodisiac (i.e., even dweebs in Washington can get dates), but it's an even more potent amnesiac.

When he returned to the States, far from being honored in his old age for his contributions Paine was refused both a job and a pension by Thomas Jefferson.

Paine, a deeply religious man, who believed in God and tried to model his life after Jesus, wrote a book pointing out that the Bible was written by men, not God, and was filled with absurdities and contradictions, and that humanity should look for God in the beauty of Creation, not in a book filled with the follies of men--that God should be worshiped not because of the 'miracles' of the Bible--mostly imported from older mythical traditions--but because of the miracle of the universe that surrounds us.

For Paine, like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and many of the other Founding Fathers, was a Deist--believing in God, but that God was essentially unknowable. Jefferson, for example, published a New Testament with all the "miracles" left out (the Jefferson Bible).

Yet, supposedly for saying these things--which simply placed him in the same religious camp as most of the Founding Fathers--Paine was spat on and vilified by Christians, called Satan, refused food and lodging at inns, prevented from voting, and died in poverty of a lingering illness, supported only by a few friends.

Paine believed deeply in America, believed deeply in democracy, believed deeply in human rights, and did perhaps more than any other human to bring about the realization of these dreams, but was quickly discarded by America when it no longer needed his services, and left to rot.

So what was it that differentiated Paine from his fellow deists, all of whom are honored today with holidays and statues, and have their faces on coins and bills? He wasn't a slave-owner, like Washington and Jefferson, which might have been a strike against him. But then, neither were Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and they both made it to Mt. Rushmore.

Probably Paine's biggest failing was that he never killed anyone, nor ordered anyone else to kill. This is obviously the best way to go down in history. It was Teddy Roosevelt's principal claim to fame, aside from shooting an elephant; and Ronald Reagan became a military hero by sending troops to kill some construction workers in Grenada--an island the size of Lake Tahoe with a population the size of Akron. And in our day, we have Junior, wearing his cardboard helmet and waving his wooden sword and ordering the destruction of Iraq. No doubt he'll get a statue, too.

But wait a minute, Thomas Jefferson didn't have anyone killed except a few Barbary pirates, and while he doesn't have nearly as many statues as those with real slaughter cred, he's on Mt. Rushmore. It looks like the only difference that holds up across the board is money. It's not impossible to be honored without killing anyone if you can manage to be rich.

According to recent polls, more than three fourths of the American people believe money is the most important thing in life. If nothing else, it might get you a statue.