The Spirit of Tom Paine

We only know about Tom Paine because Thomas Edison discovered him in the 1920s.  Edison believed he was our most important political thinker, and it was essential that his writings and ideas be taught in the nation’s schools.  It’s no exaggeration that there might never have been an American Revolution without this man’s writings that had such a profound influence on the nation’s founders and  masses of people he reached through one of the few “mainstream” means of communicating of that period.


Paine was an unlikely man to have had such influence.  He was humbly born and raised in England, was largely self-educated and decided to come to the colonies in 1774 after meeting Benjamin Franklin in London who encouraged and sponsored him to do it.  It was a decision that changed the world, but who could have imagined it at the time.


Paine only began writing two years earlier when he took up the cause of excise (or customs) officers arguing in a pamphlet he wrote they were unfairly paid and deserved more.  When he came to the colonies he chose the right place settling in Philadelphia where he began writing for the Pennsylvania Magazine, later became its editor and began working on Common Sense in 1776 that he published anonymously.  It became an instant best-seller in the colonies and in Europe, made Paine internationally famous and was the most influential piece of writing of the Revolution.  It sold as many as 120,000 copies in a population of about four million (equivalent to a runaway 9 million copy best seller today) and convinced many in the colonies to seek independence from the Crown that happened shortly thereafter.  He followed up with 16 more pamphlets under the title The Crisis, or American Crisis that were written throughout the war until it ended in April, 1783.


Paine was profoundly and progressively radical – way ahead of his time and what passes for “Western civilization” and mainstream thought today.  He opposed slavery, promoted republicanism, abhored the monarchy, and in many ways was the founder of modern liberalism that Washington and Jefferson called that “liberal experiment, the United States of America.”  These were the kinds of men who founded the nation – skeptics of the institutions of power that included the “kingly oppressions” of monarchs, the church and the mercantilist corporatism of that time represented by the dominant predatory giant of its day – the British East India Company.  Because of the unfair advantage it got from the Crown (a precursor to the kind of outrageous government subsidy and legislative help corporate giants now get), it gained a competitive edge over colonial merchants that led to the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773 that helped spark the Revolution.


Paine had a voice and made it heard in his writings that were disseminated in one of the mass media instruments of that era that consisted largely of pamphlets like his and colonial-era newspapers beginning with the first ever published called the Boston News-Letter debuting in April, 1704 before Paine was born and Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette first published in 1728 that grew to have the largest circulation of the time and was considered the best newspaper in the colonies.  Paine got mass exposure in a way that would be impossible today for his kind of writing – to promote his radically progressive views that would make a neocon cringe enough to see to it those kinds of ideas never saw the light of day in today’s world run by the institutions of power Paine and the founders abhorred. 


Think about it.  This was a man who was an anti-neocon, anti-militarist, and anti-neoliberal predatory corporatist progressive thinker supporting the rights and needs of ordinary people.  He developed a seminal compendium of liberal thinking against those notions of governance in his book The Rights of Man.  He believed neither governments or corporations should have rights, only people.  He thought inherited wealth would be exploited by those having it and would be used to corrupt governments and allow their heirs the ability to create dynasties that would result in a new feudalism.  He promoted progressive taxation believing everyone should pay them acccording to their income.  He supported enlightened anti-poverty social programs to provide food and housing assistance for the poor and retirement pensions for the elderly.  He felt the best way to build a strong democracy was to provide financial aid to help young families raise their children.  He was a strong anti-militarist and wanted all nations to reduce their armaments by 90% to ensure world peace. 


He and the founders also wanted the new nation to have a middle class and understood no democracy can survive without one.  These enlightened thinkers knew a viable middle class depends on a public that’s educated, secure and well-informed and that the greatest danger to its survival is an empowered economic aristocracy that would polarize society and destroy the very democracy they were trying to create, imperfect as it was.


Imagine if those “radical” ideas were spread in today’s mass media that sees to it the public never hears that kind of thinking.  They did in Paine’s day, and it led to a Revolution that freed us from monarchal rule and inspired the founders to create a great democratic experiment in America never tried before in the West outside Athens in ancient Greece that only lasted a few decades.  From it we got a Constitution, Bill of Rights and a system of governance Lincoln said “was conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (in a) government of the people, by the people, (and) for the people.”  


That could never happen today with the channels of communication Paine used to electrify and inspire a nation  closed off to prevent their use against the kind of oppressive authority Paine opposed.  It caused the founders’ great democratic experiment to be lost because people no longer know how much the dominant political class is harming them by serving the interests of wealth and power and getting plenty of it for themselves in the process. 


If Paine were here now, he’d lead the struggle against that kind of system the way he did in his day, but he’d get little space in the mainstream to help and would have to settle for smaller audiences available through the alternative ways to reach the public now.  The free press of Paine’s day is now open only to the interests of capital who can afford to own one.  And those espousing “radical” views like Paine’s are barred from being a part of it.


What the Founders Created, the Dominant Corporate-Controlled Mass Media Thought-Control Police Destroyed


In his seminal work Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Alex Carey wrote “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”  Doing it was what 1920s intellectual writer and dean of his day’s journalists Walter Lippmann referred to as the “manufacture of (public) consent” in a democratic system where it can’t be done by force.  Manufacturing Consent was the title used by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman for their landmark 1988 book that was dedicated to the memory, spirit and work of Alex Carey. It explained how the dominant major media use a “propaganda model” to program the public mind to go along with whatever agenda serves the interests of wealth and power even when it’s against the welfare of ordinary people which it nearly always is.


Today in the US, the major media are nothing short of a national thought-control police.  They’re owned or controlled by dominant large corporations (the kind Noam Chomsky calls “private tyrannies”) grown increasingly concentrated over time and having a stranglehold over the kinds of information reaching the public.  It’s given them and the interests they represent the power to destroy the free marketplace of ideas essential to a healthy democracy now on life support in large measure because of how effective they are. 


Ben Bagdikian documented their progression in the various editions of his important book, The Media Monopoly, most recently updated in 2004 called The New Media Monopoly.  He showed since 1983, the number of corporations controlling most newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios, and electronic media have shrunk from 50 to five “global-dimension firms, operating with many of the characteristics of a cartel” – Time-Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom and Germany-based Bertelsmann.  Maybe it should now be a big six after Comcast Corporation acquired AT&T Broadband in 2001, expanded its cable and other holdings further since, and is now the nation’s largest cable operator reaching over 23 million US households.


These giants have a stranglehold over the dominant medium most people rely on mainly for what passes for news, information and entertainment: the national communication drug of choice – television, that according to Nielson Media Research the average person in the US watches about 4.5 hours daily in the 99% of American households television reaches according to US Census data and the 82% of households with cable or satellite TV access according to government and JD Power and Associates figures.


They don’t get much in return for the time spent even back when innovative early television comedian Ernie Kovacs commented on the quality of offerings in his day.  He said he knew why it’s called a medium – “because it’s neither rare nor well done,” and noted media critic George Gerbner harshly critized the dangers of media concentration in the hands of corporate giants and the adverse effects of its programming.  He once said they have “nothing to tell and everything to sell,” and they subordinate their mandate to communicate responsibly to their core function of profit-making. 


And reflecting broadly on the corrupting and dumbing-down power of the US corporate media, noted British journalist Robert Fisk once remarked “you really have a problem in this country.”  Uruguayan author and historian Eduardo Galeano cites a large part of the problem saying: “I am astonished….by the ignorance of the (US) population, which knows almost nothing about….the world.  It’s quite blind and deaf to anything….outside the frontiers of the US.”  They know little inside it as well, and of course, that’s the whole idea to maintaining control.  Misinform, distract, and control all ideas and thoughts reaching the public – it’s the key to “keeping the rabble in line.”  If done well, it works better than all the might of the most powerful nation on earth.


The Ugly Record of “The Newspaper of Record”


Nowhere is the problem of the dominant media more apparent and acute than in what passes for news, information and punditry on broadcast and cable television where the programming presented is poor enough to give pulp fiction a worse name than it already has.  But special condemnation is reserved for the so-called “newspaper of record” reporting “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” at least by its standards that are disturbing when understood in the terms of what this publication’s primary mission is – to serve as the lead instrument of state propaganda making it the closest thing we have in the country to an official ministry of information and propaganda.


The “Gray Lady,” as it’s called (“Shady Lady” would be more apt), has been around since it was founded in 1851 as a “conservative” counterpart to Horace Greeley’s liberal New York Tribune by Republican Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Henry J. Raymond and former banker George Jones.  It was then taken over by Adolph Ochs in 1896 who became its publisher until Arthur Sulzberger assumed the reigns in 1935.  His heirs have maintained it  since with Arthur, Jr. now the publisher as well as chairman of the whole company that’s publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange and that over the years became a media empire of nearly two dozen other newspapers, nine local TV stations, a piece of the Boston Red Sox and other enterprises and 2005 revenue of $3.4 billion – a long way from its humble beginning when its debut simply said: “….we intend to (publish) every morning (except Sundays) for an indefinite number of years to come.”


The NYT is a pillar of the corporate media and a member of the “corporate America” community whose tenets it finds no fault with when they harm the common good, as it nearly always does.  Nor is it bothered by its own hypocrisy claiming to be a voice of moderation or liberal thought when, in fact, it’s just the opposite on issues that matter most – like war and peace and the highest crimes of elected officials it ignores, especially when committed by Republicans (once publishing the Pentagon Papers notwithstanding).


The Times plays a crucial role as a loyal servant of empire and its business establishment.  No other member of the corporate media has such influence or reach as its message goes out to the world and is picked up throughout it in its highest places.  Its front page is what media critic Norman Solomon calls “the most valuable square inches of media real estate in the USA” – more accurately, in the world.  Bluntly put, the New York Times has unmatched media clout, and it uses it shamelessly in service to the interests and ideology of its advertisers.  It also plays the lead role as an agent of disseminating state propaganda and is able to have it resonate throughout the corporate media, including on television where it counts most, that generally jump on key stories featured on its front pages and in the columns of its leading journalists of which it has many and who show up often in on-air interviews to echo what they write. 


The Times also has a bad habit of being disingenuous and  allowed to get away with it.  While claiming to maintain a firewall between its business and journalism sides and between its news reporting and editorial functions, it does nothing of the sort.  In that respect, it’s no different than most all other members of the corporate media club.  All professionals who work there march in lock step with the ideology of management with barely any more than a little wiggle room allowed on the major issues affecting business or state policy.


There’s a clear line of authority coming down from the top of the Times hierarchy dictating everything, especially what’s printed on its pages.  Any Times writer diverging from this with the temerity to tell a version of the truth the paper wants suppressed will end up in the Siberia of obit writing or such if they’re still even allowed to draw a pay check.  There’s an unposted sign on the front of the Times building (and throughout the corporate media) all who work there understand and obey -  All those entering here give up the right to think and write freely and will henceforth follow management’s unwritten and unspoken directives or go find another line of work.


Serving as chief empire-propagandist is an old Times tradition going back decades and best remembered during the prime years of James “Scotty” Reston – its best and most famous journalist who walked easily in the halls of power and was consulted by its denizens.  That, of course, is the problem as cavorting with those in power throws any objectivity about them out the window and makes it easy for those having it to get away with almost anything and not have to worry about the dominant media holding them to account.


The Judith Miller saga is a prime example but just the latest incarnation at least up to the time her antics got her in trouble, and she ended up being canned.  Judith had lots of predecessors whose names people forget (Claire Sterling being one during the Reagan years), but they served most prominently throughout the cold war years especially when the Times was, and still is, a devout advocate of the home country’s notion of “free market” capitalism (of the predatory kind), a flag-waving supporter of its imperial wars of conquest, and a committed enemy of the “evil empire” until it ended and any other country not willing to play by US-imposed rules – Iran under Mossadegh, Guatemala under Arbenz, Cuba under Castro, Chile under Allende, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and Ortega (now reincarnated), Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, and Bolivia under Morales among others soon to include Ecuador under Rafael Correa when he takes office as the country’s populist president in January.  The paper also works closely with the CIA going back to when Allen Dulles ran it under Eisenhower with some of its supposedly independent foreign correspondents in the agency’s employ or engaged with it.


The Times, of course, played the lead media role in taking the nation to war after the 9/11 tragedy that got Judith Miller sacked once her lying for the state was exposed.  For many months leading to the March, 2003 Iraq assault and invasion, the NYT’s front pages screamed with daily disingenuous reports about the so-called WMDs “the newspaper of record” knew didn’t exist because years earlier it reported the story. 


In August, 1995, Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s trusted son-in-law and head of Iraq’s weapons industries, defected to the West and took with him crates of secret documents on the country’s weapons programs including its so-called WMDs that included no nuclear ones.  He was debriefed by US intelligence agencies and the UN, told all, and made headlines around the world including on the front pages of the NYT.  It all went down the “memory hole” in the run-up to March, 2003 with the false and misleading reporting in the Times led by Judith Miller’s reports who was practically deified for her writing that all turned out to be lies.


Now Judith is gone, but her style of reporting remains the way things are done on the NYT’s pages, especially the front one.  After playing the lead cheerleading role taking the nation to war based on falsely reported threats, the Times is at it again.  Back in 2003 and earlier, the primary reason for war was the claim Saddam had developed WMDs and was a threat to use them.  The paper then trumpeted top administration (unproved) charges that US intelligence had evidence Saddam stockpiled chemical and biological weapons, was concealing them, and was seeking nuclear ones – all untrue. 


Now with the ruse exposed, the Times is trying to rewrite history claiming in September “the possibility that Saddam Hussein might develop ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and pass them to terrorists was the prime reason Mr. Bush gave in 2003 for ordering the invasion of Iraq.”  Clear evidence he had them pre-war is now only a “possibility” according to Times-think. This kind of revisionism is standard practice at the NYT and a prime example of the “the newspaper of record’s” disservice to its readers wanting the truth.  That’s impossible to get on the pages of the New York Times.


The Times is also a loyal supporter of all things business and the elitist community whose interests nearly always conflict with the public welfare the paper falsely wants its readers to think it supports.  It doesn’t, and it shows up on its pages all the time.  It was clear from its contempt for working people with its staunch support for NAFTA that’s caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the three countries signed on to it including so many higher paying ones in the US.


Earlier it was late or tepid on major stories like the Savings and Loan scandal in the 1980s caused by excess banking deregulation and concessions to Wall Street, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) “$20 billion-plus heist” it pulled off unnoticed until it messed up and got caught, and since March, 2003 its failure to report on the misuse of many billions of taxpayer dollars companies like Halliburton and Bechtel profited hugely from in Iraq and Afghanistan improperly and still do despite Bechtel having gone off to new predatory ventures.  And that’s besides the many billions more in the grand theft pulled off by the defense establishment in its collusion with the Pentagon in the business of waging war that’s so profitable for the legions of weapons makers and their suppliers for the blood money they get from it – from us through our misspent or stolen tax dollars.


The Preeminent Newspaper Dedicated to the Interests of Business and Industry – The Wall Street Journal


The Wall Street Journal began publishing in 1889 seven years after its parent Dow Jones & Company was founded in 1882 by Charles Dow, Edward Jones and Charles Bergstresser whose name never became prominent maybe because it wasn’t as catchy as the other two.  For many years, the Journal had the largest newspaper circulation in the country until the forgettable USA Today overtook it.  What USA Today didn’t overtake was this paper’s influence that reaches virtually all those holding positions of power and prominence in business and government and many beyond.  It’s news pages also put out the kind of information its high-powered readers need to know and is usually out in front breaking stories regarding happenings in business and industry providing enough context to explain it well. 


It’s quite another story on the Journal’s editorial page where hard right opinion ideology nearly always trumps any attempt to stick to the facts, but it’s red meat for its adherents.  The paper states its editorial philosophy up front as favoring “free markets” and “free people” that comes down to supporting all things good for the corporate community and all state policy doing the same, including waging wars of aggression when they’re good for business as they always are as long as they go as planned, and even if they don’t up to the point where policy followed looks to have more of a future profit downside than the bottom line benefits of the moment.


 Journal editorial writers also take a particularly belligerent stance against foreign leaders following an independent course, forgetting “who’s boss,” and being unwilling to serve our interests ahead of those of their own people.  Case in point, and any of several stand out prominently – Iran, Syria, North

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