17 May

Thomas Paine And The Dumbing Of The American Mind

by Jon Katz

(Part two of a series on the left and the right. Beware: the author may be delusional, he still believes it possible to have an actual conversation with people about our country, even in the age of the left and the right. He is having weird dreams.)

I had a conversation with Tom Paine the other day, and I shocked him by telling him we had a toxic political culture in America today called the “left” and the “right,” and they both were killing free thought.

He was surprised and confused, believing when he died that we had beaten back tyranny.

I told him I thought the left and the right to be the greatest threat to free thought and speech that I had seen in my life, and the greatest fear of Paine and his fellow patriots.

Both of these small-minded cultures are dumbing down the American mind, killing off our great tradition of honest debate and dialogue. Rather than promote thought, they refuse to consider it.

They pretend to be enemies, but they are just different heads on the same dragon. They have left the world’s greatest democracy in a state of awful constipation.

This came out of a gauzy kind of dream when I lay down to take a nap, something us OMARS (Old Men At Risk) are urged to do.

I’m a longtime admirer of Thomas Paine, who I have written about many times in different publications.

He often appears in my dreams to provoke me or criticize my writing and make fun of me. He is my greatest inspiration as a writer and former journalist. People who find me unnerving would have gone bonkers reading him.

But honestly, running into Paine during my nap is one of the good parts of being crazy.

In my half-dream, I asked Paine, who was a fearless thinker and eloquent writer,  what the greatest danger to democracy would be in his mind.

He said the greatest danger of despots and demagogues and kings and extreme political movements and “factions”  is that they destroy individual thought and freedom of expression.

People become afraid to think beyond them or in opposition to them, he said. You might be interested in knowing, I replied, that in the year 2020, the political factions known as the left and the right have become a tyranny all of their own.

They are wrecking our democracy.

They are killing off the American idea – the ordinary citizen open to compromise with access to the system of governance. That doesn’t sound like 2020 to me.

Paine was rattled. The freedom to think, he said, is fragile, often the first casualty of an oppressive culture, or one that is too dull or lazy to work at being free.

I reminded him that he once wrote that democracy needs more care than the Queen’s garden. Jefferson wrote democracy was a wonderful system, if we could keep it.

The founders believed that negotiation and compromise were the soul of a democratic government. The left and the right believe in neither.

I was sorry to tell Paine that his children have forsaken him. Much of our big media is about enabling this broken system and closed system, not challenging it.

There are a thousand different ways to look at the world. The left and right teach us there are only two.

The rapid and destructive evolution of a left and a right in American politics has put freedom of thought at greater risk than any foreign enemy or war ever has.

Just watch cable news for a few minutes.

If you are a writer like me, you see the devolution of public life into these two inadequate, corrupt, and morally bankrupt ideologies. More than anything, they are incompetent, devoid of ideas or inspiration.

They exist only to survive.

They share at least one thing: they permit no individual thought or any kind of deviance from dogma and orthodoxy.

The left and the right have left us stuck in their muck, both of them. The vibrant political dialogue of someone like Thomas Paine and his fellow revolutionaries has become a kind of social quicksand, unimaginable in our time. We don’t listen, change, or solve.

Anybody who steps in this bog gets stuck in it and forgets how to think. I hate to sound elitist, but when I hear the dogma and rhetoric of the left and the right, I think the same thing: this sounds so stupid. Parroting other people is not thinking.

Neither is insulting people who disagree.

I have accepted that whatever I write now will offend one side or the other, and while I have the hide of a Brontosaurus, many people don’t. One of the many tragedies of the closing of the American mind is that people are not only afraid to think, but they are also afraid to speak or listen, especially in public.

The Internet promised to be the most significant expansion of free thought and ideas in human history. Still, today it’s open spaces are a cesspool of nastiness and lies, the hunting grounds of rusting ideologies on one side or the other. It’s a place to spread lies, not truth.

Just take a second to imagine a world where the left and right ate one another and disappeared. Pretty cool.

When I challenge this mindless thinking, people on either side freak out, rushing to call me names, or more likely, they just flee in bewilderment. Indeed, they pay no attention to me or give me little thought. They hate being asked to think on their own.

For the left and the right, original thinking is heresy, no matter who does it. Each believes there is one way to look at the world; each is convinced it has exclusive rights to the high ground. It’s an image out of Kafka, countless people in blinders throwing rocks at each other.

A few years ago, the Democratic Party was pushing hard against illegal immigration, deporting more undocumented workers than President Trump has done. There was considerable Democratic lobbying for a wall and for more money to police the border.

But the left and the right cannot agree on any single thing, because to do so would make them even more irrelevant and ineffective than they already are.

So today, Republicans are the ones lobbying for the wall, and Democrats protesting loudly that this inhumane and ineffective. Only the White Rabbit could understand: “Don’t just do something, stand there…Uh…no no! Go get my gloves! I’m late.”

How are we two comprehend two governing ideologies, both of which would rather see our country burn to the ground than compromise or work together?

I could feel Paine getting agitated, he vanished, leaving me alone to dream.

Because of the left and the right, politics are no longer about accomplishing things; they are about stopping anyone else from achieving something. You can see the results for yourselves.

Are we better off than we were ten years ago?

Whatever the right wants, the left must oppose. Whatever the left wants, the right must oppose. Whenever members of one group encounter the other, they must attack them, because they have been trained like guard dogs to hate and fear the other.

But oh no, people say, you’re naive. It isn’t us; it’s them. No institution can make this big a mess all by themselves. Who dares to be the first to take responsibility?

The people on the right accuse anyone who criticizes President Trump of being deranged, and the people on the left blame everyone who likes him of being naive, bigoted, or deplorable.

“You suffer from Trump Derangement System,” Bob wrote to me after I wrote a piece about the folly of merely hating Trump without understanding him. Bob had no idea what I wrote, and no thoughtful response to make.

He kept parroting Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity at me. He didn’t have any of his own words or thoughts to say to me.

The road warriors on the other side immediately took off after him. They weren’t defending me or my idea; they were just attacking, hounds on the hunt.

There was nothing remotely resembling thought or discussion.

The left and the right are the world’s leading promoter of jerking knees. People are expected to obey; there are no rewards for thinking.

Our corporate media has become the perfect enabler of this new and stunningly noxious culture. These corporations have taken over the news; they have never made more money or enabled more confusion, ignorance, and hatred.

If you care about free speech or thought, this is a crisis.

There are plenty of honest and ethical journalists around fighting, but very few of them make it to cable news, which is the first showcase and enabler of left/right thinking, or social media. Venturing out in public with a free or original thought is much like jumping into a buzzsaw to see if your shoes are tough.

I once referred to Zinnia as a “Wasp Princess,” and you might think I urinated in church. I still get messages from people who were not just offended, but “deeply offended.” My wasp friends were dumbfounded.

I don’t care about upsetting people, but the Middle School dialogue that rages between the left and the right is choking off much-needed ideas and conversations. The American Mind feels like it’s shutting down.

People who label themselves or permit themselves to be labeled are surrendering their own identity. They become drones.

My sometimes friend Thomas Paine would weep over the fact that it is now considered brave to think about our country and write about it. Did he risk his life for this?

Paine, a fuzzy historical figure of the 1700s, is remembered mostly for one or two sparkling patriotic quotes – “These are the times that try men’s souls” – and little else.

A professional revolutionary, he was one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon against an entrenched array of monarchies, feudal lords, dictators, and repressive social structures.

Most journalists don’t do that anymore; they watch their computers for the latest news to write about. Nobody can afford to send them anywhere, the corporations that own then are making too much money to afford actual reporting.

Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlet was a shockingly original and courageous display of original thinking, of free thought. Today, he wouldn’t get 10 feet on Twitter before getting chewed up by one side or the other.

Where would Paine fit into our suffocating culture of left and right? As a revolutionary, he would instantly be targeted by the right. As a fierce critic of hypocritical “progressives” who blinked at slavery and fled the battle for independence, he would have been maligned by the left.

But he didn’t care. He wrote a pamphlet that half the country bought, and triggered a revolution. Of all things most precious to him, it was the right to think.

It is the most precious thing for me as well, and I am quick – sometimes too fast – to fight for it.

I get in arguments all the time online because I see myself (yes, in a self-serving way) as fighting for my right to think. In our culture, no thought is allowed to live for a second before it is questioned, attacked, and labeled by someone from the left or right.

Rather than think, we believe we have the right to tell other people what to think? I always tell my worst critics to start their own blog. They are almost all shocked and offended.

I’m a professional writer, the challenge is fuel for me, as many of you have noticed. Still, for the ordinary citizen – the alleged mainstay of our Republic – thinking has become almost impossible, even dangerous.

At the time the Constitution was written, the founders believed that political parties were a threat to the nation, they thought of them as “factions,” acting only out of their own interests with little interest in the public good.

They believed political parties would play no formal role in the new government; the constitution made no mention of them.

It turns out they were right.

But they never imagined these self-interested factions would come to dominate every aspect of political life and make it nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to advance to public office.

Once there, they spend most of their time fund-raising or sucking the teats of lobbyists for cash.

Both the left and the right turned out to be Thomas Paine’s worst nightmare, collections of self-interested people who have turned politics into incestuous contests between the wealthy and the powerful. Nobody ever wins, nobody ever loses. Get it?

We can vote, but we can’t get into the tent, and when all is said and done, we have very little choice about who to vote for. Thus, freedom becomes an illusion.

In both worlds, free thinkers and quarrelsome ones – think of Paine – are expelled, defeated, or pushed to the edges and forgotten.

Paine offended plenty of people in his lifetime. There was a famous old nursery rhyme about him:

Poor Tom Paine! there he lies

Nobody laughs, and nobody cries.

Where he has gone or how he fares,

Nobody knows, and nobody cares.

Perhaps free thought has always been a thankless thing.

I remember Paine fondly and have even cried over him once or twice. His bones were stolen from his grave in New York and taken to England, where they have been lost for centuries.

Paine warned that freedom of thought needed protection. Once lost, he wrote, it might be very difficult to get back.

The modern corporate media has completely forgotten this brilliant, lonely, socially awkward father of free thought and speech. They have no relation to the idea of advancing free thinking. It doesn’t make any money.

Paine fought very hard for the radical idea – then and now – that people should think freely and express themselves openly and as individuals, without fear or intimidation or hiding under the wings of others.

It sounds arrogant even to me, but I believe it.

Labels are the poison pill. Once I take them or agree to let someone else put one of those tags on me, I will have surrendered my identity and my freedom to think.

Thomas Paine would never come to see me again.



  1. Thank you for writing thought provoking articles. I enjoy reading your blog each day. It keeps my mental wheels greased and turning. You are a breath of fresh air! Thank you for all you do!

  2. Just learned of your site. If you don’t mind I’d like to lurk a spell . Want to know if your thoughts and mine are compatible.

    1. Good luck to you, Vickie…as you can see, compatibility is not the norm here, we thrive on civil disagreement.I never got the point of only reading people I agree with..it’s free, no permission necessary, you are welcome to come and go as you please..

  3. This writer does not understand the left and right- they are not two heads of the same dragon. This is nonsense and he’s obviously a leftist. Why do the left refuse debate and shut down and censor the right? Who are the ones that end the argument with name calling, just like in this article? The left. Who are the ones currently supporting draconian lockdown measures and who is living in fear of the current virus? The left. The left is the collective conscious and the right promotes and encourages free thought, open debate, and freedom. This middle of the road crap is wimpy and self righteous. This writer is a pompous left winger, attempting to claim the falsehood that the left and right are two sides of the same coin. He criticizes both without clear examples. I know it’s an opinion piece piece but the “feel good” of this phony middle of the road stance is bs.

    1. Are you talking about me? I love your response. Here I write several long pieces about how noxious labeling people is, and it’s just about the first thing out of your mouth. Go away please, and I have a name. You remind me of why I wrote the article and feel so good about it. And why are you referring to me in the third person? This is my blog, I’m right here. I think your label would be pompous. You are obviously an obnoxiousist. Go bloviate somewhere else..BILL!

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