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Why Thomas Paine Matters




Thomas Paine by Auguste Millière

Last year I wrote a one-man play that I perform called To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine. It’s about the one truly radical Founding Father whose greatest vision was for genuine equality. Paine called for an end to slavery, as well as for all men to vote, and suggested equal rights for women – all outrageous propositions for his time. Yet in the process of writing my play I discovered just how politically isolated we are from one another today. My Google Alerts for Paine have enlightened me as to many Web sites, events and points of view — particularly the YouTube videos of one Bob Basso. Until recently I had never heard of Mr. Basso. Neither had any of my friends or audience members from my show.

Basso has an interesting resume, however. He is a former flamboyant television show host in Hawai’i, known for reporting the news while standing on a large pile of manure; he was an actor (most recent IMDb credit: Mr. Bob in 1996’s One West Waikiki); he’s also a motivational speaker and one of the Tea Party’s favorite speakers. But more significant to me are the YouTube videos he began posting in 2009. They call for — or more accurately, rant and rave about – a list of grievances and pleas, including those for “taking back the government” and “stopping the illegal invaders from south of the border,” not to mention talk of “traitors” and this little warning: “You better get yourself a gun, you’re going to need it.”

Mr. Basso has a right to say all these things as a private citizen, but he does so all dressed up as Thomas Paine, and here I object. He might as well dress up as Gandhi and promote the Keystone pipeline or an invasion of Iran. This is a complete distortion of Paine’s words and work and beliefs. Paine already leads a distinguished list of the misunderstood in American history. (The “filthy little atheist” was neither filthy nor small — and he was a committed deist). But Basso’s contributions to the misunderstandings are quite breathtaking and important to challenge. So I’ve put up seven short films on YouTube to counter his cruel distortions. (Please visit, as we need hits – Basso’s videos have totaled more than 14,000,000.)

The question that strikes me is, How have we become so divided that those of us on the Left have not heard about Basso, a man who has had a considerable impact on America’s political thinking? And, no doubt, Tea Party members/evangelicals/born again Christians are as ignorant of the people who inspire us as we are of Basso, but how has this happened? How have we become so isolated in our own universes that we don’t even know what goes on in those other universes, and vice versa? Can we ever find any common ground if we live our lives in ignorance of what motivates the “other side?” I know very, very few Republicans and have never met a member of the Tea Party. Laziness? Lack of interest? Or disgust? Perhaps all three. And I live in Los Angeles. California may be seen as a Democratic state, but there are plenty of people of every political persuasion in this city of 10 million people.

Thomas Paine was a divisive figure in America, but at least his contemporaries who loved him — and even those who hated him — largely based their opinions on Paine’s actual writings. Disagree with anyone, but disagree with what they actually said. There are far too many distortions and downright lies in American political discourse today. President Obama is not a Muslim. Disagree with as many of his policies as you like, but not because he is “a Muslim.”. Disagree with any and every thing that Paine wrote, but first know what he wrote.

It was Paine who said, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Let’s hope that this is still true, and that we do it not from positions of ignorance, but of knowledge — and perhaps even with a little understanding.

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