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Thomas Paine Would Have Loved Van Jones

Thomas Paine Would Have Loved Van Jones

by Kelpie Wilson,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

It's been a nail-biting time for liberals, wondering if President Obama would have the strength to take on the right-wing bullies who ran amok in our public life throughout August's Congressional recess. It was a relief to hear the president in his health care address confront the lies directly and to hear him stand behind his preference for a public health care option. But Obama's failure to defend Van Jones, his green jobs adviser, is still a big disappointment and we need to understand why it happened.

Why was Glenn Beck able to drive Van Jones out of office? Jones did nothing that was illegal or immoral. Some of his views and opinions, now or in the past, are not popular with some people, but that doesn't make them "fringe" or "crazy" or "reprehensible," all epithets used to describe them. "Crazy" is more applicable to Beck, who seems to believe he is channeling the American revolutionary Thomas Paine: Beck titled his own book "Common Sense"; Beck produced a series of nutty videos where an actor portraying Tom Paine spouts angrily about taxes and illegal immigrants; Beck has Tea Party protest signs that say, "Tom Paine Rocks."

Let's take a look at the charges against Jones and try to understand why the president couldn't just ignore Glenn Beck. Then let's look at how we can reclaim the spirit of this country and make progress toward a more just, free and secure life, in accordance with the ideals of Thomas Paine.

Glenn Beck and company have three main charges that they think are proof that Van Jones is too far out on the fringe to work in the White House:

They say Van Jones signed a petition calling for an independent investigation of 9/11. What's the problem here? The petition cited a 2004 Zogby poll showing that 66 percent of New York City residents felt there were still unanswered questions about 9/11 and wanted a new investigation. When that many people still have questions about such a major event, the wisest course is to open another investigation rather than let those questions fester and contribute to public distrust. Tom Paine would have supported an independent investigation. Why not?

They say Van Jones is a racist. There is no evidence that Van Jones is a racist or doesn't like white people. Jones has championed environmental justice - exposing the fact that "Right now we have eco-apartheid. Look at Marin; they've got solar this, and bio this, and organic the other, and fifteen minutes away by car, you're in Oakland with cancer clusters, asthma, and pollution." White people like Glenn Beck need to get over themselves and listen to what other people's experiences have been like. Tom Paine listened. He called for an end to slavery decades before it became a popular cause.

They say Van Jones is a Marxist, anarchist, Communist, socialist revolutionary. Now, we are getting closer to the real grip Beck and company have on this country and the president as well. McCarthyism has never been far from the skirmish line in post WWII American politics. McCarthyism is based on a string of lies that tie Stalinism to Marxist theory, to socialism, to the labor movement and, finally, to modern liberals. It's like saying all Christians are torturers and pedophiles because the church burned women at the stake, tortured heretics and harbored child-abusing priests.

You could see this mindset at work in the protest signs carried at Glenn Beck's September 12 rally on Saturday showing Obama as Hitler, the Joker and Satan, all rolled into one.

The attack on liberals got so bad during the Reagan/Bush years that Democratic politicians dropped the term "liberal" completely rather than try to defend it against the loud, irrational smears. But letting the McCarthyites and neocons get away with equating liberalism to fascism was not only a big mistake, it was a betrayal of our national heritage, for Tom Paine was a liberal who believed in taxing the rich to help the poor.

The smear campaign against Van Jones is an attack by the propertied elite - the oil and coal companies and their Fox news mouthpieces - on the security and freedom of ordinary people. The motivation for the attack is transparent - green jobs threaten the dominance of the dirty energy industry over our economy and our politics.

Donna Edwards, the liberal Democratic Congresswoman from Maryland, said in an interview that she didn't think any of the supposed fringe views of Van Jones were the real reason for the attack on him. "I don't think it matters," she said, "What they are really opposed to is this president's energy reform agenda."

Indeed, Phil Kerpen, an operative with the front group Americans for Prosperity (funded by big oil and tobacco) that is behind the teabaggers and the town hall health care hysterics, laid it all out in a Fox news column on September 6: "Now that Jones has resigned, we need to follow through with two critical policy victories. First, stop cap-and-trade, which could send these groups trillions, and second repeal the unspent portion of the stimulus bill, which stands to give them billions."

The "them" Kerpen referred to is actually "we, the people," the unemployed workers of America, who desperately need these jobs.

Why would Kerpen or Glenn Beck have a problem with putting unemployed people to work in jobs that will improve energy efficiency and tap new sources of renewable energy? Tom Paine would have supported a taxpayer funded stimulus package to put people back to work.

Author and liberal talk show host Thom Hartmann describes the true Tom Paine in a 2006 book review of "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America," by Harvey J. Kaye:

"Thomas Paine was in many ways the father of modern liberalism ... It wasn't FDR who first seriously promoted the progressive income tax in the USA: it was Thomas Paine. It wasn't LBJ who invented anti-poverty programs by introducing Medicare, housing assistance, and food-stamp programs: Thomas Paine proposed versions of all of these.... Even Woodrow Wilson's inheritance tax, designed to prevent family empires from taking over our nation, was the idea of Thomas Paine, as was the suggestion for old-age pensions as part of a social safety net known today as Social Security."

As liberals, we were heartened when President Obama called out the "death panel" lie and exposed it.

As liberals, we need to tell the truth about liberalism and our national heritage. We need to rescue Tom Paine from the clutches of the lying Fox news corporate bullhorns who are distorting our history.

We are a liberal nation. And when we speak out with clarity and conviction, we can set the agenda. We saw this very clearly, when after weeks of trying to back away from it, President Obama embraced the public option in his speech to Congress. Relentless public outcry forced his hand.

The next battle - over energy and climate policy - will be even bigger than the health care battle. The survival of our civilization, if not our species, depends on winning it. It's going to be a hard fight, but as Tom Paine said, in a dark hour at the founding of our country, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."


Kelpie Wilson is the author of "Primal Tears," a novel. You can contact her through her web site at

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