Thursday, 27 May 2010

Stuart Syvret Syvret is of the mould of Thomas Payne

I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death. (Thomas Paine)

I see that the "Sage of Mont Gras d'Eau" has another letter in the paper. That is the retired psychiatrist, Dr Joseph Labia, with a letter entitled "Revolutionary change with caution". Dr Labia writes:

Stuart Syvret Syvret is of the mould of Thomas Payne, author of the Rights of Man (the equivalent of today's -human rights, and unrelated to duties). Revolutionary changes have to be introduced cautiously, as was well documented by what happened in the French and Russian Revolutions, i.e., the birth of tyrannies. In order to work, the intended changed need to have popular backing, run with the grain of a society, besides being practical and equitable.

Dr Labia (retired psychiatrist, with perhaps a compulsive habit of letter writing) is known for his short letters to the Jersey Evening Post, which come over as almost a collection of aphorisms from a wise man, which is clearly how the writer sees himself. But he does not check his facts very well indeed, or he would known that Paine's name is usually given as "Paine", not Payne.

Well, let's see how Thomas Paine acquits himself of duties. With "The Crisis", written when the Americans were struggling for freedom from an oppressive, and quite irresponsible British government (no duties there, except those that were taxes!), Paine wrote:

The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

This is not just a call to arms, it is a call to service, a clarion call upon the duties of the patriot. Paine is not saying that the patriot only has "rights", but that that there is also a duty to "the service of their country". This is a thread running throughout his writings on the matter - "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it. "

Paine was certainly an advocate of cautious revolutionary change. This is what he said about government:

It is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far shalt thou go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.

So what did he have to say about rights? Paine argued that it was the duty of the State to care for the elderly - "at sixty his labour ought to be over, at least from direct necessity. It is painful to see old age working itself to death, in what are called civilised countries, for daily bread." He argued that the State should provide a pension, not charity, so "not as a matter of grace and favour, but of right".

He also argued for free education: "After all the above cases are provided for there will still be a number of families who, though not properly of the class of poor, yet find it difficult to give education to their children; and such children, under such a case, would be in a worse condition than if their parents were actually poor. A nation under a well-regulated government should permit none to remain uninstructed."

Now it must be remembered that Paine would not have been arguing for these particular "rights" if they existed in the society of his time, which they did not. But this was not just rhetoric - he worked out the mathematics of financing this project from the public purse and taxes. And far from leading to bloody revolution, his argument was that these changes would lessen riots and violent change and "prevent the further effusion of blood":

"The hearts of the humane will not be shocked by ragged and hungry children, and persons of seventy and eighty years of age, begging for bread. The dying poor will not be dragged from place to place to breathe their last, as a reprisal of parish upon parish. Widows will have a maintenance for their children, and not be carted away, on the death of their husbands, like culprits and criminals; and children will no longer be considered as increasing the distresses of their parents. The haunts of the wretched will be known, because it will be to their advantage; and the number of petty crimes, the offspring of distress and poverty, will be lessened. The poor, as well as the rich, will then be interested in the support of government, and the cause and apprehension of riots and tumults will cease."

Of course, when this was neglected, by the aristocratic and absolutist monarchies of France and Russia, then those countries were ripe for a bloody revolution, and contrary to what Dr Labia believes, these had the full support of "popular backing, run with the grain of a society"; it was the mass of people who rebelled against rulers who saw only the divine rights of kings, and gave only token regard to their responsibilities. And how they achieved this in France was both "practical and equitable"; anyone could have their head neatly severed by the guillotine. Paine stood out in France against the execution of Louis XVI, was imprisoned for 11 months, and nearly suffered execution himself.

And a last word of Paine against those who are too cautious for change. When the American revolution took place, he warned the founding fathers, such as George Washington, that they would be storing up trouble for the future if they did not address the issue of slavery. He thought slaves had rights as well, and that "all men are created equal", if it meant anything, should include those enslaved:

That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising; and still persist, though it has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity, and even good policy, by a succession of eminent men, and several late publications.

Stuart Syvret is of the "mould of Thomas Paine", says Dr Labia, in what is intended as a criticism.

But if one looks at Paine's record, and not the misleading one line comment by Dr Labia (who clearly hasn't ever read any of Paine's books), then if I were Stuart Syvret, I should indeed be pleased to be accorded the distinction of being compared with possibly one of the greatest political geniuses of that age.

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