Thomas Paine and “I Can’t Breathe”

Thomas Paine holding a copy of "Rights of Man"
Thomas Paine holding a copy of “Rights of Man” [Andrewself at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (
It’s time to start thinking differently. It’s time to start a whole new revolutionary movement, not one that takes power from one and givens it to another but one that reduces power, taking it away from guns and money and groups but not replacing it. We could call it ‘revolution by the knee.’ Inspired by King and Gandhi and, yes, even Kaepernick, it would be one that finds its roots in the American and French revolutions, in the idealism in both. It would recognize that the former, derailed by compromise over slavery, never lived up to its promise, while the latter let anger consume it. Our revolution today, as has already been happening in the massive and peaceful protests  (the vast majority of what has been going on) all over the country, needs to be predicated by “No.”

One of the greatest figures of the times of the American and French revolutions was a man who is excluded today, even as he was back then, because he recommended fundamental rights for all. Thomas Paine was unwilling to move beyond certain lines. Today, we need to be as unwilling. We need to say “No” to violence, “No” to money as deciding factor, and “No” to consolidation of power.

Our “No,” though, cannot be simple intransigence. Unlike a tree standing by the water side unmoved, we need to be the water.

In the idealized early days of the French revolution, Paine (in The Rights of Man) wrote:

In contemplating a subject that embraces with equatorial magnitude the whole region of humanity it is impossible to confine the pursuit in one single direction. It takes ground on every character and condition that appertains to man, and blends the individual, the nation, and the world. From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen not to be extinguished. Without consuming, like the Ultima Ratio Regum [the resort to power by kings], it winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by a silent operation. Man finds himself changed, he scarcely perceives how. He acquires a knowledge of his rights by attending justly to his interest, and discovers in the event that the strength and powers of despotism consist wholly in the fear of resisting it, and that, in order “to be free, it is sufficient that he wills it.”

Though Paine’s idealism proved unfounded or too early, those words could have been written today, could have come in response to Donald Trump’s claim, right before he marched to a church to hold up a Bible someone else had carried for him, that “I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property.” Trump mistakes might for right and believes that power can solve problems by crushing them.

It cannot.

Right now, we see a confluence of factors erupting in a week of protest. Yes, one of those is the resurgence of American racism but that is not all of it. There is also a police culture of domination that touches everyone, militarized police seeing themselves as the keepers of the peace and everyone else as potential disturbers. There is also a pandemic that, in its death counts, is showing how bifurcated America society is: not only are African Americans dying in huge numbers but so are other ‘people of color,’ those who cannot stay at home, who cannot isolate or they will starve. Those who risk their lives to keep the rest of us safe. There is also a new understanding of the moral (and practical) bankruptcy of our health-care system. There is a new understanding of the precarity of so many lives, of the dishonesty of the ‘gig economy’ that can keep people alive today but with no promise for tomorrow. There is recognition that those in power are going to do anything they can to stay there, though they know that their support comes from a third of the country, that it will never reach a majority. There is a new realization by the old that they are not considered valuable by society and might as well be left out to die. And then there is recognition of the limits of American individualism which dismisses the “other” as meaningless, as responsible for herself, or himself. There is more.

Lorie Shaull / CC BY-SA (

George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” speaks to all of these. Too many Americans can’t breathe today. For all of these reasons, and more.

What we have happening is much more than simply a racial uprising—though that is there, too, and should be.

The majority of Americans can be kept in thrall to Trump’s third if we are kept apart, each other group giving primacy to their own pain. It is recognition of the pain of all by all and willingness to reduce all, the degree of each notwithstanding, that can make this nascent movement successful.

For this revolution to be successful, we all need to work together, making our “No” loud and unified.

We are just starting on something, or I hope so, though it really began hundreds of years ago. On that note, I will end by again quoting from Paine:

It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders. To read the history of kings, a man would be almost inclined to suppose that government consisted in stag-hunting, and that every nation paid a million a-year to a huntsman. Man ought to have pride, or shame enough to blush at being thus imposed upon, and when he feels his proper character he will. Upon all subjects of this nature, there is often passing in the mind, a train of ideas he has not yet accustomed himself to encourage and communicate. Restrained by something that puts on the character of prudence, he acts the hypocrite upon himself as well as to others. It is, however, curious to observe how soon this spell can be dissolved. A single expression, boldly conceived and uttered, will sometimes put a whole company into their proper feelings: and whole nations are acted on in the same manner.

“I can’t breathe.”

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