02.11.06

SWells Vs. Pennsylvania’s Other Big Ben

Posted in Free Expression, non-sporting journalism, We Aren't The World at 11:40 am by

Former NME scribe/”Teenage Terror Totty” author Steven Wells, having already pilloried the Grand Olde Game and Philadelphia’s violent sports fans, puts Ben Franklin in the crosshairs. From The Philadelphia Weekly (thanks to Chuck Meehan for the link).

It’s Jan. 29, Tom Paine’s birthday. Today there are Paine parties in England, New York, New Jersey, California and Florida. And in Philadelphia? Nothing. No roses, no fireworks. Just dudes in transparent-plastic-covered state trooper hats, keeping half an eye on the smattering of hardy tourists wrapped in brightly colored Gore-Tex who, hunched over against the rain, walk from Paine-free attraction to Paine-free attraction.

The Parks official behind the desk at the Independence Visitor Center is nonplussed. Birthday celebrations? None that he knows of. Anything in the displays about Tom Paine? Or Common Sense? Not really. “Nothing big.”

Can he direct me to Tom Paine Plaza? He has to look it up in the phone book.

“It’s near the statue of Mayor Rizzo,” he says. “You’ll see it. He’s got his hand up, kinda like this, like he’s seig heiling. Which is kind of ironic if you know anything about Mayor Rizzo.”

Turns out the Rizzo statue is down the road a way. On Thomas Paine Plaza itself, there’s a statue of … Benjamin bloody Franklin!

There are hordes of rotund, bifocaled, frock-coated Ben Franklin impersonators currently working in Philadelphia, led by the brilliant Ralph Archbold, who plays Franklin as a cross between Saturday Night Live’s Ladies’ Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

The real Franklin was much nastier. Ben spent most of his political career as an ardent monarchist and convinced imperialist. He wasn’t above using ethnic slurs. He profited from and apologized for slavery.

Because then there’s Paine. Thrice-damned Paine. The radical, shit-stirring, rabble-rousing, antiracist, internationalist, pro-women, pro-working class, antiprivilege, antityrannical, super-democratic throbbing heart and soul of the American revolution. A man who, if he were alive today, would have an FBI/Homeland Security file as thick as the Hulk’s thigh. Hell, they’d probably deport his commie ass back to England.

The trouble with Paine is that he makes the rest of the founding fathers look bad. He makes all the excuses made on their behalf about slavery and elitism and snobbery and sexism look halfassed. And although modern Tories of all stripes-from Reaganite Republicans to wild-eyed right-wing libertarians-have claimed Paine as their own, in the end Paine is the American revolutionary who can’t be defanged, forced into a business suit, swathed in a flag, shrink-wrapped and sold to the masses as a Stepford revolutionary.

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