'If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason,' wrote Christopher Hitchens last year on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye's recent book on Paine.[*] And as if to reinforce that message, he has now himself published a little book on Paine, a 'biography' of Rights of Man. It begins with a dedication, 'by permission', to President Jalal Talabani: 'first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people's army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.' However selective this description of Talabani, who has been all this and almost everything else at one time or another, it is an opening that encourages us to expect a tract for the times: a demonstration perhaps of how Paine's book can help us understand the complexities of the situation in Iraq, perhaps even of what his theory of rights might have to say about the legislative and judicial innovations introduced into the US and Britain as part of the war on terror. Will Paine help us adjudicate between the rights of those who died in the Twin Towers and those who have been tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere? Between the non-combatant victims murdered by the suicide bombers of the insurgency and the non-combatants murdered by the Americans in Fallujah or Haditha or Makr al-Deeb? By the end of the book, Hitchens still seems to believe that he will. 'In a time,' he writes in his final sentence, 'when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.'
LRB 30 November 2006 | PDF Download