Tell us about your book on Thomas Paine. How did he first pique your interest and how do you pass that fascination on to your students?
When I first arrived in Iowa City in the summer of 1995 to begin working on my PhD I had a week or so of free time between when I moved and when I would begin classes. I randomly picked up Paine’s Common Sense out of the books I had brought with me and began reading, simply because it was an important book that I had never read carefully. My imagination was captured by the power of its prose and the force of its argument. Because I had come to the University of Iowa specifically to study rhetoric, I began taking notes on my impressions of the book and some of the questions it raised for me as a powerful rhetorical document. Common Sense is a work that reputedly turned the armed conflict that had begun in North America in 1775 from an insurrection whose object was to secure the repeal of a number of laws and taxes that American colonists found burdensome into a war for independence. I wanted to understand how this had occurred in historical context and the role Paine’s words had played in the change. Although, I ended up writing my dissertation on Classical Greek rhetoric, I pursued my interest in Thomas Paine through several classes, papers, and presentations, and continued to work and publish on Paine after I graduated.
My current work on Paine concerns his book, The Age of Reason, which was his last major work. Started by Paine while he was in France in 1793, caught up in the French revolution at the point when the Jacobins were beginning to purge all opposition by means of the guillotine, it was a book that set forth Paine’s views about religion at a time when he very reasonably expected that he would soon be executed. As a deist, Paine believed in God, but did not believe that scripture was anything more than the work of human beings bent on propping up the authority and political power of religious institutions. Paine specifically called for the rejection of Christianity, calling it “a religion against which reason revolts.” Although Paine’s views were moderate by the standards of the French revolution, they proved to be extremely offensive to many Americans who had been inspired by Common Sense. So, although Paine himself survived the French Revolution, his reputation in the United States did not survive the publication of The Age of Reason. He was demonized in the Federalist Press and when he died in New York in 1809, only a handful of close friends attended the funeral of the man whose work had been second only to the Bible in circulation in North America and who had changed the course of the revolution.
I find the story of The Age of Reason and Paine’s political demise fascinating for many reasons. The rhetorical failure of The Age of Reason is a signpost at the end of the Enlightenment project of bringing Christianity into harmony with the rational standards of science and law, and at the beginning of an intensified conflict between science and religion which is very much a feature of the contemporary cultural landscape. Paine insisted that religious claims needed to be judged by the same standards of evidence that scientific and legal claims are judged by, especially when the religious claims are use in support of political arrangements. To study The Age of Reason is to study an important moment in the conflict between “reason” and “revelation,” a conflict whose battle lines had been drawn in the age of Paine, significantly before Charles Darwin described the origin of species.
Although I bring Paine’s writings into class when it seems appropriate, most of what I have written about Paine is tangential to the classes I teach. Sometime in the future it would be great to do a whole seminar on Paine.
What classes are you teaching this semester?
I am teaching a Feit seminar on Himalayan cultures with my colleague Carala Bellamy from the Sociology and Anthropology department. It is a class that grew out of a fellowship with the Rubin Museum of Art that we both had a number of years ago, a program put together by the Marxe School’s own Stan Altman. Professor Bellamy is an expert in the religious traditions of the region, and, as you might see from what I have written above, I am generally interested in the intersection of religion and politics. In addition to that, I am teaching sections of Communication in Public Settings, which I teach as a class about deliberation.
Your expertise ranges from communications and media, to decision-making processes of the World Trade Center site redevelopment, to NYC mayoral rhetoric. How do you bring together such far-reaching topics into a cohesive narrative for your students?
I usually focus on the parts of my work that have the most relevance to the class that I am teaching, but deliberation is a central theme, whether it be deliberation about topics like the separation of church and state, the future of the city as it is envisioned in state of the city addresses, or if the FCC should loosen restriction on media ownership. All these are important topics that merit ongoing discussion, and those discussions must have certain features if they are to be part of a democratic decision-making process, features such as mechanisms that allow for true participation on the part of the public, mechanisms to ensure that factual claims made in the course of the discussions are correct, and a willingness of participants to recognize values and viewpoint that they do not share as none-the-less legitimate.
Tell us about the work you're doing with the Kettering Foundation.
I owe my involvement with Kettering to my Marxe School colleague Don Waisanen, who took the pioneering steps in getting us involved with Kettering’s New Centers program. In the context of this program, Professor Waisanen and I are developing an entity called the New York Civic Forum that will, among other activates, stage deliberative discussion of current issues for the Baruch community. I am also working with Kettering and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to write a deliberative discussion guide about immigration. I am enthusiastic about the Kettering Foundation because of its institutional focus on deliberative democracy.