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The sense of Paine 

There’s a whole lot of parsing going on lately, of looking at some thing or situation so closely, in such minute detail, that the larger sense is lost.

It’s not seeing the forest for the trees.

It’s not seeing that the larger sense is common sense.

One of our roughneck revolutionary forebears, Thomas Paine, was a troublemaker and pamphleteer who issued a plain-spoken — for the Revolutionary era, anyway — treatise titled “Common Sense,” and rode it to notoriety and fame. In questioning the validity of the British monarchy and its rule in the American colonies, Paine wrote:

“[A] long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” Common sense, horse sense, he argued, was lost in such instances, and needed to be regained.

What say we see if Paine’s words apply today, nearly 230 years later, an interim in which our imperfect union has had plenty of time to improve itself.

Let’s just stick a hatpin in a racing form and start with ...

The war in Iraq — Argue for or against the so-called Bush Doctrine of sowing democracy throughout the world. Debate endlessly about whether the fragile democracy in Iraq will hold on its own, or whether our action has turned the war zone into an enormous terrorist training ground that didn’t exist before. We went in because Saddam Hussein had WMD’s (we do love our acronyms). But he didn’t. We were either lied to or our intelligence was tragically inept. So Saddam is sitting in a jail cell writing romance novels and eating Doritos, while Osama bin Laden lives free. The price of foreign oil has skyrocketed. And young Americans keep being blown to bloody pieces in the name of it all. Where’s the sense in that?

Stem cell research — Compassionate conservative Sen. Bill Frist, a physician who “examined” the vegetative Terri Schiavo by watching her on videotape, incorrectly declared that she was not brain dead, then helped lead a grotesquely cynical play to make theocratic political hay out of her family’s private tragedy, now returns to science in a stunning break from the White House’s religion-based position on stem cell research.

Frist, a lock-stepping opponent of the controversial research, has now thrown in with fellow Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who’s visibly disintegrating under the rigors of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and sees potential benefits from stem cell research for future sufferers of it and other intractable, deadly diseases. Frist has demonstrated both moral and political inconsistency. Naked political ambition is the only common-sense way to interpret that move.

The Karl Rove Affair — A reporter sits in jail for refusing to name the source of information she never published, while Bush political strategist and hatchet man Rove admits he was that source, and enjoys the support of a Republican president and congressional majority.

There seems to be little disagreement about whether Rove outed a covert CIA operative to punish her husband politically. Now the parsers on the right — many of the same upstanding folks who fought to have Bill Clinton impeached for his comical parsing, under oath, of a blow job — argue that Rove should neither be fired nor charged with a crime because the CIA agent wasn’t exactly on dangerous duty.

But wasn’t it wrong? At least as bad as fibbing about an Oval Office hummer? Wherever you stand politically, it’s hard not to see that Paine’s wisdom still holds. “[A] long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Makes sense to me.

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