"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Collateral Damage: Splinter Cell's "John Brown's Army"

I realize it is all in fun, but it is nevertheless unfortunate to say the least. In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell video game series, we have another case of popular culture skewing John Brown the abolitionist. In decades gone by, the slurring of Brown's persona for entertainment purposes has largely been accomplished by film makers and novelists. While notable historians have done significantly more to harm Brown's reputation in the academy, popular art has gone a long way in sustaining the notion of a violent, crazy John Brown in the mind of many people in the United States.

As if this were not enough, Clancy's video series has brought this prejudice into the 21st century by placing it in the hands of myriads of teens and young adults playing on PCs, X-Box, and Play Station.

According to Answers.com, Clancy's games feature an "American terrorist organization" called "John Brown's Army" (JBA). The JBA's founder and leader is the ruthless Emile Dufraisne, an "imposing figure with a shaved head and a Southern drawl," a villain convinced that he is "destined for greatness." Clancy's villain has killed police officers from his youth; he "despises the United States government, believing it to be corrupt, and feels the only way to achieve social change is through radical revolution."

While Clancy's Dufraisne is not a replica of John Brown the abolitionist, the fact that his organization is named "John Brown's Army" is strongly suggestive that any such "terrorist organization" in the U.S. must be ideologically linked to the real John Brown's legacy. Certainly Clancy thinks so.

Unfortunately, Clancy's fictional JBA will further add to the bias and misinformation that abounds in popular culture with respect to John Brown's legacy. Our John Brown was no "domestic terrorist." If anything, he was a counter-terrorist who protected his family and struck hard at the pro-slavery thuggery that abounded in Kansas in the mid-1850s. Clancy's JBA is a criminal organization, the fact of which will exacerbate older negative associations in the minds of young people and adults who know little or nothing about the abolitionist.

I wish someone would do a Play Station game about John Brown the abolitionist--you know, where he's the good guy for a change. He could be armed with a Colt revolver, a Sharp's rifle, and a pike. He could kick pro-slavery butt and bring an end to the racist regime by establishing a truly reformed U.S. democracy--a real one, based on egalitarian principle, not capitalism and pigmentocracy like the nation in which we live. That's a game I would buy.--LD


Kevin said...

Wonderful post and a dynamite all around theme for a blog. I am also interested in popular perceptions of the Civil War along with race and slavery. My blog is called Civil War Memory: www.civilwarmemory.typepad.com

ProseHack said...

hello. I was trying to find your email address, with no luck. So I'm hoping you moniter your comments!

I'm working on an essay/chapter about the religious views of Fred Douglass. I recall a book about the relationship b/t Brown and Frederick Douglass...but I cannot recall the title of it. I searched through your blogs to see if you had a posting on the two men's friendship, but found nothing.

Do you know of any such book? I am nearly losing my mind.

Thanks so much. I have enjoyed reading in your blog.

LD said...

Dear Kevin

Thank you for your kind remarks about my JB blog. I'll check out your civil war memory blog.--LD

Dear Prosehack

I'm not too swift at monitoring comments but found two on a recent entry, including yours.

The book I think you are trying to recall is John Stauffer's THE BLACK HEARTS of MEN. I would advise you to use it with caution and not as the last word. Stauffer is a very bright man, but he is not a good historian. His work on Brown is fraught with difficulties and problems, some of them due to his abuse of the historical record in order to make it justify his premise. He has Brown's religion all wrong. There are other works on Douglass that should help. My own impression is that he began as an evangelical but ended up somewhat more theologically liberal. I address the friendship of Brown and Douglass in my forthcoming book, John Brown--the Cost of Freedom. I am particularly interested in how Douglass stylized his autobiography to smooth over the rough edges of the hurt feelings and disappointment that existed between them at the end of Brown's life.

PS Did you ever see Waldo Martin Jr.'s THE MIND OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS?--LD

melchiar243 said...

I realize that it is over four years ago you made this blog, but I just wanted to point out one critical flaw with your analysis of the game Double Agent: Even though the full title is Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Clancy is barely involved in the creation of the games. He only lends his name and cashes his paycheck every now and again when Ubisoft comes out with a new Splinter Cell.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

Dear Melchiar243,

Wow, yes this was quite a while ago, but your point is worth noting for the sake of clarification.

Assuming you're correct, this only means Mr. Clancy is not directly to blame. The point itself still remains about the negative association reinforced by the character in the game. Furthermore, if Mr. Clancy is only lending his name and cashing the paycheck, on some level he is still accountable.