It was interesting last night during the debate at one point, John McCain brings up Barack Obama's relationship with '60s radical William Ayres; and then, Barack Obama brings up McCain's relationship with John Brown at Harper's Ferry. . . I thought, 'wow!'" [mild applause]Obviously the joke was intended to target Sen. McCain's advanced age as a presidential candidate. Nor is the Brown-Ayres comparison sound in historical and political terms. (Although I am always hesitant to accept what the media or politicians tell me about a "radical.") We will never know what Brown would think of Prof. Ayres, given the differences between them in time, presupposition, and political context. It has always been the inclination of "radicals" to identify themselves with Brown when they take unpopular and extreme measures, undoubtedly because his strong integrity and moral heroism remain undeniable in our national memory despite the empty rhetoric of prejudiced critics. As for Prof. Ayres, I would not use this blog either to condemn or praise him in the context of John Brown. He must answer for his actions before history and ultimately before the Judge of all the earth, Who is certainly neither "radical," conservative, nor liberal.
Regardless, Mr. Letterman's monologue joke had a certain historical resonance that most of his viewers probably missed. Whether intentionally or not, the joke marked the event--reminding us that even in jest, John Brown's action in opposition to tyranny and injustice cannot be forgotten by this nation. Even when overlooked by "serious" thinkers amidst a presidential race, Brown's work inevitably wafted up with the stirring breeze of a yet another cool October evening. What Mr. Letterman himself knows or thinks of Brown is unclear, but his humorous little footnote about Harper's Ferry was not missed--at least by Brown's direct descendant. Without obvious intention, the Late Show host invoked this nation's most controversial "good guy" on the very anniversary of his effort to overthrow slavery.
Whether or not you believe it, John Brown's soul is marching on.