"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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Saturday, October 25, 2008


David Letterman's Historical Footnote

I almost missed it, but John Brown's own great-great-great-granddaughter sent out an email mentioning that she had heard David Letterman mention her famous ancestor during his monologue. As it turns out, not only was she correct, but it happened that Mr. Letterman referred to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry on the 149th anniversary of that epic event, October 16. During the monologue of his popular Late Show, Mr. Letterman made this joke:
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.

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