"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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Friday, March 12, 2010

John Richardson's Response (Mar. 12)

Nice arguments, professor, but Osama Bin Laden also considers himself a counter-terrorist, just as Scott Roeder considers himself to be doing God's work and Ho Chi Minh thought that cutting off the heads of village chiefs in the south was necessary for the greater good of Vietnam. I guess the definition shifts with which side you're on, which was my point. But I have to say that I'm surprised that you find the race of those 620.000 dead so important. To me they're all people, and the deaths of white people are as lamentable as the deaths and suffering of the slaves, even if some of them were defending an evil system. My larger point, which seems to have angered you so, is nothing that would surprise Martin Luther King or Gandhi or the Quakers who went to jail rather than war - basic pacifism. You might note that I never answered the question myself, and I'm not sure I can give an honest answer at this historical remove. But I'm surprised that you, as a scholar, are so proud that you wouldn't even ask the question.


. . . And My Response

Thank you for your attentiveness and expedience.

Believe me, John, that comparison to Osama bin Laden is pretty much a worn-out shoe that never fit in the first place, although certain people keep trying to force it.

The argument that terrorists also think of themselves as counter-terrorists (or that "one man's hero is another man's terrorist" as people like to say) does not answer the immediate question of historical context. As I keep saying, Brown and his family, as well as others in their association, were in danger of their lives in Kansas in May 1856. Brown had no plots to kill, maim, or destroy people of the opposite political persuasion, and his correspondence clearly shows his optimism in late 1855 that the democratic process would bring victory to the free state side in Kansas. But in early 1856 the pro-slavery side, being the minority, asserted and initiated violence against free state people, most of whom were unarmed and looking to the federal government to protect them. Brown went to Kansas to protect his sons and their families, who had settled there; but he only took action when the threats became realized in real attacks on free state people. When he learned that a large group of invading, armed southerners were encamped in his vicinity and that some of his neighbors were collaborating with them to destroy his family (who were notable for their pronounced pro-black views, even among the free state people), he could not call the FBI, the local police, the sheriff, or any other constabulary. Those that existed were appointed by pro-slavery leaders and the law was in the hands of pro-slavery people, and there was no appeal to law despite the federal doctrine of "popular sovereignty."

I don't know how to present this in any more clear terms. The bin Laden/Brown parallel has little efficacy in historical terms, particularly in Kansas. O b L used terrorism to invade the U.S., regardless of his political claims, and mastermined a conspiracy to wreak destruction and murder of many people who were simply citizens of the nation he hates. He may believe U.S. citizens are his enemies because we pay taxes to the government, but O b L's victims are not the parallel of the John Brown's "victims" in Kansas. Those five men were conspiring with terrorists to identify and lead them to specific free state people with the intention of destroying them.

Even if one argued that Brown overreacted, that he need not have killed all five of these men, one must argue both morally and legally that the circumstances and context of this horrible episode are very atypical of the kind of "terrorist" episodes to which you have drawn comparison.

I commend and agree with your humanitarianism. The lives of white Civil War soldiers, North and South, were no less valuable than the lives of the black men and women who were enslaved. But again, I would argue that this is not simply about weighing the value of one mass of humanity over against another mass of humanity. I realize that the Civil War was not driven by northern moral stamina, that Lincoln would have kept blacks enslaved if it would have appeased southern leaders and prevented secession. But as John Brown realized, the nation as a whole had a problem that it could not shake off--the problem of slavery and its oppressive, destructive grip upon people of African descent. The problem of slavery had to be dealt with, not only if our nation was going to be consistent with its own claims, but because the institution of slavery was a great wrong. I don't think you'd disagree.

So I don't know why you're surprised that I would focus upon "race" distinction in this matter. That's the point of the problem of slavery. Let's just say that we could re-write history and have all the white soldiers stay home; the South secedes and Lincoln lets them go. Now, 620,000 people do not die in civil war. But over 3 millions continue in cruel slavery--men, women, and children, whose lives count as mere property, whose bodies are used, abused, and discarded, whose labor is perennially funneled into the pockets of their owners. This is not a matter of being overly focused on "race."

To put it another way: Yes, I believe that the loss of 620,000 soldiers' lives was worth the end of slavery. Not only because numerically the number of human beings who suffered under slavery over generations, men, women, and children, is far greater than 1 million, but because the fact of slavery was evil. It was, as John Wesley called it, "the sum of all villainies." I am not angry at you, but I am disappointed that an intelligent, well-meaning man with the benefit of history at his fingertips would not see the forest for the trees.

Even if one argues from a philosophical pacifist standpoint, as you now seem to be claiming, you are shamed by the historical testimony of the Society of Friends, who were pacifists, labored strenuously (when so many Christians worked so hard to preserve slavery!) to liberate enslaved people. Some of the most admiring letters that Brown received in jail were from Quaker pacifists who disagreed with his use of force but saw him as an admirable figure nonetheless.

Your expression of surprise is underwhelming, particularly since you want to retaliate by calling me "proud" (apparently because I accused you of hubris). But had you expressed yourself from a principled standpoint as a pacifist, I would have responded to you as such. You didn't let your readers know that you objected to Brown on the fundamental basis of being a pacifist. Nor did you mention in your comments on March 10. By the way, John Brown associated with a lot of Quakers and loved them dearly (hardly the attribute of a terrorist).

By the way, when you brand John Brown as a terrorist, you are also inadvertently putting those who support him in that same camp -- you are not only branding his admiring biographers as being pro-terrorist, but far more importantly, you are suggesting that the experience and understanding of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and generations of blacks who admired Brown as either purely subjective, or aligned with a pro-terrorist stance.

You seem to love to point out that I'm angry. I think you're really the angry one here. The amount of anger and resentment that flows from a certain segment of writers in this nation is fairly evident. The question is why are you all so angry at John Brown?


gtmagpie said...

Excellent, response, Lou. I appreciate the way you constructed the argument against this "terrorist" label of our man JB. It's what I and many of us have been saying for years. It's amazing how many people dismiss JB as a terrorist just the same as bin Laden based on what happened at Pottawatomie, as if that was the only thing that happened in the Kansas Civil War. Context matters.

Erden said...

Great response. Thank you.