"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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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reading Between the Lines--
John Brown as Straw Man: The Case of Col. Patrick Lang

Fairly often, some blogger or journalist pulls out the John Brown straw man to make some point that typically has no relation to the historical fact.  Let some dubious fanatic blow up a government building or burn a Qur’an and some bloggers go wild with references to Brown.   It’s almost standard practice of the mainstream white male mentality in the U.S.  The latest case is Col. W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior officer of the U.S. Military Intelligence and the Special Forces.  Lang has an entry, "John Brown Comes Again" in his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis (which is the motto of Virginia, the Old Dominion).

Primarily, I’m not interested in the point of Lang’s politics.  He raises the John Brown straw man in some ongoing discussion about “the darlings of the Republican Party” and the use of “American exceptionalism” as an excuse for funding modern empire.  He is evidently concerned about the impact of “Dominionism,” a kind of conservative, neo-Manifest Destiny with individualized and political implications (depending on whether it's being taught by a televangelist or a right-wing politician).  Col. Lang is particularly resentful of the “Dominionism” of the religious right, which portray themselves and the U.S. as “the last best hope.” Although in this case I think he has a point, I take issue with his historical application and think it is very revealing.

First, in reaction to right-wing Christian “Dominionism,” he writes: “My Puritan Massachusetts and Connecticut ancestors believed crap like that at first and then they did not.  My people moved on west to get away from the Dominionists.”  Well, sir, this is only partly true.  In all fairness, your Puritan ancestors deserve a bit more consideration.  They did not come to North America with a dominionist agenda per se--at least not the agenda that you're attributing to this ilk of the G.O.P.  Puritans came with the intention of establishing a thoroughly Protestant society free of Roman Catholic influences in church and state, and they came with the intention of making a positive example for England ("a city on a hill").  It is true that their legacy unfolded in ways expansionist and dominionist, but the Puritan legacy not only produced oppression, but also abolitionism and advocacy for human rights based on biblical principles.  So balance the books.

Although Lang appeals to the popular straw man Brown at Pottawatomie (the facts of which itself he seems to be clueless), it bears mentioning that Brown valued the aspects of his Puritan ancestry that pertained to human rights and the equality of all people under God.  He was hardly the archetype of the present day religious right-wingers who are spouting dominionist rhetoric.  In fact, he was opposed to people in his own day that expressed such a political agenda.  Brown was never a Republican, and certainly not a hyper-nationalist in any sense.  Using him in this way is historically illicit.

Furthermore, Col. Lang not only generalizes the beliefs of his Puritan ancestors as “crap,” but seems to believe that some of them “moved on west to get away from the Dominionists.”  Really, Col. Lang?  To the contrary, most of Lang's "people” actually went west to extend the social and political norms of the older section of the nation.  About the only people who “moved on west to get away from the Dominionists” were of the John Brown stripe.  Consider Kansas Territory and the fact that most “free state” settlers were also racists who didn’t want blacks to settle there.  These “anti-slavery” whites were struggling with pro-slavery whites who wanted to bring blacks into Kansas as slaves.  The only folks who went west in the 1850s “to escape Dominionism” were abolitionists like John Brown’s family!  Col. Lang should be more careful with history.   Using John Brown as a whipping boy is an inclination of of a certain mind set, including the well-decorated and prestigious tools of the federal government.  

Col. Lang reveals himself finally and fully in his closing remarks: “They hanged John Brown in Harper's Ferry?  I wish I had been there.” 

Here, Col. Lang. Eat Your Heart Out
Of course, had Lang been a soldier in 1859 instead of the 20th century, he would very likely have encircled Brown’s gallows and found a great measure of delight in his death.  But in a real sense, Lang was there.   To use the old King James Version phrase, he was present at the hanging of Brown “in the loins” of his forefathers.  His blog is entitled “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” not only the motto of Virginia but also the words exclaimed by John Wilkes Booth after he murdered Abraham Lincoln.  And just like Lang, the murderous Booth wished to be present at Brown’s hanging, and donned a militia uniform in order to get in the front row.  

Obviously, Col. Lang is closer to Brown’s killers than even he realizes.

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