"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, January 07, 2015

Ad Nauseam--
Another "Terrorist" Shrieker and the Guelzo Connection

Tracy Moran thinks JB is
"America's Favorite Terrorist"
This morning I was disappointed to read another "John Brown Terrorist" piece on a website called OZY, in a well-intended piece by author Tracy Moran.  The article, "America's Favorite Terrorist," is short and skewed, but largely because Moran is clearly drawing from the poisoned well of Allen C. Guelzo, one of the foremost and prolific Lincoln scholars of our day.

In this case, I  would not primarily blame Moran, who probably just read something by Guelzo and got a bright idea for a blog piece.  She seems to lack the historical grounding to make any knowledgeable assessment, except that a gun in the hand of child is no less dangerous.  Her treatment of Brown as this nation's "favorite terrorist" is still an ignorance that cannot be overlooked.

The link for her little article is here (or here: http://www.ozy.com/flashback/americas-favorite-terrorist/38373).  You can also read my response, which I will not republish here.  In summary, let me just say that her piece is one of those typically skewed rants--you know, "Brown was a failure in everything, he was a terrorist, and  extremism is never good."  Her piece apparently makes sense inside the bubble in which she selectively understand Brown, but otherwise lacks no sense of the history, context, or political realities that Brown and the abolitionist movement faced--and more so, the reality that black people faced.  The bigger problem is that Moran uses Guelzo has her historical compass, which is always a mistake when it regards Brown.   Guelzo is not just unqualified in speaking of Brown; I believe he's actually prejudiced against him.

Before I continue, I should say that I personally regard Dr. Guelzo and do not want to be unduly harsh toward one who merits both professional respect and (in my case) the regard inherent in Christian relationships.  He is doubtless a man of notable accomplishments and abilities.  Guelzo is a leading scholar, prolific author, and one who shares a similar orientation with mine--that is (based upon Wikipedia), he is a man with a background in biblical and theological training, and he brings this into his reading of 19th century history.  This is important, especially since so many historians of the Civil War era today either reduce the study to military history, or speak from the predominant secularism of academy, and thus tend to view the era of Brown and Lincoln in only political and social terms.
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo

Notwithstanding this commonality, I have "ought against" Dr. Guelzo, who seems to loathe John Brown.  I have not attended closely to his work, but every time I catch even a snippet of something he's written about the Old Man, it has been of the most questionable and prejudiced sort.  In this sense, he seems to be of the old 20th century stripe of Civil War scholars, the kind that JB aficionado Boyd Stutler mocked as "scientific historians."

The question is, why does Guelzo so disdain John Brown?  I can only conclude that his politics and view of history--especially his view of Lincoln--must be inherently hostile to Brown.  I'm not sure what is first in the man, his politics or his devotion to Lincoln, but regardless, he understands that in order to elevate Lincoln, John Brown must be suppressed.

In this case, he is correct.  Despite the old school Republican and "Nixonian" tendency to see Lincoln as Jesus, and Brown as John the Baptist, the reality is the two men represent different positions--Lincoln, a benign form of white supremacy, and Lincoln, a radical and evangelical egalitarianism.

The facts of history are clear: in order to elevate the Lincoln "religion" that has predominated in this nation for over a century, John Brown's historical presence must be depreciated, diminished, and even denigrated.  Why?  Because Lincoln was NEVER as devoted to black freedom and equality as the "American myth" has made him out to have been.  Douglass said it in the 19th century, DuBois affirmed it in the early 20th century, and in more recent years, Lerone Bennett Jr. laid bare the real Lincoln in his despised tour-de-force, Forced into Glory.   The real Abraham Lincoln cannot fill the shoes of mythical "Great Emancipator."  So if the latter is going to be protected and preserved in the civil religion of our culture, John Brown must be banished to the margins of history.   And this is the role that Guelzo in no small part has played as a historian.

Let me reiterate: The record of Lincoln as the hero of emancipation and equality is a well tailored myth, and the fabric that has been cut away in shaping this myth involves the truth of Lincoln's racism, his failure to prioritize black freedom, and the meaning of John Brown according to the real facts of history.

So Dr. Guelzo, whether with malice aforethought or simply by instinct of his nature as a Lincoln idealist, knows that to appreciate Brown is to threaten Lincoln's apotheosis.   If Lincoln is to remain the "Great Emancipator" in the gospel of "American" civil religion, then Brown must be the fanatic, the terrorist, the dangerous extremist.

. . . if John Brown is seen in the light of history as the man he was in fact, Lincoln shrinks--he is a politician more concerned with white priorities, preservation of the Union, and only a moderate commitment to black people's concerns at best.  
But if John Brown is seen in the light of history as the man he was in fact, Lincoln shrinks--he is a politician more concerned with white priorities, preservation of the Union, and only a moderate commitment to black people's concerns at best.

If you think I'm overdoing it, this April is the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln.  This is the time for men like Guelzo to put on their high priestly robes and light up the incense.

Of course, this is but another reminder that to be a student and admirer of John Brown means we are constantly engaged in a conflict that others do not have to deal with.  The worst opponents of the John Brown community are not the neo-Confederates and other right-wing racists who make a pretense at doing history.

Our worst opponents are the Lincoln worshipers, who despise John Brown because he represents the radical nature of the antislavery struggle, the real sensibility of the oppressed, and a willingness to question even the prerogatives of white supremacy in the quest for justice.

1 comment:

Ian M said...

Thank you for this piece.