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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Don't Cry, Mr. Richardson, It's Not that I Dislike You, I Just Disagree With You

Last summer, a journalist named John H. Richardson interviewed Brown biographer David Reynolds for Esquire magazine (June 16, 2009). I took issue with Richardson's conclusions, publishing my criticisms along with the interview on this blog on July 11, 2009.

In response to my comments, which Richardson apparently read just the other day, he published a short rejoinder on a blog entitled Health Checkr on March 10, following his article about Barney Frank and the legalization of marijuana. His section devoted to me (in which he misspells my name as "DiCario") follows, with my responses interspersed in italics:

"You like Dislike Me, You really like Dislike Me!

Actually, Mr. Richardson, "I don't agree with you" does not automatically equal "I don't like you." I don't know you; I disliked what you wrote.

"Loving a vigorous debate and personal abuse as I do, I have come to rely on my many right-wing critics for my weekly dose of bile. so it was very exciting to open my Web browser yesterday and find myself attacked from the left!

Here again, Mr. Richardson, I did not attack you; I criticized your harsh, ill-studied remarks. Evidently, you"really dislike" John Brown (although I doubt you know much about him except what you've been told), which is why you misrepresented him in the post-interview section of your Esquire article.

Second, it is entirely your assumption that you were attacked "from the left," apparently because you believe that anyone who would take issue with your comments must be a card-carrying member of some Leftist organization. The fact is that I do not have a political perspective that comfortably fits in either one of the two political categories that are allowed to exist in this nation, namely "the right" or "the left." While the Left has been far more sensitive to black people's experience in this nation (and consequently more sensitive to John Brown, who died for black liberation), there are significant "doctrines" held by the Left that I do not accept--and which I actually oppose. If leftists agree with me, that's fine. Very few leftists have embraced me, being that I am an evangelical Christian (a term that is troublingly loaded in itself). If I agree with Leftists on certain points, that's also fine. But don't pigeon-hole me.

"My crime was comparing the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown to the “right to life” assassin Scott Roeder.

No, your error was in comparing John Brown to Scott Roeder. You reacted to my criticism in a hyperbolic manner, but showed no evidence of having read or understood my explanation as a biographer of John Brown. If you are guilty of a "crime" here, it is hubris.

". . . also, lamenting the 620,000 people who died in the Civil War. according to historian Louis DiCario, that makes me a racist. “What Richardson actually seems to be asking is: “Was ending the enslavement of black people worth a half-million white people’s lives?”

Now you're back-peddling. You did not simply lament the deaths of 620, 000 people; you asked a question that was loaded--"Was ending slavery worth 620,000 lives?" That question means either (1) your mind is a "tabula rasa" regarding U.S. history and you actually were asking Reynolds to give you an answer because you truly didn't know the answer yourself; or (2) you were implying that ending black enslavement might not have been qualitatively "worth it" in comparison to the casualties largely sustained by mostly white Civil War soldiers (of course lots of black soldiers died in the Civil War too, and you'll never read of a black Union veteran or a black historian asking the question that you posed to Dr. Reynolds). I didn't call you a racist, but I did infer that your judgment, in asking that question, put you in a position of appearing like one. I would never have asked Dr. Reynolds that question, and the fact that you did left you open to be criticized. Personally, I will be happy to assume that you are not a racist. You just didn't know what you were talking about.

". . . and I was wrong to call Brown a terrorist too. Although he dragged a farmer and his sons from their beds and watched as his raiding party hacked them to death with swords, he was actually a “counter-terrorist.”

Hello! That was the point of my rejoinder. Of course you were "wrong." Is being "wrong" something impossibly alien to your experience?

You were wrong in calling Brown a terrorist. I can make a case that his actions in Kansas were counter-terroristic. But again, you do not engage the argument, you only react to it in a snide manner. But let me try one more time:

If one draws a parallel between contemporary terrorism and territorial Kansas in 1856, the armed, lawless, and deadly force were the pro-slavery invaders that were afflicting the free state settlers, most of whom were defenseless and naively trusting of their lives to a pro-slavery federal government. In 1856, there was no reliable constabulary to protect free state people from terrorism; in May 1856, the Browns were apprised that they (being adamantly pro-black) were targeted by local pro-slavery neighbors collaborating with invading pro-slavery terrorists. There was no protection or appeal to protection for them. The Browns had to decide how they would act on their own behalf in the absence of any protection from law and order and with a high certainty that they were going to be attacked. Their decision was to "get the jump on" the conspirators. They did so.

This is not wishful thinking; the consensus of scholars (and I mean those who have made a studied analysis of Brown in Kansas) is far more sympathetic toward Brown than your hollow cliche' notion of "terrorist" allows. You are not only wrong in fact, you are also wrong because you make statements without adequate knowledge of what you're speaking of. Journalists have gotten away with doing this to Brown for many years, but your leash is not as long as you think.

"In DiCario’s [sic] honor (and Barney Frank’s and John Stuart Mill’s and all the victims of righteous causes), here’s the quote of the day: “There is in most of us an unreconstructed Southerner who will not accept domination as well as a benevolent despot who wants to mold others for their own good, to assemble them in such as way as to produce a comprehensive unit which will satisfy our own ambition by realizing some vision of our own; and the conflict between these two tendencies – which on a larger scale gave rise to the Civil War – may also break the harmony of families and cause a fissure in the individual.” – Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore

I guess I should thank you for the "honor" of Wilson's (yawn!) run-on tribute to the "unreconstructed Southerner"? (Talk about gore; I hope the rest of the book isn't so poorly written.) Still, Mr. Richardson, I am happy to say that I have no "unreconstructed Southerner" possessing my inner life; such a spirit so possessed the leaders of the South that they zealously drove hundreds of thousands of their own brothers and sons to a bloody death in the name of opposing "domination," while they were engaged in the business of dominating and exploiting millions of black people. Besides, weren't the original "unreconstructed Southerners" the first generation of the KKK?

Regardless, Mr. Richardson, let me assure you that this has nothing to do with not liking you. It's just that my inner John Brown is better than your inner "unreconstructed Southerner."

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