History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Friday, October 29, 2010

The Bigger Picture
And Just Who is the "Enemy Within"?

While we are appreciative that the Interpretive Services Manager, Richard Cooper, has cooperated in revising the problematic and offensive description of his John Brown presentation, the bigger picture needs to be addressed.  The bigger picture is that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) in Cincinnati, is hosting an exhibit entitled, "The Enemy Within: Terror in America--1776 to Today." 

The exhibit, which opened on September 11th and runs through February 6, 2011, originates from The Spy Museum, a Washington D.C. institution that celebrates and studies the origin, development, and function of surveillance, evidently with a particular focus on the present global and technological realities, including counter-terrorism.  According to the exhibit page on the NURFC website, "The Enemy Within" reveals nine major events and periods in U.S. History when Americans were threatened by enemies within its borders."  In so doing, the exhibit purports itself to depict "how the government and public responded, illustrating the corresponding evolution of the U.S. counterintelligence and homeland security efforts, and examining the challenge of securing the nation without compromising the civil liberties upon which it was founded."

Of course, the question is why a lecture on John Brown would be scheduled following a presentation entitled, “Before and After: Domestic Terrorism in America.”  According to the NURFC description, J. Michael Rhyne will present a discussion “focused on the connections between the terrorism experienced by Americans and in America today and the legacy of terrorism experienced throughout our country’s history.”  And get this: “Focusing particularly on events before and after the Civil War, this program is a case study through which we can understand domestic terrorism and it’s effects on Americans.”

I agree with Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, a biographer of Harriet Tubman and professor at Wheelock and Simmons Colleges, “This is more troubling than imagined” [Electronic mail, Larson to Libby, 29 October 2010, 6:47].  Larson subsequently writes: “I wonder if they include the firing on Fort Sumter by South Carolina as the start of 4 years of "domestic terrorism".  Certainly the Confederate States were "The Enemy Within" the United States of America in 1861-1865” [Electronic mail, Larson to Libby, 29 October 2010, 9:29].  True enough, but not being able to attend the exhibit, I thought it would be important to ascertain the nature of “The Enemy Within,” and particularly whether John Brown is portrayed as part of the exhibit. 

JB: Whose Enemy?
After a quick search on the internet, I discovered that “The Enemy Within” is not a new exhibit, and has been around for over five years and traveled around the country to places like Oklahoma and Minnesota.  The Minnesota Historical Society particularly provides the following helpful synopsis of the exhibit:

“Visitors then follow a pathway through the nine historic events. Highlights include:

•            Revolution: 1776 – 1890 A display shows the burning of the White House, Capitol and other public buildings during the War of 1812, emphasizing how a small group of Americans helped the British capture the city.
•            Sabotage: 1914 – 1918 Historic film footage shows the attempts of firefighters to extinguish the blaze after German secret agents, aided by American collaborators, blew up a munitions depot in New York Harbor.
•            Hate: 1866 – Present A floor-to-ceiling image of the 1925 Ku Klux Klan march through Washington, D.C. . . visitors . . . learn about the repeated rise and fall of the nation’s oldest hate group.
•            Radicalism: 1886 – 1924 Visitors learn about radical immigrant laborers and anarchists who used bombs and guns to fight for workers’ rights, and the government counter-measures including roundups, detention and deportation.
•            World War: 1939 – 1945 Graphic panels and a replica of a plane’s tail section retell the story of a Japanese pilot who, after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor, terrorized the remote Hawaiian island of Niihau with the aid of a Japanese-American.
•            Subversion: 1938 – 1956 Visitors enter a 1950s FBI office and explore the actions citizens and the government took to confront a perceived communist threat during the “Red Scare.”
•            Protest: 1969 - 1981 Large photomurals depict protests during the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. Historic film footage of protests and the FBI’s response is mixed with a recent interview with a member of the 1960s extremist group Weather Underground about acts of violence undertaken to challenge government authority and policies.
•            Extremism: 1980 – Present The Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil in the 20th century is explored.
•            Terrorism: 1980 – Present Visitors enter a theater to watch “Under Siege,” an eight-minute film exploring the terrorist threat today, initiatives by the U.S. government to root out terrorist elements in the U.S., the balance between civil liberties and national security, and the impact of these initiatives on the daily lives of Americans

After reading this it was no surprise that Ken Ringle, a contributor to The Washington Post, wrote about “The Enemy Within” as a confusing, blurring exhibit:

Ambitious in conception and frustratingly fuzzy in execution, "The Enemy Within: Terror in America -- 1776 to Today" at the International Spy Museum manages to confuse as much as it clarifies. . . . Unfortunately, "The Enemy Within" muddies the issue from the start, not only by failing to define "terrorism" but by lumping it with all sorts of other questionable activities, from espionage and subversion to political radicalism.
"Terrorism" as whatever makes
(white) Americans "uneasy"?
While this exhibit may sound interesting, it evidently is a ham-handed and sloppy treatment.  As Ringle concluded, the result of “The Enemy Within” is that “visitors may leave with the impression that terrorism is whatever makes one uneasy.”

And here’s the rub.  Much of the “terrorism” discussion as forced upon the John Brown story is often precisely about what makes a large number of white people “uneasy.”  Conversely, what does not upset or disturb the sensibilities of the majority is not considered terrorism.  Thus Prof. Kate Clifford Larson writes:

[Associating John Brown with terrorism] is a reflection of just how pervasive ignorance about the history of slavery and the pursuit of freedom really is in this country. When a place like the Freedom Center describes a talk about John Brown -- John Brown! -- as a terrorist, when that place is supposed to educate the public about the several hundreds of years of "domestic terrorism" against people of African descent speaks to the continuing domination of a neo-Confederate perspective on slavery and the causes of the Civil War. [Electronic mail, Larson to Libby, 29 October 2010, 6:39]

Obviously, we could not agree with her more.  Nor should we be surprised that “The Enemy Within” includes Brown’s activities in Kansas and the Harper’s Ferry raid.  According to a description of this exhibit on the website, Freedom 2.0 Distributed Democracy, “The Enemy Within” includes a “timeline that traces over 80 acts of terror [my emphasis] that have taken place in the U.S. from the 1776 to today, including the Revolutionary War plot to kidnap George Washington, the events of Bloody Kansas prior to the Civil War, John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry, 1960s Church bombings in the South, and the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.” 
There are two issues here: the first is a tendency toward sloppiness and sensationalism. . . . The other is a tendency to focus on the experience and perception of the majority population, thus defining “terror” according to a conventional reading of U.S. history.
Evidently, there are two issues here: the first is a tendency toward sloppiness and sensationalism, which allows a variety of episodes and incidents to be bunched together under a broad range of themes—the only common denominator apparently being that all of them involve violence, regardless of the political issues.  The other is a tendency to focus on the experience and perception of the majority population, thus defining “terror” according to a conventional reading of U.S. history.  While the exhibit includes the notorious bombing of black churches in the Civil Rights era and the KKK is presented as “the nation’s oldest hate group,” it is nevertheless defined by what white society considers hate and terror.  While we agree that the Klan is a “hate group,” this overlooks the bigger problem of racist hatred and oppression throughout history—namely, that African Americans views much of the nation’s history as reflecting “hate group” thinking and behaviors.  The preponderance of racist abuse, from slavery, to segregation, to the daily indignities and injustices of systemic racism suggest that in U.S. history, the real “hate group” afflicting African Americans is much larger than the KKK.  

The last point to be made about this exhibit is that “The Enemy Within” is intended to show how these events influenced the "evolution" of "U.S. counterintelligence,” and “the challenge of securing the nation without compromising the civil liberties upon which it was founded." 

FBI's Hoover: Black
People's "Enemy Within"  
The inherent flaw of this premise is the notion that counterintelligence, surveillance and other “security” measures were developed only in the face of real violence and radical danger threatening the nation.  This is not the case, particularly as it is a matter of historical record that the surveillance community in the 20th century cut its teeth and honed its skills by spying on and undermining activists and organizations that represented peaceful, constructive, political alternatives as well as those that were critical of white supremacy.  Consider what a young J. Edgar Hoover did to destroy black nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey, or what he did in later years to attack and undermine Martin Luther King Jr.  The truth is that while the surveillance community and federal constabularies have done the hard work of protecting this nation, they have also worked over time to destroy any group perceived as being  “extremist,” “leftist,” “communist,” or “radical.”  The definition of these terms had nothing to do with whether surveillance targets were criminals or violent terrorists, but whether they held to politically and socially unacceptable views according to Hoover and right-wing "America."

Primo Spy Allan Pinkerton
Helped John Brown in Chicago
As far as John Brown is concerned, in his day he was tracked by “Uncle Sam’s Hounds,” as he described federal marshals in the late 1850s.  But there was no FBI or surveillance community in place in the antebellum era, and using pseudonyms, disguises, and coded communication worked quite well for him in the pre-telephone era.  Yet is evident that he was not considered a "terrorist" by anti-slavery folks, even if they believed him "monomania on the subject of slavery." Indeed, Brown was actually supported by the progenitor of U.S. intelligence, Allan Pinkerton, who assisted Brown in smuggling black fugitives through Chicago en route for Canada in early 1859.  I doubt this fact is included in “The Enemy Within,” just as I doubt that this exhibit identifies the larger problem of slavery and the ultimate territorial war that was waged upon Native Americans—neither of which were concerned with “compromising the civil liberties” upon which this nation was supposedly founded.  [rev. 30 Oct 2010--LD]

No comments: