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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, May 24, 2012

Getting Bob’s Goat--
Professor Greene Hates John Brown—But Why?

These days, it is always a point of annoyance when ill read, ignorant idiots with no sense of history take to bashing John Brown on the Internet.  Typically this type functions from family and community prejudices, mixed with a smattering of skewed facts and information amounting to cultural hearsay.  They are easily dismissed and more easily ignored.  If one takes time to swat every one of these flies, it only takes up valuable time better spent on research.  But it is quite another thing when knowledgeable, well respected, and learned scholars engage in anti-Brown vitriol.  When scholars, especially historians, make it their ambition to attack John Brown, their credentials and professional authority tend to add weight to their caustic remarks, even if they are as malignant and unworthy as those coming from Internet trolls.

Introducing Dr. Bob

Recently, the latter case has become evident in the person of Professor John Robert Greene, who apparently prefers being called “Bob.”  Bob Greene’s published vita is impressive: he is the Paul J. Schupf Professor of History and Humanities and Professor of History and Government, and Director of the Social Sciences Program at Cazenovia College “a small, independent, coeducational college offering baccalaureate programs in the liberal arts and professional studies” in Cazenovia, New York.  He is also the college archivist.  Bob Greene has a Ph.D. from Syracuse University and is a veteran professor, having taught at Cazenovia College for over thirty years.  By all accounts, he specializes in U.S. political history and is an authority on the U.S. Presidency, and seems to be an expert on Republican presidents.  He is the winner of numerous awards and undoubtedly deserves such recognition, given such a long and distinguished career, which includes having been a “talking head” on various television programs and documentaries.  He’s even a Knight of Columbus.

Dr. Bob: That "F"'n John Brown 

But Bob has a problem, and it’s called John Brown.  Based on what I have heard, Bob hates John Brown, and it really gets his goat when anyone says anything nice about him.  In fact, Bob is one of these academics who will use literally any moment of opportunity to attack the Abolitionist.  By his own admission, he gives John Brown the "F" grade every chance he gets.

Clearly, Dr. Bob knows little in reality about John Brown, except for what he’s read from all the wrong sources

In 2007, I was honored to be selected as the presenter of John Brown’s induction into the National Abolition Hall of Fame (NAHOF), and was happy to stand in support and defense of his place in that wonderful establishment honoring the freedom loving men and women who fought against chattel slavery in the United States.  However, I understand from NAHOF’s founder and director, Dot Willsey, who informed me by correspondence, “Dr. Greene gave NAHOF ‘an F’ for inducting Brown in 2007.”  I recall hearing about this failing grade from Dr. Bob, but disregarded it at the time.  I have come to learn that the “F” given by Dr. Bob apparently was given as part of his role as a panelist on “The Ivory Tower,” an educational television show broadcast on WCNY in Syracuse, N.Y., a PBS affiliate station. According to Willsey, “individual NAHOF board members responded to Greene in 2007,” but he did not have the courtesy to reply.  His snubbing of responses from NAHOF members seems to suggest Dr. Bob is stubbornly ensconced in his opinion of Old Brown, and may not want his opinions to be troubled by the facts of history.   Not a particularly flattering profile, given the man’s credentials.

More recently, Dr. Bob let another one blow, once again on “The Ivory Tower” program, broadcast on April 20, 2012, which you may observe below.  I have provided a link to the WCNY website and this episode here, but readers should note that none of the program discussion pertains to John Brown—only the half-minute toward the end of the program when Dr. Bob gets to hand out his “grade," which you can see below.   

Of course, Dr. Bob has given out another “F,” this one provoked by the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark organization sending out E-mailed information regarding the John Brown Day 2012,  which was held in Lake Placid, N.Y.   What really got Bob’s goat is that the E-mail referred to the John Brown Farm (where the Abolitionist and most of his Harper's Ferry raiders are interred) as “a sacred shrine, a place of conscience.”  Then, drawing from his vast knowledge of antebellum history and Brown biography, Dr. Bob says of Brown—“. . .who, on his own, carved up six kids, and threw their bodies in the Pottawatomie Creek.”    Then he concludes, “If we’re going to have a sacred shrine for this terrorist, maybe we ought to have sacred shrines for other terrorists as well.”

First, I've got to say that the video scared me--scared me for Dr. Bob.  He really needs to relax and (like we tell our six-year-old) take a woosa.  Breathe, Dr. Bob.  You’ll have plenty of opportunity to bash John Brown.  For you it’s a lifetime endeavor.

Second, Dr. Bob’s remark, that John Brown, “on his own, carved up six kids,” almost made me split a gut.  I actually had to laugh because this is exactly the kind of thing that happens when anti-Brown rhetoric is spewed by academics--only they usually do it with academic flourish and rigmarole, typically in serious discussions about terrorism and political violence, and so forth.  In essence, Dr. Bob did the same thing by presenting a distorted caricature of Brown’s role as a so-called "terrorist."  But he did so like an angry schoolboy, with skewed facts and all.
Of course, we are accustomed to the manner in which people often make a beeline to the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856
Of course, we are accustomed to the manner in which people often make a beeline to the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856.  Almost everyone who knows John Brown’s name knows about the Pottawatomie killings—as if the only thing that he did was kill five people in Kansas and then mess up at Harper’s Ferry.  This tendency is not only typical of popular presentations, but tends to characterize the one-sided commentary of journalists, writers, and historians who present the incident as a terrorist episode.  The unfortunate “John Brown’s Holy War” video of PBS fame does this, and despite claims to the contrary, Tony Horwitz’s recent portrayal of the episode hardly improves on the subject, especially since he chooses to overlook what other historians have written about the Pottawatomie killings in favor of a less sympathetic interpretation of the incident.   What we do know about the Pottawatomie killings is that the five men killed were acting as agents of invading proslavery terrorists and intended to bring down a violent assault upon the Brown family.  We know that Brown and other free state people became aware of their plot, that Brown made careful investigation  (even surveillance) of the suspects, and confirmed their plot.  Finally, we know that there was no recourse to protection from local or federal law enforcement in May 1856; the territory was in a state of war and what authorities were in the territory tended to support the invading proslavery interests.  Brown and others knew this and made a crisis decision to knock out these conspirators before they made good their intentions.  No other proslavery men were killed other than the ones proven as conspirators. 

Clearly, Dr. Bob knows little in reality about John Brown, except for what he’s read from all the wrong sources.  In all fairness, he seems to have wanted to say that John Brown and his men, acting independently, killed five men—not six, and not “kids,” as all five of the men that were killed were adults, two of them being young adults.  Dr. Bob is wrong, too, that the bodies of these men were thrown in the Pottawatomie Creek.  No bodies were thrown into the creek.

Lastly, it’s significant that Dr. Bob is so smug and dismissive of Brown, calling him a “terrorist.”  This is the part where Bob is less laughable and more disgusting, because his prejudice shows as contempt, even hatred.  He shows himself mean-spirited and harsh, and he hands out a failing “grade” like some bloated, self-important Pharisee.  Here is a man with no evident knowledge or research on John Brown under his belt, no specialization in the subject, except perhaps in some aspects of Lincoln studies.

He shows himself mean-spirited and harsh, and he hands out a failing “grade” like some bloated, self-important Pharisee

But Dr. Bob’s vita probably serves us here.  This is a man who has spent most of his professional career studying right-wing Presidential administrations, including that of the regretful presidency of George W. Bush.  His head is full of Nixon, Ford, and Bush, and perhaps this life-long inclination has dulled his senses toward the history of actual leaders of human rights and liberation movements.  Of course, just because a man studies racially prejudiced and mediocre historical figures does not mean he thinks like them.  But it is a point that must be considered, that Dr. Bob’s contempt for John Brown is not simply the result of a simplistic prejudice.  He is too smart and talented to hate the Old Man because he watched one bad television documentary.  It is more likely that what’s got Dr. Bob’s goat is a deep seated political prejudice--or at least an instinct toward contempt of things that run against the grain of the political landscape that he adores. 

Dr. Bob has a comfortable place for himself at a fine school, and I wish him the best throughout the duration of his long service.  However, I take comfort in the fact that Dr. Bob has a finite number of “F”s to hand out before he too becomes part of history--another folder in the school archives.  Before he is finally filed away himself, I hope that Dr. Bob will awaken to the realities of history as well as the movement of historical currents away from old, white supremacist interpretation of John Brown and toward an understanding of the past where we actually regret oppression and value the men and women who fought against prejudice and racism.  The future is represented in NAHOF’s understanding of the past, not in George W. Bush’s reading of the present.  If Dr. Bob fails to apprehend this fact, it will be his legacy that is ultimately graded "F."

No, Dr. Bob: John Brown’s Farm is a shrine to freedom and a place of conscience. But one has to have a real historical conscience and a love for freedom to realize it. 

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