Wednesday, December 02, 2009

John Brown, Terrorist

No one, and I mean no one, can question my bona fide disgust and disdain for the Confederacy and everything it stood for.

But as I've said before, John Brown was a terrorist. I don't care that slavery was extraordinarily evil. Well, I do care. But it doesn't mean that John Brown's actions were justified at Harper's Ferry or at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas where he and his sons hacked five pro-slavery settlers to death.

We certainly should not honor Brown today. Tony Horwitz (author of the amazing Confederates in the Attic among other books) agrees, noting that John Brown was basically the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed of his day. Hell, they even kind of look alike. To me, the more apt comparison though is Eric Rudolph. You say John Brown is OK, you say murder of abortion providers is OK.

Does that seem too extreme? I don't think so. It's saying that violent action, even treason, is completely justified if the cause is moral enough. Who is likely to use that message today? Randall Terry and other anti-abortion radicals. They already view themselves as akin to extreme abolitionists.

You might say that our judgment of Brown should rely entirely upon the cause. Maybe. But each generation reinterprets history for its own use. And I am scared of anti-abortion terrorism.

Regardless of the merits of my arguments, David Reynolds' judgments of Brown's plans are questionable.

First, the plan was not absurd. Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

Um, no. The plan was totally insane. While Appalachia might be a good place for a guerrilla war, there was no groundwork laid with slaves, nor did Brown have any way to sustain his rebellion. And it's not like West Virginia was exactly pro-black, even as they hated secession and the Virginia elites.

We usually associate Civil War memory in the modern context with right-wing forces and crazy people. Neo-Confederates care a lot more about the war than northerners. Conservatives care more than liberals. But the left has a Civil War memory as well. Michael Tomasky, among others, agrees with Reynolds, arguing

Brown was messianic, and maybe a little bit loony. But he had slavery pretty much pegged. On balance America would have been a hell of lot better off if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had had a little Brown in them.
I suspect much of the left feels this way. But I hope we can think through our admiration for anyone who hated slavery enough to attack the federal govenrment and consider the larger implications of remembering John Brown today. Also, to say Brown was "maybe a little bit loony" is like using the same words to describe Charles Manson.

It's hard to criticize Brown. He actually wasn't racist, which is remarkable for 1859. He hated slavery, the most evil thing in our history. He acted upon his convictions. But how he did it is far beyond the pale. Honoring Brown would be counterproductive.