Law in Contemporary Society

An Extraordinary Man

-- By VanWheel - 16 May 2012

One of my favorite discussions in class this year was on the subject of John Brown. It didn’t make me feel particularly good about myself, or about us as a class, but I felt that it got the most vehement reaction from people. Was John Brown a hero? An extremist? A murderer? The fact that our class discussion focused most intensely on the violence of John Brown, rather than the goal (which no politically correct person would ever publically disagree with), made me realize something at once fascinating and disturbing: we are, as most people probably are, basically a mirror image of the North Thoreau was appalled by. I wondered at this, at what would make a group of people who almost universally agree that slavery was an unbearable and violent evil seek to find fault with a man who’d given his life fighting against it. As I thought through it, our reactions seemed to point to one uncomfortable possibility: shame.

I first encountered John Brown in an 11th grade US History class. We read a brief essay on John Brown, the focus of which was his extremism and the ineffectiveness of his campaign, and then we had a class debate about whether John Brown was a “madman.” Though I’d been assigned to the side defending him, I came away from that class with the distinct impression that John Brown had been a crazed and renegade religious fanatic. I met him again, however, in a political theory seminar my senior year of college and came away with a vastly different and more awed perception of Brown, influenced heavily by Thoreau, Douglass, and my professor. By the time we had our class discussion about Brown, my impression of Brown was of a man of unusual humility and compassion, strong and unbending moral conviction, and the courage to act on it; in essence, I understood John Brown to have been one of the few truly great men I’d ever heard about.

As a result, I was somewhat startled when our class immediately labeled Brown as an unacceptably violent and extremist vigilante. It struck me as surprisingly similar to the discussion we had in my high school class years ago, and I couldn’t help but remember how I’d thought similarly of Brown then. I read about him then and couldn’t help but think that he had to have been mad not to know that his campaign was ridiculous and doomed to fail. Now, I realize that’s probably in part because I understood very little about Brown or his mission. In larger part, however, it’s probably because I didn’t want to.

There is no question that John Brown was an extraordinary man, and I think it is probably his very extraordinariness that turns people, even those who agree with his cause, against him. It is hard not to agree that slavery was an inhumane and monstrous practice that had to be put to an end, and it is difficult to argue that the use of violence to do so was inappropriate, as the system was itself an extreme form of violence, and violence in the form of war, at one point total war, was the ultimate means to its destruction. Thus, it seems somehow incoherent to argue that Brown was wrong in his willingness to use violence when necessary to end slavery, especially as his acts were arguably no more illegal or contrary to the rule of law than the acts of Sherman in Georgia or the sedition laws during and following the war. So why does John Brown make us so uncomfortable? Why did he make so many of his anti-slavery counterparts squirm?

My guess is that the answer to both questions is the same. For both most northern anti-slavery activists and most of us today, I think John Brown reminds us of the unpleasant weakness of our own convictions. While most in the north during his time tolerated slavery as a doomed evil or at most wrote and campaigned against it, John Brown actually took action to directly end it, at least for the few souls he could himself rescue. John Brown saw not only a grave injustice, but a conscious and intolerable violence, and rather than turn away, John Brown did what most of us, with violence on a smaller scale, believe to be heroic and exemplary: he went to the defense of the victims of that violence. And as any one may do when necessary in the defense of another, he sometimes met that violence with violence of his own. For those in the north who looked away, or who condemned it with no actual action to end it, I imagine John Brown must have been a reminder of how little their grand convictions were actually worth to them; unlike most, for John Brown, his convictions were worth his very life.

In the same vein, though the obvious slavery of the past no longer exists (in that, while slavery does exist, at least in our country, it is not out-in-the-open for most of us), there are many other injustices that tend to make us similarly uneasy. There are the indeterminate detention of prisoners of “war” and the use of techniques that the international community universally agrees constitute torture. There is unbelievable poverty, often for those who were simply born into it, in the face of disparate and wasteful wealth. Yet, despite that fact that many of us feel that these injustices must be corrected, few of us seem to be acting. Instead, we head compliantly and proudly toward a future that we believe will make us wealthy, even if that future will sometimes force us to ignore our own prodding feelings of right and wrong. Thus, in the face of a man who was willing to die for his convictions, we shy away, because for few, if any, of us are our convictions worth even as much as the paycheck we would be given to abandon them.

This could have been put more simply. You are saying that Brown is condemned for his violence, because his integrity induces shame. The justice of his cause is undeniable, and the logic of condemning his violence is vexed at best, given the context. But his willingness to resort to force is a sufficiently convenient basis for dismissing what would otherwise be a distressing example of an integrity which we cannot bring ourselves to imitate, and—as Thoreau was neither the first nor the last to note—a Christianity that Christians can neither reject nor accept without internal conflict.

So Brown disturbs us. You have shown why. Now it remains to transcend that disturbance, not by dismissing our compromising selves, nor by dismissing the parts of our own nature that do aspire to his rectitude and uncompromising faith. The failure you experience when you think about the conversation is the failure that comes from dismissing Brown in order to suppress internal conflict, rather than welcoming Brown as a medium for accepting our internal conflict, and learning to integrate our selves, militant and moderate, steadfast and ductile, into a larger and more capable self.


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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:20 - IanSullivan
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