Friday, May 9, 2008

Choices 2

Recycling another old column.

I recently read “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” by David S. Reynolds. This cultural biography is primarily a book of history which examines Brown’s actions in the context of his times, but it also raises questions of conscience vs. law, the individual vs. government, and violence vs. nonviolence.


Brown’s actions included leading a group in the murder of five pro-slavery Kansans who had threatened anti-slavery settlers, and a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry which resulted in the death of innocent men. That would certainly qualify Brown as a terrorist to many people, but the book’s subtitle also indicates why he’s considered a hero by others. He was also one of the very few non-racists of his time.


Even Southerners who hated his ideas and actions came to admire Brown’s integrity while he awaited trial and execution. Thoreau, whose essay on civil disobedience was an inspiration of Gandhi’s nonviolence campaign, was an ardent supporter of Brown’s violence in light of the government’s endorsement of slavery. Emerson, in a speech entitled “Courage,” compared Brown to Christ, saying that Brown’s hanging would “make the gallows glorious like the cross.”


I come from a part of the country with a long tradition of individuals breaking laws they considered unjust and I’m proud of it: not only the Transcendentalists, but the Boston Tea Party and ensuing American Revolution, and the Underground Railroad. Obeying an unjust law or government is not the highest good.


The past two presidential elections have had highly questionable results (or Kennedy-Nixon in 1960—I’m not playing the political game) and yet we shrug our shoulders and watch our TV shows. As long as we have new stuff to buy, it’s OK. We might even raise our voices a little as long as it doesn’t threaten our middle-class lifestyles.


People around the world shake their heads at our acceptance of anything. But truthfully, how to resist? How would Brown succeed today in his cross-country fundraising from some of the most famous men of his time? What would be his chances with a plan that involved hiding in the mountains in a time of spy satellites and heat sensors?


More than Brown’s actions, it was his words and demeanor, widely reported in the press while he was in prison, which made his cause famous. That wouldn’t happen under today’s conditions of indefinite incarceration without trial for suspected terrorists. Years before the Patriot Act, the government effectively eliminated the opportunity for serious discussion about our society’s values by not allowing the Unabomber to stage a defense based on his political views. Since I largely agreed with him except for the killing people part, I had hoped his trial would provide a forum for a much needed discussion.


Folks who believe violence is not sometimes necessary to stop violence are living in a wishful fantasy land. I do wish they could talk people out of war and murder, just as I wish I could talk them out of eating that tortured dead animal for dinner.


I’m not trying to urge anyone to violence, but are signs and fiery speeches an appropriate opposition to bombs? If someone truly believes that over a million babies are being killed every year in this country by abortion, is writing a letter of protest enough? And how do I live with myself in a society which sees nothing wrong with killing over 10,000,000,000 (that’s ten billion) animals a year for food, amusement, fashion, and research? Does not committing violence make one a better person than allowing it to happen?


As Reynolds wrote, “America has become a vast network of institutions that tend to stifle vigorous challenges from individuals. Such challenges are needed if the nation is to remain healthy. There must be modern Americans who identify with the oppressed with such passion that they are willing to die for them, as Brown did. And America must be large enough to allow for meaningful protest, instead of remaining satisfied with patriotic bromides and a capitalist mass culture that fosters homogenized complacency. Unless America is ready at every moment to see its own failings, it is one step closer to becoming the tyrannical monster it pretends not to be.”

8 comments:

Lisa J. said...

There's definitely a climate in America now that dissention is stifled. "Now's not the time for 'free speech'" was something I was actually told by a beloved family member at the start of this war 5 years ago. It broke my heart.

Fall in line. Don't ask questions. Don't question status quo. Buy more stuff.

We just got our "refund" check on Friday. Or as we've been calling it the "Bush-Pay-Off". As long as they keep putting pennies in our pockets, we'll support whatever they say. Suuuuuure.....

My point, long in coming around to, is that people don't even want to HEAR someone else question the government. They don't want to confront the issues I'm avoiding by being vegan. The vegan in the room is just a reminder of non-violence and some people aren't ready to do their own questioning.



Also, these were 2 of the best blogs you've written! LOVED them. Thank you.

greentangle said...

Glad you liked them.

I'm no expert on the case but apparently Eric McDavid was just sentenced to 20 years for being a big talker goaded on by an undercover FBI agent. Hadn't actually DONE anything yet and was arrested after buying items anyone can buy. So I guess we even have to careful about which stuff we buy now.

Lisa J. said...

YIKES.

I worry sometimes about the web-sites I visit and the library books I might borrow or books I might buy. It's frightening, and yet people are so content to sit back & let it happen.

In the words of Bazu "Where's the Revolution?"!

John Storhm said...

Here is my first post trying to address your questions re nonviolence.

John Storhm said...

Link

Sorry, I forgot to leave the link in my last comment.

John Storhm said...

When the author writes, "More than Brown’s actions, it was his words and demeanor, widely reported in the press while he was in prison, which made his cause famous." I think that is accurate and leads me to the answer I would give about John Brown and nonviolence. In order to stop slavery Brown needed to change how be thought about Africans and what it means to be human and especially what it meant to live in a democratic nation and to value life, liberty and equality. He could only do that with words.

Sure his raid on Harpers Ferry was a daring move and brought attention to Brown. It may have given him a national forum that he never could have claimed if it were not for the raid and the attention his trial and execution garnered. However, if he did not have a larger message, he never would have risen to the level of acclaim he did.

I think this blog is correct that by disallowing trials to be used as political formats our legal system has taken much of the power activists used to claim in the arrest and trial portion of the government response/repression of them away.

However, I also don't think you needed to take the violent actions that Brown took to achieve the goals that Brown sought.

When you write, "Folks who believe violence is not sometimes necessary to stop violence are living in a wishful fantasy land. I do wish they could talk people out of war and murder, just as I wish I could talk them out of eating that tortured dead animal for dinner." I think you express what most people who reject nonviolence express - a wish that reform would move more quickly. You can talk people out of war and murder or out of eating meat, but you can talk them out of those choices tonight. If you need to stop someone from doing something tonight, you are correct, nonviolence won't work. However, if you have time to lay the ground work then nonviolence can produce the same results without you, yourself, bloodying your hands. And, I submit, the nonviolent approach actually achieves change.

After all is said and done about the abolition of slavery in the U.S., we may have stopped systemic slavery but slavery continues. We also did not end racism. And world wide slavery, especially for sex, continues to this day to be a huge problem. What the Civil War failed to change was how people thought about Africans living in America. We fought that battle for another hundred years after the Civil War until the voting rights act of 1965, and we continue to fight that battle today. We never achieved equality.

Now maybe if we had taken a different approach in 1865 rather then fighting the Civil War and worked to change how people thought, perhaps it may have taken 50 years to end slavery but we may have been able to actually change how people thought about equality. Perhaps ending slavery without war would have allowed us the opportunity to consider equal rights for women at the same time, remember women still don't have equality under law.

The problem with wars and violence is that they flare up and fade away without resolving the underlying problems. Hatred remains. Inequality remains. Injustice remains. Racism remains. We don't spend time addressing these underlying problems because before war we are trying to build up the troops, during war we are trying not to question the troops and the reasons, and after war we are trying to heal and recover from the horror of what we did. The next war is right around the corner, so we never have the down time to actually make societal change.

In fact, I think if you look at history, every valuable societal change that we value was created from a very different process then a violent one.

(please excuse any typos, I don't have time right now to proof this.)

John Storhm said...

Boy I made a few typos...

When I wrote in the the 1st paragraph, "In order to stop slavery Brown needed to change how be thought about Africans..." It should have read "In order to stop slavery Brown needed to change how we thought about Africans..."

This would have been more clear if I wrote, "I think this blog is correct that by disallowing trials to be used as political formats our legal system has taken away much of the power activists used to claim in the arrest and trial portion of the government response/repression of them."

when I wrote, "You can talk people out of war and murder or out of eating meat, but you can talk them out of those choices tonight." It should have read "You can talk people out of war and murder or out of eating meat, but you CAN'T talk them out of those choices tonight."

greentangle said...

Thanks for your comments. We have very different opinions about human nature as well as the past and the future.

There are times when I wish humans would take a 50 year view, especially when it comes to considering the effects of new technology. But I'm glad people aren't willing to let slavery or animal abuse go on for another 50 years in hopes that a perfect society is up ahead.