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John Brown and Moral Overstretch

May 3, 2011

What would a national event be if not an excuse for somebody to make a claim on the conscience and the true definitions of justice, unity, and the good?

Predictably, throngs of people poured out of their houses to celebrate the most widely reviled figure in American history receiving a double-tap to the skull from a yet-unknown Navy SEAL. Predictably, many of those who opted not to join in recoiled in disgust and horror at the sight of a bunch of college students waving and chanting and acting like the inebriated mob they were over the violent death of another human being.

It is fine to react differently to the same event. 9/11 was not a private tragedy, it was a national trauma. Contrary to the myths of politicians and vicars of the imaginary American moral code, there was not recently and never has been such a universal American moral code, just a lot of people making claims to one. There are some things that virtually every American can now agree on: such as the immorality of owning slaves, just as everyone now agrees with bin Laden being a wicked man.

But not everybody agreed on what the moral way to end slavery was. John Brown, who was, among large numbers of abolitionists, a national hero. He was most famous for hacking a few slaveowners to death in Kansas and launching a treasonous insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, which helped lead to the provocation of a war which ultimately contributed to the ending of slavery, even if it was started for other reasons. He murdered people and committed terrorism.

Malcolm X said he might have accepted John Brown, and when the IWW, CPUSA, and various other socialists and anarchists started the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, they named the anti-aircraft component after him. Yet he dragged people out of their houses at night and hacked them to death.

That is how history and humanity work. The triumph of moral objectives and moral men come alongside and because of awful deeds, almost everywhere, depending on how far you want to go back. Bayonets and innocent victims are the stuff of history, and they fall on every conceivable moral side. Whether or not we want to morally approve or reconcile ourselves to that state of affairs is another question, one worth addressing later.

So when the man who was the mastermind and willing symbol of an organization which executed the most traumatic attack in modern American memory, it is hard to say what the right reaction is – because there is not a personal emotional reaction that is right in any meaningful sense.

Nobody owns 9/11. Nobody has a monopoly on the American conscience, because it does not exist except as an object of contention. Anyone who claims someone is any less moral or any less American for staying home and feeling disgusted or being jubilant has a tougher case to make, because they are relying on a fictive claim to universal morality  they cannot, in practice, possess, and more often than not, it relies on a totally superficial view of history. Take this article:

This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory: He has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history — the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.

This is sheer historical ignorance acting in service of the universalization of a personal moral belief, made possible only by a refusal to consider that American history could stand for something beyond a self-affirming tale. Think about John Brown, and speak again about the American psyche. First, it doesn’t exist, this a country of individuals without a universal moral code, including on matters of killing other human beings and warfare. Secondly, substantial parts of it have, throughout history, found “orgasmic euphoria” in news of bloodshed. Americans – but never all, nor always most – have reveled in killing, and we do this even – if not especially – in what many Americans think are their country’s finest national moments.

Lest we think this kind of thing is the sole property of Americans, we could review plenty of other cultures which reveled in bloodshed, and not because they were “sick nihilists,”  but because their moral visions recognized, shockingly, a different role for the killing of public enemies than one David Sirota feels acceptable. Our founding fathers based our government on many of these societies, and left in a lot of their terrible aspects in the process, such as slavery.

Just as celebrating bin Laden’s death arguably requires some to ignore, for the moment, the costs of the war on terror, remaining somber arguably requires some, for the moment, to ignore the experience of catharsis for a painful memory. Of course, my opinion on all of this is conditioned by history and personal experience, and rooted, partially, in whatever aspect of human nature requires me to defend my actions and my feelings in rational thought. I am willing to admit this, and my goal is not to change anybody’s mind about their personal feeling or reaction to May 1st or September 11th per se. It is to try and reintroduce some humility into those who would try to humble others, just as I often must rely on others to introduce some humility to my own convictions. Perhaps, 100 years from now, my willingness to celebrate a violent act will be as disgusting and abhorrent as the views of those who supported slavery. That is history, I’m willing to admit my views on the morality of warfare and killing have no preordained place in the American or human moral debate.  That said, remember John Brown before talking about historical moral absolutes. I’d appreciate it if people acknowledged the limits and vulnerabilities of their moral visions before condemning anybody for whatever emotional content and intensity they experienced on May 1st.

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