Archive for October, 2009

John Brown’s Body

imagesDriving through cold rain and heavy traffic to pick up some lunch, I overtook an old barge of a car waddling along doing about twenty-five in what was a forty-five zone. A disheveled early 1980s station wagon, its flashers were on and its read-end was plastered with “Right to Life” stickers. As a card-carrying subscriber to The New Yorker and the NYRB, my opinions can be largely predictable. I shook my head as I sped past the crawling low- end heap and what I reflexively assumed was its yahoo driver.

Given all of the above, I am caught between a willingness to doubt all, my own opinions included, and the dangers of doubt’s smug certainties. While I remain instinctively predisposed to support a woman’s right to choose, I have no illusions about the reality of what an abortion entails. Having become of late a doting grandfather probably also undercuts the clarity of any absolute position on so volatile an issue. Moreover, I suspect that my antipathy to so many of the Pro-Life advocates and their fanaticism is reaction based upon style, upon reasonableness, upon taste. The not-so-easily dismissed truth that enters my mind is the fact that even the worst of assholes are not of necessity, wrong.

To state the obvious, one shouldn’t judge the merits of a case by the nature, behavior or even the stupidity of its adherents. A self-styled Left Libertarian, a leveler of sorts, I like to believe that where I feel compelled to choose sides, I do so after having listened to what’s being offered. And even when genuinely convinced that a position on an issue is the work of what Mencken would have called “serfs, goose-steppers and poltroons,” my conclusions are too often tempered by reference to Cromwell’s words to the Church of Scotland in 1650, “I beseech in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”

images-1In coming to grips with an issue as disturbing as abortion, the most powerful touchstone against any kind of certainty could be the case of John Brown, the anti-slavery John Brown of Russell Banks’ novel “Cloudsplitter,” the absolute fanatic Pottawatomie Brown, the unrepentant murderer Osawatomie Brown. Deemed a deranged psychotic by most of his fellow Americans and executed by his government, poor, mad John Brown, in his time and in his place, just may have been the only sane man in The United States of America. His example is one to give pause to received, hasty or unexamined opinions.

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