Posts Tagged 'john brown'

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.

On A Rainy Afternoon, You Might See Forever

endgame_v2_thumb3It’s a rainy afternoon and my mind keeps going back to a couple of books I browsed yesterday in Barnes and Noble. In the store’s History section, I  came across works by a guy I’d never heard of named Derrick Jensen. A bit apocalyptic, but reflecting a lot of my own conclusions about the reality of our existence in this time and this place. I scanned his two heavyweight  volumes, “Endgame” and “Resistance,” both dated 2006. I found little to argue with in Jensen’s premises or analysis. But his prescriptions, as with so much of his anarcho-environmentalism, seem to slide off into the New Age improbabilities and a romanticized idea of what a simpler life might actually be like. He seems enamored of the ways of Indigenous peoples, but from what I’ve read those cultures have more often than been awash in warfare and the enslavement of their perceived enemies. We are where we are, and there is no Garden to return to. I will probably succumb and buy his first volume, “Endgame,” just to see how close he comes to what I feel could be the unspoken truths of our times. 

I am old enough to remember the disasters of the past century when seemingly clear-cut, utopian, ideals were embraced. Since the cathartic events of 1989, the best arguments being made to fill the void left by the collapse of a messianic Left and to counter a resurgent Right, are that only the slow, messy and difficult palliative routines of liberal democracy offer anything like a way of getting along. And yet … the allure of some all-embracing, non-transcendent course always arises like a lost dream. In a Gary Larson cartoon a sheep raises its head above the flock and shouts, “Wait! We don’t have to be sheep. We can be more than sheep!” 

 As an invited guest for an overnighter this past week in a wealthy summer resort town, I looked out upon the hundreds if not thousands of (vacant in September) million-dollar and multi-million dollar second homes. Reconciling that reality against all of the poverty in the world, I was forced to conclude once again that nothing, nothing will ever change. One the premises Derrick Jensen lists to support his overall thesis of the unsustainability of a civilization based on industrial capitalism is that “rich people’s property is more valuable than poor people’s lives.” Try disagreeing with that one.  

Derrick Jensen could be just another nut in the much the same way that Jesus, William Blake, John Brown and Karl Marx were nuts. Having spent most of my seventy-plus years nurturing what I would like to believe is a disciplined, intellectual rigor, I always find myself, reluctantly forced on to the side of the rationalist, non-ideological conservative writers like Fritz Stern, Clive James and Tony Judt, who correctly, I am forced to admit, point to the massive bloodlettings of the twentieth-century as evidence of what happens when idealism is applied to the objective realities of the human condition. I wish I could believe otherwise, but I simply cannot. 

I Know already that I will purchase and read Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame.” But what’s probably more important to my own life than any new radically sweeping philosophy; political, economic or social, however convincing, is that the the Phillies clinched a National League playoff spot yesterday afternoon.