I have started a new nighttime book. I have two books being read at any time, one is serious and usually boring, Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, and then the nighttime book is more fluff. For a long time I have been interested in John Brown and my curiosity has been piqued by its predominance in the new Zizek book. So here I am with John Brown, Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds.

The first nineteen pages are about Brown’s ancestors and a brief (so far it is brief, but still engaged) sketch of Puritanism and abolitionist development. So far the book follows Reynolds’ method of inquiry, but on page 19 he reaches the question of inquiry: “How could Puritanism fuse with antislavery passion with such intensity in John Brown that he believed he could single-handedly free America’s 4 million slaves?’ (19). This is a disappointing question. Has Reynolds forgotten his own discussion about Puritanism?

Puritanism is less about making the world better, although they do strive for it, but more about a complete devotion to an ideal. It is akin to Kant’s categorical imperative, less about the end and more about how to be devoted to the end. (Zizek 2008, 225) If John Brown had been asked this question, I am willing to put money that he was and that the answer is recorded somewhere, I predict his answer would have been quick, short and unwavering: “You tell the one slave I did free that it was all for naught because slavery still exists.”

For another example of this lack of analysis we can look back to page 7.

Although after the raid he was first denounced by most Northerners, a few influential individuals, especially the Transcendentalists, salvaged his reputation by placing him on the level of Christ – a notable misreading of a man who, despite his remarkable virtues, had violent excesses [emphasis mine], as evidenced by the nighttime slaughter of five proslavery residents he had directed in Pottawatomie, Kansas.

I have no problem with Reynolds making a normative assessment of the slaughter, but to call it an excess requires more work. I do hold out the possibility that the work is done later and this reference is merely a foreshadow (page 7, after all), but until I come across that effort I will launch the following criticism. Where is the line demarcating acceptable and unacceptable violence against the slavery advocates? Why should we even care about Reynolds’ theory: Brown believed in a rigorous system of retribution. Were his actions even consistent within his own framework? Or were his actions akin to a violent G8 protest, often conducted by young people merely looking to break stuff.

The book is already predicated upon a belief in comparing alternatives rather than a faith. This cynicism of Reynolds makes me uncomfortable as I wonder about his ability to relate Brown’s thoughts anywhere close to accurately if he cannot even grasp that questions of efficacy were irrelevant to Brown when the matter was one of absolute right and wrong.

Despite this, I find the book engaging and well written. There is more here than I had expected and I am excited to see what else Reynolds will educate me about that I was not expecting.

Detail of St. Augustine in a stained glass win...

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These are some rough ideas of something I am trying to work out. But given the timliness of Bush’s comments to what I am thinking I felt it important to put something out there for some feedback:

The worst thing to happen to the War in Iraq is for Bush to have gone to Vietnam and to see things working well. It has become for him proof about the power of democracy and freedom to prevail in the fight over evil and (Islamic) Fascism. I really these terms are nuanced and not all applicable to past or present Vietnam, but this is how Bush sees the country. There is an obvious reply here, if freedom prevails in Vietnam even though we left it to be under the heel of a communist regime, does that not prove we do not need to be in Iraq to bring them freedom? Possibly, but with Bush in the White House that argument needs not be fleshed out because we will be in Iraq to bring them whatever it is we bring them.

The main problem with the War in Iraq is how US policy is grounded. Clearly there are some issues about planning that need to be examined. But there is something larger at work. The goal that Bush wants has been turned into such a mythic figure of happiness that it now stands as the coercive utopian ideal. These ideals are so powerful that any sacrifice becomes worthwhile and any deviation is seen as the embodiment of evil.

William Connolly discussed this in his book about the effects of St. Augustine. While the passage I am about to re-cite is discussing polytheism as opposed to monotheism, it is applicable as Bush’s war of a value versus the all of the different fanatics and their polyvalent (the individuals may not be fighting for multiple values, but the aggregated enemies of the US are polyvalent). This clash is automatically predisposed to not only resistance but also to a violent response to such resistance.

The key defect in the multiple, limited, disputing pagan gods is that they did not have enough power, separately or in combination, to hold out the realistic prospect of eternal salvation to hu8mans, a prospect “which is the essential aim in religion.” Augustine endows his god with omnipotence to enable it to deliver on the promise of salvation. He endows it with care for humanity to make it want to do so. When these three demands are combined (omnipotence, care and salvation), you generate a god who must be the author of an intrinsic moral order and you have a moral order under powerful pressure to constitute itself restrictively and coercively. (The Augustinian imperative. NY: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 48-9).

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To-day’s passage from the backfiles is one of the better arguments I have stumbled across in quite some time. Not only is a well-structured argument, but also I find the writing to be good: it is concise and yet the language is not too lofty and obscure. Peter Tatchell is a British human rights activist and I am also assuming he is gay, proud and pissed off. After reading this passage his anger seems not only understandable but also justified, I especially liked the portion that talks about how our society does not protect queers:

Such a statement sums up the way the just demand for an end to homophobic discrimination by the armed forces increasingly has become an unjustifiable endorsement of militarism and war. The experience of being marginalized by society as “abnormal” and “deviant” ought to give us queers a more critical attitude towards all social institutions, including the military. Instead of blithely assuming that everything straight is wonderful, we should have a healthy skepticism towards straight culture. No hetero institution is more deserving of our skepticism than the armed forces. It denies democratic rights to its own members, tolerates bullying, lacks mechanisms for public scrutiny and accountability, discriminates against lesbians and gay men (and women and black people), and has a been used frequently to suppress popular movements for social justice and national liberation in countries like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and Ireland. Above all else, the military is a straight institution. It is organized and dominated by the hetero majority. Part of the function of the military is the defence of a society ruled by straights (as well as big business). It serves straight interests and upholds the macho straight values of violence and homophobia. Everything about the military is inimical to queer freedom: hierarchy, domination, prejudice, aggression, conformity and authoritarianism. Moreover, the military is an instrument of State power. The State is homophobic, enforcing legal discrimination against lesbian and gay people. As a part of the repressive apparatus of the State, the armed forces embody this anti-gay discrimination, banning queers from joining the military and forcing out those it discovers within its ranks. In defending the State, the military also implicitly defends the anti-queer repression of the State, including the unequal age of consent, the arrest of gay men for victimless cruising, the ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, the denial of legal recognition to queer partnerships, and the lack of redress against homophobic discrimination in housing and employment. Lesbians and gay men have a right, and even a responsibility, to refuse allegiance to a homophobic government and its homophobic military apparatus. Faced with unjust laws that discriminate against homosexuals, queers are duty-bound to deny legitimacy to the straight governing elite and to withdraw all consent and co-operation from governmental institutions such as armed forces. According to liberal theory, rights carry with them responsibilities. But in the absence of civil and human rights, the duty of reciprocal responsibilities ceases to exist. This means that we queers are under no obligation to join the military to protect those who refuse to protect us. Instead, there is an onus on us to withhold our loyalty from the institutions of a homophobic State, such as the armed forces, and to do everything in our power to sabotage the straight system which treats us as second class citizens. You don’t have to be a queer revolutionary to realize this, just a homo with a bit of common sense and self-respect. The idea of queer non-compliance with homophobic institutions like the military is rooted in the civil disobedience tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They argued: unjust laws must be broken, not obeyed. When governments deny human rights, those excluded from full citizenship have a moral right to rebel against tyrannical rulers. These principles are just as relevant for lesbians and gay men today as in Britain as they were in the past for the Indian independence movement and the US black civil rights struggle. The armed forces do not respect gay rights. Why, then, should we enlist and serve? Is there any reason for queers to give a damn about the fate of the straight State? We homos (and our straight allies) have no obligation to defend the fraudulent democratic system that denies us equality. On the contrary, the queer self-defence requires that we subvert and destroy the hetero institutions that hold us down. Collusion with a homophobic State and a homophobic military is collusion with anti-gay discrimination. To do the bidding of those who victimize us betrays the cause of queer freedom. That’s why all queers everywhere have a responsibility to refuse collaboration with the oppressive military system. By so doing, we can help strike a blow for lesbian and gay emancipation, and against oppressive militarism and war. (1997, Why we shouldn’t’ march straight. Queer Words, issue 3)

The problem I have with this argument is its reductionism. Tatchell seems to believe homosexuals are fundamentally democratic and neither bullies nor aggressive. The military, in his world, is only used to repress progressive movements. These reductions place the military/homosexual pair as automatically opposed and impossible to coexist. I contend, however, that they are opposed in their manifestation and not in some basic kernel of their selves. Everything he says may be accurate, but that does not mean the military must be used to quash progressive movements. Was the Taliban a progressive movement? While there are some problems surrounding the crushing of the Taliban, the quashing of a movement concerned with social justice is not be one of them.

I am also curious how people in the Netherlands would view this passage since the military there allows homosexuals to serve openly. This passage seems uniquely British. An indictment of the British state, even though Tatchell attributes it to the State fundamentally, would be read differently in a different country.

I am also concerned that the bodies in Tatchell’s argument are not marked. I was told in graduate school to do the following test: whenever an unmarked body is presented (in this case the soldier and also the civilian) I should assume the body is white. Do bodies of color change the calculus of this passage? Tatchell would probably argue that does not change his call to resistance. That is the very functioning of whiteness. The military may provide a way out of certain situations, a liberatory way out. Michael Moore highlights the US military recruiting methods, targeting black neighborhoods, but we have to ask why do so many black people sign up? Even though it pains us to point out the truth (the real reason John Kerry came under such scrutiny) it is still the truth: the military can provide a better life for people on the margins of our society. Tatchell does not address these people. He has an interpretation, one which is valid, but there are other interpretations. It this essentializing of reading the military that is the problem in Tatchell’s argument.

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