TCS Daily

Is Obama this Century's John Brown?

By Michael Rosen - April 14, 2008 12:00 AM

HARPERS FERRY, WEST VIRGINIA—Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the event that many believe ignited the Civil War: John Brown's audacious raid on an armory in an effort to spark a nationwide slave uprising. While the military swiftly quelled the rebellion and sent its instigator to the gallows, Brown's actions provoked a ferocious national debate about slavery that led, inexorably, to the War Between the States.

It was here, just steps from the armory, that I had occasion to reflect on the remarkable speech about race delivered by White House hopeful Barack Obama. The Illinois senator's frank discussion of divisive racial issues was essentially unprecedented in a presidential campaign.

Obama confronted painful and awkward topics such as affirmative action, African-American educational achievement, and mutual black-white suspicion in an open and eloquent way that points the way forward to an American future unpoisoned—or at least far less sullied—by racial animus.

Yet, in what might be considered a cruel twist of fate, that American future is unlikely to be steered by a President Obama—much as John Brown never bore witness to the eradication of slavery he so ardently sought. Like Brown, Obama is a charismatic, religious, and controversial figure whose striving for racial harmony will be left for others to pursue.

Let's start with the abolitionist. In John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, a captivating, quasi-revisionist 2005 biography of Brown, cultural historian David S. Reynolds ably tackles the life of an enigmatic man whom he sums up as "a deeply religious, flawed, yet ultimately noble reformer."

Brown was steeped in the distilled Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards—whose teachings were as dear to him as Rev. Jeremiah Wright's are to Obama—and other firebrand New England preachers. The absolutism of Edwards's Puritan vision informed Brown's worldview, especially when it came to slavery, which Brown fiercely and violently opposed from a young age.

His idealism led him ineluctably to the Pottawatomie Massacre—his slaying of five Kansans in retribution for the "Sacking of Lawrence" by pro-slavery forces. Shortly thereafter, he predicted bitter conflict, vowing that "I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheath it until this war is over."

Brown never did sheath his sword, going down in a blaze of glory after storming the armory in Harpers Ferry. He never succeeded in fomenting widespread slave rebellion, but the war he foresaw and the emancipation he battled for became reality, albeit years after he met his Maker.

Ultimately, Reynolds characterizes the Harpers Ferry raid not as a "wild-eyed, erratic scheme[] doomed to failure" but as the product of "Brown's overconfidence in whites' ability to rise about racism and in blacks' willingness to rise up in armed insurrection against their masters."

Obama is another leading American figure not lacking in overconfidence. His biracial personal history, combined with his impressive oratorical skills, has formed the fons et origo of his public persona. To his many supporters, Obama's unique family story symbolizes the American ethnic experience; the senator's ability to fuse his multiple identities potentially augurs a future when we can finally slip the insistent tug of those identities.

Obama's speech covered precisely this topic. Coupled with the prolonged Rev. Wright episode, the speech is a modern-day (and non-violent) echo of Brown's raid: poignant, idealistic, provocative, likely to fail in the short term, but profoundly important in the long run.

The speech was not without its serious flaws, including its suggestion that opposition to racial preferences springs from the depredations of globalization instead of a good-faith belief that the Constitution forbids such practices; its apparent equation of Wright with both Geraldine Ferraro and Obama's own grandmother; and its failure to answer the question posed by many and by Obama himself in the speech: "Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place?" (he explained why he couldn't disown him, which is quite a different matter from why he drew close to him to begin with)

But for all its shortcomings, the speech was a landmark in its unstinting discussion of explicitly racial matters. Yes, as some commentators have observed, and contrary to the sycophantic huzzahs from other corners, this was far from the first "national conversation on race" that we've had. But it was the first such conversation conducted by a major presidential candidate in the thick of a campaign.

And it proved to be a relatively even-handed one, at that. Obama chastised whites and blacks alike for harboring largely baseless anger and racial stereotypes that are, if not the direct descendants of overtly racist attitudes, at least their younger cousins.

Obama prescribed a "conservative" remedy of self-help for the African-American community, namely "demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny."

He likewise called on whites to recognize that not all black grievances are imagined and to redouble their efforts to stamp out "the legacy of discrimination."

But more than any such guidance, Obama's overall theme of overcoming differences and moving toward unity strikes chords of euphoric hope that are somewhat muted by un-utopian realism.

In conclusion, Obama proclaimed that "this union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected." He plainly hopes to be the vehicle of that perfection.

Still, Obama's speech, as Robert Novak put it, "won critical praise for style and substance but failed politically." Wright's hateful screeds have probably inflicted permanent, even fatal damage to Obama's candidacy. If nothing else, Obama's own uplifting rhetoric contrasts so markedly with Wright's angry words that much of Middle America will be sufficiently befuddled and uncertain as to support an alternative candidate.

Race issues aside, Obama will have great difficulty overcoming his reputation as the Senate's single most liberal member. Here, again, his campaign promises to unify and transcend partisan differences clash jarringly with his undistinguished, one-sided legislative record, in which he has generally hewed uncomplainingly to the policies championed by liberal interest groups.

Thus, whether voters (and/or superdelegates) ultimately prefer Hillary Clinton—who, despite her many flaws, does not provoke the cognitive dissonance of Obama's campaign—or John McCain, who has amassed a genuine record of true bipartisan reform, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Illinois senator will find himself in the Oval Office come January.

But even though Obama, as he himself candidly acknowledges, is an imperfect candidate for president, and even if his bid for the White House comes up short, his campaign in general and his race speech in particular will further our halting, exhausting progress toward resolving our racial difficulties.

Put differently, sometimes important historical American figures fail to meet the goals they have personally set for themselves while at the same time engendering broader change that inures to their country's benefit. Just ask John Brown.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property Columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.


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