Freedom fighter, or fanatic?

I did go ahead and buy a copy of Weird John Brown for my Kindle, and am working through it. It’s not easy reading for me, but mostly because the mode of expression is unfamiliar—who knew that “divine violence” was even a thing? Fortunately Ted Smith’s writing is clear and unpretentious, so I’m able to learn from him.

Conventional thinking about John Brown offers two characterizations of him—freedom fighter or fanatic—and says, ok, now choose. One of the writer’s points is that both choices share an assumption, namely that the state is alone in legitimately wielding violence. Those who call Brown a fanatic think the state was right in its enforcement of slavery, those who call him a freedom fighter think the state was wrong and should behave differently, but both assume that enforcement itself is the proper domain of the state. Once you’ve made your choice, you tend to focus on the differences—champion your view’s strengths, attack the other view’s weaknesses—while neglecting to examine the shared assumptions, something that might yield important insights.

Last night I started watching Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden now available on HBO. It wasn’t a gripping revelation to me, because I’ve followed the affair since it first became public, and I had been generally aware of the technology involved. But the film is pro-Snowden, and as I am vaguely pro-privacy and anti-state I found myself being slowly sucked into cheering for the guy. Until I reminded myself that I don’t need to have any opinion about Snowden or his actions—and not only that, but having an opinion just makes it more difficult for me to see and evaluate issues which the Snowden affair has surfaced. Snowden himself emphasizes this as the film unfolds, wanting to keep himself out of the revelations as long as possible—not for his safety, but to keep buzz about himself and his actions from obscuring his revelations.

So, Edward Snowden—traitor or hero? I have no opinion, and it makes no difference in my everyday life. But I’ll be thinking about Snowden as I continue to read Ted Smith’s consideration of John Brown, and wondering if Snowden will end up playing a similar role in our own day and time.


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