John Brown Syndrome: What to Do When There’s Nothing to Do
I have coined a new term recently: John Brown Syndrome.
In a world that seems to be flying off the rails, it can be easy to lose a little bit of your sanity. Children kept in camps at the southern border of the United States, Uighur Muslims being kept in camps in China. Jeff Bezos riding his rocket into the upper atmosphere, while working people can barely maintain their status in the lower-middle class. Fascism on the rise, abject cruelty being inflicted upon peoples across the world. Unchecked poverty, the erosion of rights, the worsening affects of climate change, the degrading of trust between us all.
Things are not exactly peachy keen.
I have named my hypothetical syndrome after John Brown, the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) abolitionist responsible for the failed raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. John Brown was celebrated by Americans opposed to slavery at the time of his death, but the narrative around the martyr changed slowly as time went on. By the 1970s, Brown was framed as a madman, a fanatic, a terrorist.
In my opinion, John Brown was arguably a greater American hero than even our “founding fathers.”
Washington, Jefferson, and a large portion of the other members of the American pantheon owned human beings when they signed a document that read “all men are created equal.”
John Brown wanted to give weapons to the human beings that his fellow countrymen treated as property in order to kill those aforementioned countrymen.
“Sic Semper Tyrannus.”
John Wilkes Booth shouted this after he shot Abe Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. John Wilkes Booth was mad that men that looked like him could no longer treat people that didn’t look like him as property anymore.
It is also the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state where John Brown was hanged.
John Brown was a man of faith, he believed God Almighty had charged him with the task of freeing his enslaved brothers and sisters from the shackles of bondage. He wanted to erase the sin of slavery from his nation, the United States of America, where “all men are created equal.”
Frederick Douglass, a man who had once been treated as property, was wary of Brown’s methods. He encouraged a more moderate approach, a more sensible approach, a more peaceful approach, a more political approach.
John Brown believed that slavery could only be washed away with blood.
John Brown was right, but he did not live to see it.
Frederick Douglass did live to see it, he witnessed the destruction of chattel slavery in his nation only after the death of an estimated 750,000 Americans. Frederick Douglass was not a martyr, he wanted to witness the brave new world he was helping to forge.
“We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old…”
Slavery is more prevalent in 2021 than it has been at any point in human history.
♫ John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave, but his truth is marching on. ♫
I have expressed my feeling of dismay to friends, families, and colleagues. I have marched in protests, I have petitioned my representatives, I was even foolish enough to run for office. I have pounded my fist against the wall of injustice, only to be left with a bloody pulp in place of my hand.
I shouldn’t complain, right? I’m a middle-class, straight white man — the world has been handed to me on a platter.
♫ The stars above in heaven are a-lookin’ kindly down, on the grave of Ol’ John Brown. ♫
I try to fight as hard as I can against the seemingly unstoppable tide of injustice, tyranny, cruelty, discrimination, greed, et cetera, that permeates and defiles the lives of billions. At times, it feels hopeless.
Sometimes I want to raid Harpers Ferry.
I do not mean this as an open call to violence, nor as a signal that the only course left for the masses of the world is to burn it down — I prefer metaphorical ashes to real ones.
But, I would never even think to take the position of an enlightened moderate. The same ones who admonished Dr. King for his methods that were simply too demanding on his white countrymen, they wanted him to do it slow.
But that’s just the trouble
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Do things gradually
“Do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
— Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
General Sherman burned down the south, he marched from Savannah to Atlanta.
General Sherman has a statue on 5th Avenue.
John Brown has a grave in upstate New York.
♫ He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so true, he frightened old Virginia till she trembled through and through, they hanged him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew, but his soul goes marching on…♫
I suppose this article became more about John Brown than my suggested syndrome that describes the feeling that myself, and I assume millions of my contemporaries, are going through on a daily basis — “what the hell can we even do?”
To be honest? I don’t know.
I do know that we can’t lose hope. I know that we are stronger unified than scattered. I know that we don’t have any other choice.
“John Brown’s Body,” the song I’ve quoted throughout this piece, served as the template for what became the anthem of the Union Army, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” You are undeniably familiar with the tune, especially its chorus:
♫ Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on… ♫
The Civil War was inevitable, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Are we approaching a similar flashpoint?
I’d argue we’ve already passed it — January 6th, 2021.
I hope that our generation will not have to fight in any sort of conflict, either foreign or domestic, in an effort to once again defend this very basic fact — “all people are created equal.”
We have a hostile environment to contend with, petty squabbles over human dignity need to be a thing of the past. But, until genuine equity and justice is actually achieved, we will continue to struggle in the great crusade of progress — step by step, mile by mile.
I want a peaceful life, I’m sure all of us do. Warmongers are not the majority, tyrants are not the majority. Many can be misled, many more can be saved — returned to the righteous path.
I hope this hasn’t sounded like the ravings of a madman. I do not claim to be under the divine auspices of the Almighty as John Brown did. I simply believe that the patterns occurring currently are familiar, representative of what has been true of all of humanity’s existence: cyclical progress and regression, revolution and devolution, good and evil, the oppressor against the oppressed.
I don’t fear defeat, I dread a bloody victory.
When John Brown stepped up to the gallows, ready to meet his maker, it was reported that he said the following:
“This is a beautiful country.”
This is a beautiful planet. A beautiful people. A beautiful opportunity to finally make the world as close as possible to paradise.
♫ In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me,
As he died to make men holy let us die to make men free,
His truth is marching on… ♫
Glory, glory, hallelujah.