MODERN RADICALS AND John Brown
It is commonplace for American activists—like activists everywhere else—to use history for self-vindication. Too many of them regard the past as a rich storehouse of banners and slogans, all proclaiming some great moral lesson that justifies their particular cause or party line. Southern white supremacists, in their fight against "forced integration," cite the Bible to defend segregation, wave Confederate battle flags, and declaim the old Lost Cause shibboleths of state's rights and freedom of choice. Conservative Republicans, as I discuss in a subsequent essay, invoke the hackneyed lessons of the American frontier to rally support for their crusade against liberal Democrats and government welfare. And liberal Democrats like Walt Rostow still rehearse the example of Munich—which "teaches us" the futility of appeasement—to defend American involvement in Vietnam.
Conservatives and liberals, though, are not the only American advocates who use history for political ends. White and black radicals do it too. By radicals I mean those who are attempting to bring about revolutionary changes in American society, in order to eradicate such institutionalized wrongs as racist and sexist oppression, moral hypocrisies, police brutality, capitalist exploitation, and imperialistic wars. Still, radicals can no more break with the past than can liberals, conservatives, or reactionaries. For radicals too must have historical heroes. They too must find grand examples that sanctify their views and ennoble their cause, making them feel part of an eternal struggle against injustice.
So it is with those radicals who canonize John Brown of Harpers