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Monday, February 1, 2016

The Good Lord Bird and Civil Disobedience

Hi guys. I wrote this blog post before the arrest of several of the protestors/militia/terrorists (depending on news source) that left another dead. In this post I draw a comparison between the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupiers and John Brown's occupation of Harper's Ferry in the lead-in to the Civil War. This post has been sitting as a draft for a week as I decide whether to post it at all. I want to make a couple of things clear before moving forward:

1. I am not comparing the plight of western ranchers to that of slaves. Slavery is one of the most embarrassing and horrifying aspects of my country's history; one whose repercussions still haunt us in more ways than I can list. You guys, it was horrible. I'm still learning every day how sickening and sad and disgusting the practice was. And while I'm sympathetic to some (SOME) of the complaints of ranchers in the west, and have issues with mandatory sentencing laws that ostensibly led to the protest or whatever, I want to clarify how different I think these issues are. I just can't emphasize this enough.

2. I don't even compare the systematic oppression of women both in American society and essentially the history of the world with that of slaves. Modern feminism is often criticized for focusing on white women exclusively, and is at its most problematic when compared to institutional slavery and racism. It's at its best when it fights for all women everywhere, regardless of class, race, sexual preference, or anatomy. Every oppressed group has some similarities to another, but they are unique and extremely diverse movements with vastly different histories and goals. Most evidence shows that white women are paid more than black men, let alone black or Hispanic women.

It's a fallacy, though, to say that because someone is suffering more, it means your suffering is invalid. One can fight for the rights of a white woman to feel safe at work or home while acknowledging that her level of safety and opportunity is already at a higher level than a woman of a different race, because we can fight for her, too. We can stand up for a similar woman in a developing country, or one who is under the yoke of religious extremism.


Summary before we get started here. When I was reading this book I was amazed at the many parallels between the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation and John Brown's occupation of Harper's Ferry. But the gulf between their causes is as vast as the gulf between the image Donald Trump puts forward to the world and the one that he sees in the mirror every morning and loathes with all of his heart.

OK, let's go.


Some things in this world just ain't meant to be, not in the times we want 'em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that's to come. There's a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that's a heavy load to bear. James McBride, The Good Lord Bird
Here’s a tricky thing: this world is full of injustices and wrongs, but depending on who you are and how you see the world, these may be wildly divergent. Take, for example, the relatively low-stakes world of video games. Did you know that in the video game community there is a white-hot battle raging in the various subterranean corners of this disgusting World Wide Web? It sounds like a joke, and for a long time it was, but then people started getting death threats.

If I tried to summarize it, I would end up looking insane, so I’ll just link to this Gawker article with the understanding that if you care, you’ll get caught up, and if you don’t you’re probably a relatively rational human being. The upshot is that a few women got fed up with the way women were portrayed in video games and in response a lot of very secure men got very, very upset.

Here’s an example: Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter to create videos pointing out sexist tropes in video games that she deemed harmful. The Kickstarter succeeded, and then the threats started rolling in. Some gamers posted photos of her photoshopped to look bruised and beaten. An amateur video game called “Beat up Anita Sarkeesian” came out. Her site was hacked and she was called a “terrorist.”

A couple of years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she would be speaking at my own Utah State University, and even considered going to see her speak. Unfortunately, due to a threatening letter and the University’s refusal to forbid guns in the auditorium, she cancelled. Because she was afraid she would be killed. Because she made videos about video games in which players are rewarded to murder women.

Here’s what I get out of situations like this: the majority of people who are angry at something that threatens what they consider their way of life, whether that is video games aimed at young white men dominating the market, or women who like to play games but feel like the space is unwelcome or even unsafe to them, will get on their social media networks and complain about them and then move on with their lives. Some will go so far as to create a meme or video or something, or even make personal threats they have no intention on carrying out. But among that vast group of angry people, there will be some for whom keyboard warrior tactics are not enough, and they take matters in their own hands.

Sometimes this is a motivator for good. In my church I’ve always learned that for everything good in the world, the devil has created a counterfeit that almost feels as good as the real thing. Whether this is truly the work of a malevolent evil or just human nature I’ll leave up to you, but sometimes I worry that by going onto Facebook and posting my admittedly rad and hilarious diatribes, I’m actually trying to fulfill a noble need within myself with one of these ersatz forgeries. So instead I’ve tried to focus on doing. In my case doing means things like volunteering and organizing donations. In Sarkeesian’s case it was making videos. In some cases it means seizing property and killing.

These people are either scary or heroic, depending on tactics, motivation, and who you’re asking. I won’t post the tweets people made celebrating the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter, but they’re out there. And despite all of our great memes and hilarious hot takes, those cool dudes camped out at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for three weeks, and folks sent them food, toilet paper, hot dogs, and brats.

Generally as a people we try to work within the law when it comes to the things that we feel passionate about, but our history is also filled with the hero worship of those who don’t. Few people today would begrudge Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience, even if it was illegal and extremely controversial at the time. (Did you know, by the way, that Parks was a trained activist with a lifetime of fighting injustice? Did you know she wasn’t the first woman to resist the bus laws?) And folks get so excited about the Boston Tea Party that they named their little club after it. 

The hippies who live in trees to protect the spotted owl are simultaneously living on the spirit of great social activists of our time or terrorists trying to prevent hard-working loggers from paying their bills and feeding their families. Are Black Lives Matter activists who shut down freeways continuing in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Who, by the way, was hated by whites at the time but now quoted constantly in memes by white people to tell uppity black people of today how they should behave)? Or are they, as Bill O’Reilly calls them, a “hate group?”

The answer, as far as I can tell, depends on how the general public feels about their causes after fifty years or so. As a case study, ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. This is the story of Henry Shackleford AKA Henrietta, a young boy who joins up with John Brown’s army in the days leading to the American Civil War. Mistaken early on for a girl, Henry is eventually forced to take on that identity for a variety of reasons.

Henry’s version of John Brown is of an addled, fiercely religious, sometimes undependable, and more or less invincible tall tale style hero. Brown, in case you’re rusty on your history, was an abolitionist who found orators and speechwriters and letter campaigners to be useless. Instead he took the fight to the slave owners themselves. Some he may have murdered outright. Some he fought in battles. His army was never more than a couple dozen really tough fellers, but managed to win battles so lopsided they looked like recent Denver Broncos Super Bowls. His goal was to eradicate slavery, and if he had to do it all by himself, well just stay out of his way.

“Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.”

In an NPR interview, McBride says he doesn’t expect us to take everything as factual: "I love the language of, you know, the old, black, country man with a blues guitar and ... boots and the quick banter. ... I just love that voice and I wanted this character to be an old man looking back on his life and then telling a, just a grand whopper."  But when I read up on Brown after reading, I was surprised that many of the most outrageous of Brown’s exploits were historically accurate. The guy was, in other words, a maniac.

“The Good Lord Bird don't run in a flock. He Flies alone. You know why? He's searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that's taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till the thing gets tired and it falls down. And the dirt from it raises other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes 'em strong. Gives 'em life. And the circle goes 'round.”

Whopper or no, the story of John Brown as told to Henry AKA Henrietta AKA Little Onion is tragic, exciting, and very funny. In fact, James McBride’s decision to tell the story as a humorous satire is very brave. To deal with something as horrifying and embarrassing and complex as slavery with folksy absurdity could very easily feel like making light of tragedy but instead makes it hit all the harder. In last week’s blog I quoted Lauren Groff saying “ Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.” That quote applies here as well. The story of John Brown and the greater story of slavery is tragic, and it takes a deft hand to make it comic. Pretty good work, James McBride.

John Brown’s goal, in the end, was to take the armory at Harper’s Ferry. From there he would rally the slaves and free blacks to build an army and abolish slavery with or without the federal government’s help. Impatient with politics, he took matters in his own hands. He would be remembered forever afterward, his name memorialized in song, that song, “John Brown’s Body,” would later become The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
“He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
His soul is marching on.”
John Brown knew who he was and he didn’t make excuses. Henry spends a lot of time trying to figure out who he is. Nobody in Brown’s army knows of his ruse, yet every black woman he encounters immediately sees through his disguise. To even the tolerant, abolitionist whites, he was just a black child and not worth the scrutiny. At no point does it seem like Brown understands him, instead giving the child a personality of Brown’s own creation. But Henry doesn’t just struggle with his disguise, he struggles with what it means to be a slave, or free in a nation where his people are enslaved. Maybe this not knowing who he is constitutes its own form of slavery.

“A body can't prosper if a person don't know who they are. That makes you poor as a pea, not knowing who you are inside. That's worse than being anything in the world on the outside.”

“We all got to die," she said. "But dying as your true self is always better. God'll take you however you come to Him. But it's easier on a soul to come to Him clean. You're forever free that way. From top to bottom.”

John Brown fought for what was right, and doing so made him a criminal. His views and actions were so radical that even Frederick Douglass was uncomfortable with helping. His actions so incited the slave owning South that it seceded a year later, leading to Civil War and eventual emancipation of the slaves.

And there’s the dilemma. God spoke to John Brown and told him to abolish slavery. And nobody was going to come between John Brown and God. But God also told the slave owners in Ephesians 6:5 “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Lincoln’s own take was this: “My concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” Both statements were rallying cries to rebellion, war, and death.

We've what’s his name (“Captain Moroni”) in Oregon says that he knows that God is on his side because he saw some Canada geese. You guys, he saw birds in a bird refuge. And federal employees whose offices are no longer safe and their families who have nothing to do with any of this are being followed around by armed strangers (many with criminal records) as they try to live their lives.
In my blog I feel like I raise many more questions than answers. This is by design. But here are some questions with my answers: Are these wildlife biologists who spend their days studying wildlife and trying to eradicate carp and reduce invasive weeds and carry out multi-year studies comparable to slave owners? Oh my goodness they are not. Should a woman calling out sexism in video games have a public platform? Of course. Is every cause worth dying for? Nope. Are many? Probably not. Was slavery one of them? I think so.
The Old Man was a lunatic, but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn't no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn't speak their language. He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker. But at least he knowed he was crazy. At least he knowed who he was. That's more than I could say for myself.