How John Brown's legacy disrupted the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.
John Brown tested America. As the Irish poet William Allingham saw, the abolitionist who waged holy war against slavery was like a touchstone: a dense, opaque surface against which the metal of the nation could be rubbed to reveal its true composition.
Americans have pressed the questions of the day against the hard memory of John Brown in every decade since his execution in 1859. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X all called upon memories of Brown to talk about slavery and its legacies in the United States. But Brown has also been used as a touchstone for other questions. Early in the twentieth century Eugene V. Debs made the case for socialism by calling for a “John Brown of wage slavery.” At mid-century C. Vann Woodward painted Brown as an extremist and used his image to criticize Cold War fanatics on every side. In the 1970s the Weather Underground named their journal Osawatomie to evoke memories of the place where Brown directed the killing of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. Twenty years later Timothy McVeigh appealed to Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry as a precedent for his attack on the Murrah Federal Building. Christopher Hitchens, Barbara Ehrenreich, and a host of others have recalled Brown’s story in efforts to think through terrorist violence in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Most recently, Cornel West called upon Brown’s legacy to resist the security apparatus that has emerged in response to those attacks:
Brother Edward Snowden is the John Brown of the national security state. He's the canary in the mine. http://t.co/yVOqdnFMbP— Cornel West (@CornelWest) June 28, 2013