Monthly Archives: November 2010

What a Non-Judgmental Account of Sarah Palin Still Shows

I’ve finally had the time to finish “The Rogue Room,” Robert Draper‘s cover article from the November 21 Sunday edition of the New York Times.  It is an inside look at Mayor Palin’s “inner circle” of advisers who the former Alaska Governor thinks she can “trust.”  (Normally the Liberal Ironist uses the honorific to refer to our public figures, in acknowledgment of past contributions and experience; however Palin’s considerable limitations on these counts makes the application of the “Governor” honorific arguably unearned.  While I understand some will find this petty, in Palin’s case I consider it just desserts: She has styled herself in contrast to a professional politician–a strange tactic when considering a run for the most powerful office in the World.  She was a Wasilla–then-pop. ~5,000–city councilman for 4 years and Mayor of Wasilla for 8 years; then she spent several years in the Alaska state bureaucracy and served as Governor of Alaska from December 4, 2006 to late-July 2009.  Considering the near-2 months she spent campaigning with John McCain in 2008, she was the Governor of Alaska, a state kept afloat by massive Federal budget outlays, for just over 2 years.  The likely reason she resigned is because the day-to-day business of actually being Governor of Alaska would have precluded her crafting a credible image as a small-government Conservative.)

The article is Draper’s fruits for a vetting process that went on for months as her irregular, non-hierarchical group of advisers questioned him and debated the merits of his interview.  All of this led to a revealing history of Palin’s past 2-plus years in national politics, an account that reads respectfully but is very unflattering in what it shows about Palin’s mentality and sense of direction.  Consider the consequences of her non-traditional media organization for her own ability to produce opinions on matters of policy:

“Press reports variously name Fred Malek; Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard; and Kim Daniels, a conservative lawyer, as key advisors, when in fact Daniels has not worked for Palin for several months and Malek and Kristol are seldom in contact with her.  ‘It’s nearly every single day we learn a lesson about a person who claims to speak for us or work for us,’ Palin told me.  ‘Seems 9 times out of 10, Todd and I look at each other and say, “Who is this speaking for us?”‘”

This–and the succeeding mention of 4 actual political advisors to Palin who have weekly conference calls without Palin’s input–highlights what makes Palin unequal to the task of the Presidency; having rejected formal titles for her political advisors out of a desire for the freedom to make ad-hoc personnel decisions to reward loyalty, she still feels victimized by her inability to control who will speak on her behalf.  This is a logical outgrowth of her unwillingness to go through normal press channels, to name advisors to recognizable positions that require accountability, and her signature tactic of shooting from the hip, spouting off personal criticisms and trying to de-legitimize other media sources without returning to basic questions of policy or principle.  Her behavior as a national political fixture strongly suggests narcissism: Refusing to act like a professional politician, revealing a bad attitude in the way she talks about her political opposition, and refusing to engage the media the way the other politicians do, she then finds herself compelled to insist that she really wants to talk about the issues, that she has been the victim of a smear campaign, and that the media holds a grudge against her.  The 2 essential features of most past Palin statements that I’ve seen is their personal rather than principled nature, and their hypocrisy of her attacks in light of her own defensiveness.

This brings me to my core criticism of Palin: She has no vision.  Draper revealed this in his long and circumspect account of Palin’s surface-deep evolution in the limelight–and that without even trying:

“…(T)he prevailing narrative of Palin in 2009 was that she was an incompetent ditz.  This year’s story line is that she is a social-media visionary who purposefully circumnavigated the power-alley gasbags and thereby constructed a new campaigning template for the ages.  The reality is that Palin’s direction is determined almost entirely by her instincts–or, as Fred Malek puts it, ‘There is no über-strategy…'”

There isn’t a strategy because Mayor Palin has no goals outside of increasing her own power.  She isn’t trying to change the political culture, to protect a set of political values, to make the country stronger or unleash the entrepreneurial spirit.  For all his faults of judgment, the unsustainable risks of his brash foreign policy and complete naiveté–shared by almost all of us–about the over-leveraging of our financial sector, George W. Bush did in fact possess a vision about where he wanted to take the country.  His about-face from a Realist to a Neoconservative foreign policy was by far the biggest transformation from what he promised to do as President to what he did.  He postured against gay marriage during his 2004 re-election campaign for political advantage and immediately abandoned the issue after his re-election; other than that, he generally meant what he said, and he was as predictable as he was stubborn.  When he defended the majority of Muslims against bigoted hostility after September 11th, or when he promoted immigration reform to give undocumented migrant workers a means to naturalization, he wasn’t doing it to appeal to the Republican base but to expand and transform it.  The despised and very-jaded Karl Rove may have been the idea man, but the President was standing on principle.  Palin, on the other hand, is transparently jockeying for political advantage with her party’s base in the absence of any further purpose.  She says what she says not because she is spirited but because she is concerned with staying in the thoughts of those whom she thinks are already sympathetic.  She has no principles and nothing to do with the power she seeks.  Her early opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque” (actually a Lower Manhattan Islamic community center) and endorsement of the anti-immigrant Tom Tancredo and Sharron Angle in the last election is an example of the sort of demagoguery that George W. Bush never resorted to.

Draper had the opportunity to ask Mayor Palin about her 2006 gubernatorial campaign message of comity between the parties.  Her response was equal parts unremarkable, disappointing and unconvincing: “…(T)hey go home.  It doesn’t matter what you do.  It was the left that came out attacking me.  They showed me their hypocrisy; they showed me they weren’t willing to work in a bipartisan way.  I learned my lesson.  Once bitten, twice shy.  I will never trust that they are not hypocrites until they show me they’re sincere.”

This explanation, which I do not believe, suggests that Palin was willing to entertain bipartisanship until it became a challenge.  One could say she is “once bitten, twice shy;” one could also say she has just claimed she will respond to the low road with the low road.  Our past 3 Presidents, though each would sometimes speak in partisan terms when they felt they were being blocked, didn’t assume their most-vocal opponents spoke for the rest, and didn’t stoop to their level.  Lacking a vision for the country or the perspective to set a good example in her actions, Mayor Palin isn’t a conventional politician; she’s something less, a follower of the crowd.


David Brooks’ Journey, Guerilla Ontology, and His Recent Column on Description as Prescription

There was a period where David Brooks had just 2 approaches to an op-ed column, at least so far as the Liberal Ironist could tell.  After George W. Bush became President, there was the “I know you (dear New York Times reader) think that this thing President Bush wants to do is crazy…but isn’t it in fact the best idea ever?” and the less-frequent but much more-probing “What has become of our culture?”  The former was wishy-washy at best; Brooks has been far more interesting to read since he jumped off the W. Bush Bandwagon.

This Black Friday, November 26, he made a case for rich description of a living and inexhaustible World–as a tool for changing the World.  The column was about Leo Tolstoy, specifically about the author’s transformation from a rigorous novelist who could transform his readers’ perceptions through richness of detail to his old age as a self-professed Christian saint who essentially abandoned his family.  I heartily recommend that those who have access take the time to read Brooks’ op-ed, because the simple distinction he makes between the descriptive novelist with great powers of descriptive evocation and the (apparently self-indulgent) elderly mystic makes for the best Brooks column I have read.  That novel and surprising descriptions of supposedly mundane or foreign elements and persons can gradually transform a person’s beliefs is a core premise of Liberal Ironism; so is Brooks’ Burkean warning in this column against seeking to “improve the world” at the expense of its human cost.  That might seem like it should be an obvious caution in this day and age, but Brooks himself had succumbed to such a temptation through years of watching the past Bush Administration through rose-colored glass.  I won’t condemn Brooks’ naivete opportunistically: By spring 2005 I couldn’t see the instability of our supposedly “transformative” declarative pro-democracy, anti-diplomacy foreign policy any more-clearly than he could.

Brooks’ abandonment of movement Conservatism is well-paralleled in this column that refers to political activism as “admirable, necessary and self-undermining–the more passionate, the more self-blinding.”  Brooks is renewing the distinction between the “thinker” and the “doer,” probably in the front of his mind after his own flirtation with Neoconservatism left him increasingly humbled and alarmed.  Though there would seem to be a gulf between a statesman and a holy man, both share something of the megalomania of trying to grasp the World entire and keep it above-water, or to fix it.  Brooks is probably right to speak of these manifestations of ambition together as “activism,” in the sense that both temporal and spiritual forms of universalist activism are necessary to grapple with many of the border-transcending troubles of Modernity, or to breathe new life into the habitual activities of a complacent political system.  (The Liberal Ironist still holds out hope that, their very-Conservative politics notwithstanding, the Tea Partiers actually represent this underscoring of the terms and stakes of political debate.)

The alternative strategy of change to one of loud declaratives, grand narratives, and lines not crossed (so help me) is guerilla ontology.  Apparently the author Robert Anton Wilson (about whom I frankly know nothing) employed the term to refer to a deliberate mixing of fact and fiction in his writings, deliberately aiming to leave his own readers unsure about what is true.  (Of all places, I actually first encountered this term in the pop philosophy essay collection Lost and Philosophy.)  In practical philosophical or political argument, guerilla ontology is far less-mischievious: It is a means of breaking down an inflexible worldview by presenting compelling but discordant information in a non-threatening way.  Of course, no method of philosophical persuasion is sure to change a person’s mind, as we do not (and should not) have the capacity to dominate another person’s mind, but dogmatism and conceit are often best-confronted not with loud opposition but through a long series of benign but firm challenges.

The most-important thing to give up on is the coveted but pointless imagery of “winning the war” in the philosophical debate in question.  A campaign of guerilla ontology isn’t so much like a match in any sporting event as it is an unsettling conversation of indefinite length.  Novelists and playwrights–and today big-budget TV series and even video games much moreso than is usually possible for movies–are well-equipped to change the World as long as they remember that their most-important messages are not aimed at those who would be most-excited to shake their hand or those primarily in search of a new banner to fly, but to those looking to be equipped with a new way of understanding people:

“In middle age, it was as a novelist that Tostoy achieved his most lasting influence.  After all, description is prescription.  If you can get people to see the world as you do, you have unwittingly framed every subsequent choice.”

You can also do so quite wittingly, in the form of guerilla ontology.  Brooks understands this approach well, but he was undermined for years by a partisan attachment that seemed to unduly shape his political theory.  This subversive tactic should be used responsibly; fortunately, it is most-easily applied to situations where ideology does violence to the innocent–or the guilty, when it fails to offer an analysis or solutions to the problems they face.

This then, would have been the Liberal Ironist’s answer to Tolstoy at the time he felt he had exhausted his creative potential through his novels: One can work to oppose the violence our ideas do to others every day and still always have a mission left to do.  Then we would need only occasionally ask ourselves whether the reforms most-needed are political or personal.

Writing from Half a Year Past on North Korea’s Sinking of the Cheonan

(Here, in near-entirety, is a relatively-short post I wrote elsewhere on North Korea’s sinking last May of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan.  I wrote and posted this exactly half a year ago; in light of North Korea’s surprise attack on South Korean military personnel and civilians and in anticipation of further comment by the Liberal Ironist on what is at stake in the the debate to follow between President Obama and President Lee on how to respond, I thought I’d include this for background.)


…I read a Washington Post article that quoted a North Korea policy expert to the effect that North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan (killing 46 of its crew of 104) may constitute a return to the old adversarial stance that the Kim Regime maintained through the 1970s and 1980s, when the North Korean army would carry out deadly skirmishes against South Korea that would accomplish nothing, seemingly trying to provoke a war. In the years between these violent military incidents there was only icy silence.

In the 1990s the Kim Regime shifted gears to (uh, relatively) conventional saber-rattling, firing a dual-stage cruise missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean here, testing nuclear weapons there, ultimately seeking to extract economic aid from the United States as a reward for not pushing ahead with further weapons tests and deployments while the people under its care starved. Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations credulously accepted the role of assistance-giver that the Kim Regime scripted for them, in part because South Korea’s sudden open-armed embrace of North Korea compelled them to go along to keep the alliance on an even keel, partly because both Administrations probably realized that North Korean state collapse could result in a torrent of mass murder by North Korea’s now-unfunded armed forces on South Korea’s borderlands.

While it may have been effective for pacifying North Korea during flash crises in the late-1990s and early-Oughts, this policy of rewarding the Kim Regime tit-for-tat for backing away from weapons development seems to have failed. If we see a return to violent provocation (they might claim tit-for-tat) of South Korea by the Kim Regime, prospects for peaceful reunification of North and South, let-alone the development of the North, go from unlikely to almost inconceivable. The only viable means of heading-off North Korean state collapse would require the President and Secretary of State prevailing upon the Chinese government to accept that their policy of uncritical material aid and diplomatic protection has inured the Kim Regime to the kind of compromise that could make it a normally-functioning state. At the MPSA Conference this year, I read a draft paper that argued that major powers that provide military and security aid to smaller non-democratic governments frequently push those governments to imprudent behavior that decreases their stability in the long-run, by making compromise with domestic opposition seem unnecessary. With North Korea this effect has manifested both in the way the government keeps its people on the brink of starvation and the way it periodically threatens its Capitalist other; if the Chinese government cannot do anything to draw down the North Korean military force in the long-run and to put those former soldiers into gainful employment in a developing economy, they won’t be able to stop the tide of millions of refugees they’re afraid of when North Korea finally collapses.

Here is Robert Kaplan’s eye-opening October 2006 Atlantic Monthly article on what is at stake in the event of North Korea’s collapse:

John Brown’s Revolt: How Do We Fight a Great Injustice?

Last week the Liberal Ironist offered his impressions of the beautiful village of Harpers Ferry.  Set in West Virginia in a key gap in the Appalachian Mountains west of Washington, DC, Harpers Ferry lay along a key transportation  corridor from the mid-1700s until the early-20th century.  I was struck with how in subtle yet documented ways (it is after all a National Historical Park) the town bears the marks of its infrastructural and economic evolution through these years, offering a rare microcosm of the material transformation of the United States itself.  But I am convinced no event so brilliantly or so darkly demonstrates Harpers Ferry’s role as a microcosm for the country’s transformations as the incident which makes it so famous–the violent October 1859 raid by radical Abolitionist John Brown.

The raid horrified many, but after the eloquence of his defense during his trial–a trial that only occurred because Brown had strangely survived 2 attacks at his last stand from a Marine lieutenant intended as finishing blows–many in the North not previously involved with the Abolition movement began to take an interest in the enormous injustice of slavery.  (Some argue that John Brown’s raid and his trial defense precipitated the Civil War, but in both cases it seems the Federal Government acted consistently and without primarily-moral motivations: In first doing battle with a radical Abolitionist, then waging war on the pro-slavery secessionist States of the South, it was responding to direct challenges to its own power.)

In any case, since Lieutenant Greene didn’t follow through on his sword strokes, John Brown had the chance to speak in his defense in the Charles Town courtroom on November 2, 1859.  He and the captured surviving men of his raiding party had been charged with treason, and there could have been little doubt that they would be found guilty and subject to the Constitutionally-prescribed hanging.  Brown conceded the material facts of the prosecution’s case had “been fairly proved,” and even expressed gratitude for “the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case.”  He expressed his appreciation to the court itself for maintaining the rule of law in giving him his hearing.  Brown claimed he had hoped to carry out an insurrection against slave owners solely and not the government, and that he hadn’t intended to kill anyone.  It had been only weeks since the Raid on Harpers Ferry, and the contest to make John Brown a martyr for humanity or an idiosyncratic fanatic had already begun.

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote a defense of John Brown for his neighbors–though he pointedly sidestepped the events carried out by the raiders at Harpers Ferry and even Brown’s planned long-term campaign.  Thoreau’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson compared Brown to Jesus.  (This is strange considering the extreme pacifism of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the apparent fact that the most-violent Jesus was with people was in throwing over the tables of the money-exchangers; meanwhile John Brown said in his closing remarks in court that if he and his sons had to die “with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!”)  On December 1, 2009 the New York Times hosted a debate on its op-ed page between a City University of New York professor who called on then-Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama to grant John Brown a posthumous pardon and a historian who called Brown the most-successful terrorist in American history to that date.  The Liberal Ironist approached this point-counterpoint with an open mind but frankly hoping to find himself primarily persuaded by 1 side or the other; I came away frustrated with the missed opportunities of both columns.

In “Freedom’s Martyr” David S. Reynolds dwells on Brown’s high-minded intentions; he could have been more forthcoming in his column about the tragic gap that sometimes yawns between our intentions and our actions, between ideology and behavior.  To quote the railroad office manager at the beginning of the equally-misguided Sam Peckinpah Western The Wild Bunch, “I don’t care what you were trying to do; I only care what you did.”  We sometimes vainly succumb to our self-image as moral people even as we are distracted from doing the good works or practicing the virtues we tell ourselves we possess as a result.  To note that Brown was uncompromisingly-opposed to the evils of slavery is an easy defense; it assumes, however, that holding “the right opinions” is more-important than the process used to effect change.  Many revolutions carried out with legitimate grievances against the status quo brought on worse conditions for everyone; knowing how to rebel, they didn’t know how to return to conditions of normality, legitimacy, and peace.

I agreed (in broad strokes) with Horwitz’s column which called Brown a terrorist.  I’ll admit I was inclined to do this, but I’ll also admit I felt compromised or even dirty in doing so.  Horwitz accepts the proposition that John Brown’s Raid catalyzed the Civil War (as though James Buchanan’s inattentiveness, Southern anger over the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860, Southern secession and Lincoln’s refusal to accept the Europeanization of America through national division didn’t sufficiently interact regardless of Brown’s actions or defense).  As a result Horwitz unfortunately draws his disapproval of Brown into an argument against trials for suspected terrorists, apparently endorsing the self-defeating message that the justice system shouldn’t apply to those who don’t recognize it.

John Brown was an uncompromising Abolitionist who recognized that ending slavery in America was an issue worth going to war over; the Liberal Ironist–like almost all Americans today–is with him on this, and we can furthermore acknowledge Brown’s sincerity and commitment to his cause in fighting and dieing to abolish slavery.  However, it is also true that he killed innocent people from the Piedmont and 2 US Marines to abolish slavery, so to focus on his goals without analysis of his strategy and tactics isn’t very different from treating the dreams people tell us they’ve had as if they were more real than the World around them.  We have to consider what John Brown did, and what he might have done.  Regardless of the superior moral insight and courage they may have into a burning issue, it is odd to credit someone who doesn’t express remorse for killing innocents for their moral clarity.

As David Reynolds indicates in his column, Brown intended to seize the weapons at the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry and start a guerilla war against plantation owners based in the Appalachian South.  Reynolds notes that it was “reasonable” for Brown to expect that a guerilla movement could sustain itself in those Appalachians, and that “His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.”  I think this plan (to borrow Mr. Horwitz’s imperfect metaphor) is no more reasonable than the belief of our current terrorist enemies that the current War in Afghanistan will lead to the breakup of the United States.

Brown led 21 other men to Harpers Ferry.  The only way such a contingent could carry out an effective guerilla war throughout the Appalachian South would be through the rapid liberation of thousands of slaves or the recruitment of thousands of (I’d assume primarily-Northern) Abolitionists.  Short of that they had no reason to expect any fate other than a deserved reputation for massacre, or martyrdom.  But perhaps the most-basic objection to Brown is the naiveté of his expectations about Southern whites.  Acts of violence by unreachable states, terrorists or guerilla fighters in the name of an oppressed minority group well-within the power of another government always creates a political opportunity for the government targeted by that state or faction to escalate hostile action against the minority group on whose behalf it claims to wage that fight.  After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks there was both increased government surveillance and arrests among both foreign resident and American Muslims in the US, as well as numerous anecdotal hate crimes, including murders, of Muslims and others.  In response to the December 7, 1941 Japanese surprise attack on our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, our government confined the whole population of Japanese Americans on the West Coast to camps for the duration of the war.  One of the catalysts of the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of about 1.5 million Armenians during World War I was the increased (but militarily-unenforced) political protection European countries had tried to extend to Turkey’s Armenian minority.  What if, rather than choosing to free millions of black slaves in response to growing support among the oppressed for Brown’s guerilla war, slave owners, several Southern State governments or even our own government under later radicalized Southern leadership had resolved to kill off this threatening minority group wholesale, while it remained vulnerable?  Strategic experience throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from our government’s treatment of American Indian tribes that rebelled to the German Empire’s genocide of the Herero in what is now Namibia over 100 years ago to civil wars supposedly waged by guerillas on behalf of impoverished peasants but which sometimes lead to the mass killing of hundreds of thousands or even millions of them, suggests that a gradual and fitful escalation towards Southern genocide of blacks there would be a more-likely response to an effective guerilla war by John Brown than voluntary abolition.  From this perspective, the waging of the Civil War by our Federal Government with virtually no input from slaves in the South, and resulting in their incremental rather than their immediate emancipation, begins to look like a blessing of fortune, if not great prudence on President Lincoln’s part.

But I have gone well off-topic: This is about John Brown the man, because as one who got the big picture right yet made things worse through an ill-thought-out resort to violence, Brown also serves as a symbol.  Having shed the blood of innocents in this town that literally bridges North and South, and the slave-owning coastal Southern Tidewater and the mountainous, poorer, non-slave-owning Southern Piedmont, Brown set himself as the judge of an entire nation yet not of himself.  Our philosophy is meant to inform the choices we make, but it cannot save us from our guilt when it guides us poorly.  Sympathy for the slave can be as corrupting of an ideology as fascism if it blinds us to the murder of a freedman.  Think of the point as essentially the one Jon Stewart made at his Rally to Restore Sanity, but as sort of a widescreen edition.

John Brown’s Raid

On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, John Brown led 21 other men–16 white Abolitionists, 3 free blacks, 1 black freedman and 1 escaped slave–into Harpers Ferry, Virginia, cutting the telegraph line following the railroad track west out of the village to buy themselves time before the Federal Government found out what they were doing.  Frustrated by the declining mobilization for his stalled antislavery insurgency along Southern Appalachia, John Brown had decided to act as quickly as possible to inspire slaves and Abolitionists to his cause.  Brown considered the Federal armory there a key resource; PBS reports it held 100,000 muskets and rifles.  By around the 11:00 pm the raid was underway: Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of President George Washington, and even several of his slaves were taken hostage.  Whether from fear of exposure or hubris Brown’s party captured a Baltimore & Ohio inter-city passenger train as it pulled into the station there.  When a B & O baggage handler on the train named Hayward Shepherd confronted the erstwhile hostage-takers, they shot him, mortally-wounding him.  John Brown’s Raid had claimed its first victim: A black freedman who was gainfully-employed.

He wasn’t the last local victim of the Raid.  Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham, also the B & O railroad agent, knew Shepherd.  After attending to the dying railroad man, he tried to slip into town.  One of Brown’s men saw him and shot him in the head.  After this brief spate of probably-unexpected multiple murder, Brown allowed the train to proceed on its way; unsurprisingly, the conductor quickly notified the ownership, telling them that about 300 rebels had taken control of the village.  (He could only have obtained such a wildly-exaggerated sense of their numbers from their general convergence on the station at the time; in fact, the initial telegraph reply to the conductor from his railroad superiors strangely but accurately insisted that he couldn’t have seen what he thought he saw and asked him to calm down.)

The remainder of this account of the raid and the following siege is taken almost mainly from the well-detailed account in The Confederate Military History, Volume 3, Chapter II, written by Jed Hotchkiss in an entry that is currently available online.  As the people of Harpers Ferry emerged from their homes in the early morning on Monday, October 17, Brown’s raiding party took them hostage, ultimately taking about 60 against their will.  While they had managed to take the Federal armory that evening, the raid wasn’t detected by any still-free armory workers until the next morning. By 11:00 am–about 12 hours after Brown’s raiding party attacked Harpers Ferry–citizen militia from nearby Charles Town, Shepherdstown and Martinsburg took the B & O bridge that connected Harpers Ferry to Maryland.  Since Brown’s party lacked the numbers to take on the militia and could no longer walk through the middle of a Harpers Ferry now in a defensive posture, they were trapped.  Brown retreated from his makeshift headquarters at the Allstadt House to the low-lying and relatively-defensible engine house south of the train station, near the banks of the Rivers.  His party took 9 of their most-prominent hostages with them.  Brown sent his second-in-command and one of his sons out to the militia for parley; both were shot and mortally wounded, though there was a subsequent effort to provide medical aid for the former.  For their part, the citizens’ militia was able to keep the rump group from leaving the engine house but lacked either the means or the inclination to take it by force.

They wouldn’t have to, because by now the Federal Government was quite aware of the raid, and was ready to act.  While several companies of the US Army from Frederick, Baltimore and elsewhere had already deployed to strengthen the cordon, by around 3:30 pm on the 17th President James Buchanan temporarily promoted Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee to Colonel, ordering him to take charge of military operations at Harpers Ferry with a contingent of Marines under his command. (To take command Lee traveled not from a base but from his home in Arlington, Virginia.)  Preferring to resolve the situation with a more-precise use of violence, Lee turned down an offer of artillery and waited until the morning of the 18th in the hope of preventing accidental killings of hostages during the final offensive against the raiding party.

Lee offered Brown and his men safety in custody for their surrender–“to await orders of the President.”  Brown rebuffed him.  Having deployed the Army units to the armory and to block escape into the village, Lee first offered the militia commanders the lead in the raid on the engine house; when they refused the role he called in the Marines.  12 Marines successfully approached the engine house under cover, first trying unsuccessfully to break through its reinforced doors with sledge hammers, then making a makeshift battering ram of a large ladder and breaking in.  1 Marine was killed, but the rest were able to capture or kill the rest of the raid party at bayonet-point.  The following raid of the Kennedy farm by Marines under Colonel Lee’s assistant, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, uncovered a vast store of supplies Brown had intended for an extended guerilla campaign against slaveowners.

John Brown’s failed raid on the Federal armory in Harpers Ferry led to the battle death of 10 of his party; the 7 captured were convicted of treason, while 5 escaped and were never arrested.  6 locals, including the freedman Shepherd, Mayor Beckham and 2 slaves, were killed by the raiders, as were 2 Marines.  But the irony of this result was lost on Brown when he stood trial.  Lieutenant Israel Greene, the Marine who personally subdued Brown, claimed that in the heat of the 3-minute skirmish he had tried twice to kill him, he succeeded merely in subduing him, ensuring he would have a chance at his trial to express himself.  The alternate endeavors of lionizing and demonizing John Brown were already well underway, and will be the subject of my next post.

Harpers Ferry in Fall

This Thursday I visited Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for the first time–though I have previously passed through it 4 times.  It was a mild mid-November day–much of which was overcast, but with enough sunlight still falling on the maple and oak trees to give them the respective yellow and red luminescence they have at the peak of the changing of the leaves.  I remark on this because it can be pretty hard to arrange to go somewhere at a good time to see the leaves at their brightest, whether it be cherry blossoms in the spring or maples and oaks turning in the fall; this time I had a bit of luck, and in spite of the clouds I had the chance to see Harpers Ferry as I hoped to see it.

On the right is the engine house which John Brown's remaining raiding party fortified after finding themselves surrounded by citizens' militia from nearby Charles Town, Martinsburg and Winchester, on October 17, 1859 at about 11:00 am. They'd had the run of Harpers Ferry for the past 12 hours, but the militia would keep them pinned down in that building until the next morning, at which time (unappetizing final negotiations having failed) 12 camouflaged Marines under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee (!) broke into the engine house with a battering ram, suppressing the raiders and freeing their remaining 9 hostages.


Part of my reason for dwelling on weather conditions and the color of the leaves is to foreground the fact that cities and towns go through cyclical changes that can feel as significant as those historical phases they will never pass through again.  Harpers Ferry, an old transportation gateway to the Ohio Valley perched on a steep hillside at the convergence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, is a small village that has seen its fortunes rise and fall due to economic trends, social movements, wars and the disastrous but recurrent flooding of the Rivers.  Today Harpers Ferry seems to make a good living primarily through the telling of its own surprising story; it sounds like a great gig for a place that can give an account of itself with apt reserve.  As the railroad through Harpers Ferry was a strategic transportation corridor until the car siphoned the through traffic out of the Village, over a century and a half of American history and purpose left its imprint on Harper’s Ferry–after which time it seems to have become a self-representing tourist destination.  I say that Harpers Ferry self-represents rather than that “time stands still there,” because the Liberal Ironist doesn’t believe time stands still for anything, regardless of how beautifully it ages.

Every previous time I’ve passed through Harpers Ferry has been by train.  Amtrak runs intercity lines west from Washington, DC that snake in and out of western Maryland and West Virginia.  Moving westbound the village sneaks up on you; as you pass through a tunnel on the edge of Maryland your train suddenly emerges onto a trestle crossing the Potomac River; when the train comes to a stop you’re in Harpers Ferry–barely.  While the village itself sprawls a bit beyond the top of a 530-foot-plus above sea level hill, the “downtown” that visitors would tour is actually smaller than it appears to be from the train, because it’s hard to recognize how defensively it’s huddled against the hill behind it, and the Capitol Limited runs on tracks that skirt the edge of the village the long way.

The Harpers Ferry train station. Immediately to the east of the station, the railroad tracks pass on a trestle over the Potomac River, then directly into a tunnel the moment they pass into Maryland on the far side. This modest station is the first West Virgina stop on the direct line connecting Washington, DC to the Midwest. The station was founded by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and marks a milestone in its (inevitably-victorious) competition with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was bought by CSX in 1987; since its founding by the Federal Government in 1971, Amtrak--and now MARC, the Maryland-area commuter railroad--has primarily used the station though it rents the infrastructure from CSX. The first 2 (and arguably the most-famous) fatalities of the Raid were the first: A black freedman B & O baggage handler at the station apparently protested when the raiders detained a passenger train and was shot in the back; after tending to the dying man's injuries, Mayor Fontaine Beckham, who was also the B & O station agent, then tried to run into town when he was murdered by a sharpshooter who was with Brown.


In any event, Harpers Ferry is one of the most-beautiful places I have ever seen.  The atmosphere at the pub where I had lunch seemed one of habituation to tourists, but wasn’t crass or sterile.  Again, the Liberal Ironist doesn’t make this distinction to idolize some myth of small town simplicity or reflexive harmony.  I got the impression that the people of Harpers Ferry know exactly what it is: It’s a remarkably well-preserved early-industrial village whose variety of quirks in geography, infrastructure and surviving commercial buildings inevitably fascinate those who happen either to stumble upon it or to seek it out.  This element of self-representation is certainly partly an outgrowth of the village’s status as a National Historical Park.

As an indication of Harpers Ferry’s wilderness setting, the Appalachian Trail actually passes through the village.

Harpers Ferry sits on a high hill in a low, narrow gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  In the mid-19th century Harpers Ferry was a focal site of the competition between the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad–the first railroad in America whose current descendant is major continental railroad CSX–and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, both stretching west through Maryland on their way to open up the American interior to regular commerce.  As a testament to the way technological change transformed economic expectations–and to the way both in turn transformed the physical landscape–the C & O Canal beat the B & O Railroad to Harpers Ferry due to the latter’s land disputes in Maryland, but the Railroad beat the Canal to the Ohio River.  Today the railroad track through Harpers Ferry serves as an important freight and intercity passenger corridor, and even carries MARC commuter trains to and from fairly-distant Washington, DC; the C & O Canal is simply for recreation.

One of the museum shops on Shenandoah Street is one of the first stores in the country to sell mass-manufactured clothing, having opened its doors in 1858.  The first mass-produced clothing greatly reduced the cost of relatively high-quality clothing, but it still couldn’t be called well-made because nothing was fitted.  There was no standardized system of limb length or waist width; it was simply a matter of luck to buy a mass-produced coat (let-alone a pair of pants!) in which all parts fit even reasonably-well.  According to a plaque put up by the US National Park Service just inside the store’s doors, our system of fitted clothing is largely an historical outgrowth of mass conscription during the Civil War, as the United States War Department took the most-extensive (and representative) clothing measurements ever undertaken in men, for the benefit of a large conscription army facing an otherwise-grueling existence.

For some reason, I found the recognition that I was standing in one of the first wholesale clothing stores exhilarating.  There were the racks along the walls for hanging shirts and coats…there were the wide tables that pants are folded and stacked on…The Liberal Ironist could see the essential elements of a modern clothing outlet store about.  In fact, all around Harpers Ferry there is a physical record, in varying states of repair, of that long process–sometimes slow, sometimes a frenzied rush–of exploration, tenacious settlement, infrastructure-building, production for economies of scale and commerce that really has made this country great.

As a way of assuring the reader that I’m too coy about this treasure of a town, my next post will be about John Brown’s violent raid on Harpers Ferry, and on the importance of humaneness in thought and action when fighting an unjust status quo.

Congressional Republicans and the Problem of Partisanship in Foreign Policy

Last Wednesday, soon-to-be House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican with strong partisan credentials as the House Minority Whip, had a meeting in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States and Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor.  During this meeting, Cantor assured Netanyahu “that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington.  He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other.”

That quote is from Cantor’s own press release on the meeting.

The meeting has already gained infamy both among numerous American politics junkies and many with an interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, at least from a non-Likud perspective.  Adam Serwer, blogging for The American Prospect, noted that Cantor apparently committed a felony on terms he had previously invoked, a position readily seconded by Andrew Sullivan, while the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank more-circumspectly but no more-approvingly quipped that “it must be reassuring to all sides that Cantor will serve as a vital check on peacemaking efforts.”

Eric Cantor put in serious time for his party and is one of a handful of top Republican Representatives who can claim a large share of the credit for their party’s historic performance in the recent midterm elections.  But back in spring 2007 he issued fighting words when he suggested (in a hedging way) in the National Review that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit with Bashar Assad in Syria violated the Logan Act, which makes diplomatic engagements with foreign governments a felony for those not authorized to do so.  In short, he suggested (on the authority of unspecified others) that Speaker Pelosi had committed a felony.  1 week ago, his office released a statement declaring that he had just given assurances to the Israeli Prime Minister that the Republican majority in the House would protect “the special relationship between Israel and the United States.”

Many of our public figures believe in a special relationship between Israel and the United States.  I don’t think many would argue that includes a Congressional leader’s prerogative to make policy commitments to the Israeli Prime Minister–not the least when the President has asked Netanyahu to suspend settlement construction in East Jerusalem for 90 days to clear the air for further negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.  Cantor has just expressed to Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that, if he should run out the clock without striking any further agreement with President Abbas, he could count on the Republicans in the House to “serve as a check on the Administration,” that being his ability to use aid or diplomatic leverage to keep Israel engaged in talks–the sort of pressure that could actually give Netanyahu political cover to commit to an agreement.  Does that sound like a felony to me?  Why yes, actually, it does.

So far, this is just another glass raised to a point already made, with added emphasis on the point that Cantor’s unnecessary partisan intervention could actually have an active role in undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which warrants a serious look at prosecution.  The Liberal Ironist would like to add, however, that this point is not made out of partisanship but commitment to the integrity of US foreign policy, solely.  I was equally unhappy with Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Syria back in 2007.  I liked the idea of exploring the possibility of improved relations with Syria (and found Cantor’s invective for “legitimizing” and “emboldening” a “a ruthless thug” granting “unyielding support for terrorism” a bit hypocritical, considering good US relations with several other governments in the region).  That said, foreign policy is the rightful prerogative of the Executive Branch except insofar as Congress has to take legal or financial consequences of policy, or that the Senate has to ratify treaties or appointments.  The interpretation and Constitutional legitimation of the law, for that matter, is the rightful prerogative of the Judicial Branch.  Matters such as foreign policy and the law were intended to be, can be and should be free from ordinary politics.  Speaker Pelosi stepped out of bounds in April 2007, and soon-to-be Majority Leader Cantor just did the same in last Wednesday’s meeting with Netanyahu.  This time, it may have consequences for millions of Israelis and Palestinians.  I’m not naive to say that they both should have put their country first; I think it’s naive to say otherwise.  Normally, partisanship is one’s right as an American, but Cantor’s too-friendly gesture should lead to round condemnation at least.