Law in Contemporary Society

John Brown 2012

-- By KippMueller - 16 Feb 2012

The World We Live In

I'm very insecure about my conscious indifference to the matrix we live in.

To see it play out, I don't have to look further than a day in my life. In the morning, I put on a shirt and pants made in a sweat shop somewhere in South Asia. I never bothered to research the conditions of those shops, but I know how it goes.

I lace up some shoes sewn by children and I walk to a local coffee shop to buy coffee. The coffee is made from beans which were purchased from plantations in Latin America that have extremely harsh, slave-like conditions for workers. I'll pick up a banana too. That one will be courtesy of Chiquita, also known for the wide selection of healthcare plans and lavish lifestyles they offer on their plantations.

Then I head to law school, where I spend enough money to feed villages, print enough paper to kill forests and dedicate endless hours to transcendental nonsense instead of building things and reaching out to those in need. I look at something seemingly trivial, like my lunch meat. I realize I just made a donation to Monsanto, a company that injects artificial hormones into our food, treats both human workers and animals in extremely inhumane ways, bullies small farmers to crush competition and poisons our environment with toxic chemicals.

Sometimes, in fact often, I don't realize it at all. And if I am thinking about it, I am too often indifferent to it. Most of the time I think about it, recognize my indifference to it, and become saddened by my indifference.

Oftentimes, we talk about our "footprint". Our footprint goes well beyond a car we drive or a political donation we make. It's the day to day to day.

As for our "convictions": What about them? The guy walking down the street has a Che Guevara shirt. He got a great deal on it, because it was made in Vietnam. I'm not sure if he sees the irony, but I do. I talk about what I believe around school. To what end?

There's my convictions, and then there's my life. I feel like the guy in the "Made in Vietnam" Che Guevara shirt. And I don't know to reconcile my convictions with my life, but I'd like to find a career where I can answer that question. Recently, I found myself wondering what John Brown would do.

Who Would John Brown Be Today?

Would he be the guy in the Che shirt? Would John Brown drive a car, purchasing gasoline provided courtesy of Halliburton? Would he go to war with Halliburton?

Would he stand for every human rights cause one could stand for in this multifaceted, infinitely more complicated world than the one he inhabited? Would he be Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt and Cesar Chavez all rolled into one?

Ultimately, I'm wondering whether John Brown could live in America today at all.

He could subsist on food made locally and clothes sewn in America, but what about his tax payments which fund private militias in the Middle East that have slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians?

He needs a computer to hash out his plans, but the titanium in the computer was purchased from warlords and malevolent mining corporations in Africa. He sits at a desk made of wood from the Amazon, cut by timber companies that are displacing thousands of villages in Latin America and causing the extinction of millions of species.

How much would John Brown give up?

My Modern Reinterpretation of John Brown

To live a moral life in the first world, sometimes I think you just have to pick your battle. After all, if everyone did, the world would likely be cured of its corruptions. Perhaps if John Brown were alive today, he'd periodically purchase desks made of wood cut in the Amazon, but he'd fight for worker's rights in Peru. And the woman next to him wouldn't be fighting for worker's rights in Peru all the time, but she'd be fighting to stop the timber companies from cutting the wood in the Amazon. And maybe, between the two of them, they could come closer to embodying John Brown in the 1850s.

Maybe the purity and absolutism with which John Brown fought for freedom and lived his life (at least as I imagine it) isn't something a single person can replicate in today's infinitely complicated world, but rather an identity a community or even a nation could aspire to attain, together.

Or maybe I'm bullshitting. Maybe John Brown would sequester himself from all of this and fight the good fight. It could very well be that I'm simply rationalizing because I don't have the fortitude to give up my life, so I blame the world around me. Maybe John Brown wouldn't put on that shirt and those pants in the morning. Maybe he wouldn't pick up a coffee on the way to class.

I'd like to think I would've been by his side in the 1850s, willing to give up my life. I want to live like I'm by his side in the world we inhabit today. But I can't even answer the question as to whether I have the courage to live the life of John Brown because I don't know what that would imply in the first place. Whatever it does mean, I hope I'm always striving towards it.

I'm not talking about the actual man so much as what he represents, at least to me. To me, John Brown represents a person who stood for the right thing well beyond what was culturally acceptable or convenient. He stood for true moral convictions, absent any regard for the line we're not supposed to cross - the line where NGO meets radicalism. John Brown was well past the line where convictions became "uncivilized" or "radical". He was questioning the unquestioned. He was hanged for that.

I'm wondering how many questions he would be asking in today's world. As the questions grow in both size and quantity, so too does the sacrifice.

I suppose I'm not wondering about John Brown at all. I want to know where my line is and how far it deviates from society's line - how far I'm willing to deviate. I want to know how many questions I'm willing to ask, even when it's less than convenient. Can I stand against criticism, opprobrium; the figurative or literal threat of the noose? That's what I want to learn of myself through my career.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Martin Luther King Jr.

Where will I stand? And you?

I found your piece engaging. It's really interesting to think about how revolution would look in our world or how revolution should look in our world. John Brown picked a single cause and died for it. I think the real question is when you find that thing that you can't tolerate, that thing in the world that you can't bare to live with, will you fight to end it? As long as there is inequality, there will be injustice. If you are still drinking the coffee, then that's not where your fight is and that's your choice. Slavery was one injustice of many in Mr. Brown's day. He picked the one he couldn't handle. I don't think the issue is so much one of picking your battles as it is knowing your limits. The only thing we can do is keep learning about the way the world really works until we find the thing we can't handle. At that point let's introduce ideas of courage.

Thanks Rachel!

This response isn't so much of a response... just my stream of consciousness based on what you said.

What I'm ultimately getting at in this piece doesn't really have to do with John Brown's actual life so much as what he symbolizes to me. I think living in a privileged country with a privileged life, as we all do, requires some level of rationalization. Purchasing a piece of art or an iPad or even a chair is allocating resources that exist on this earth towards yourself. These are resources that could otherwise be allocated towards feeding a family, if we choose to do so.

What I'm trying to find, and constantly coming short of finding, is where enough is enough. How do you draw that line? And if you come short of depriving yourself of all luxuries, knowing that the purchases you're making could feed or vaccinate or educate, how do you justify it?

I didn't want to go down the path that some conservatives would likely take, just because it's very uninteresting to me: You earned it, it's your money, blah blah. That's premised of course on the revolting idea that we live in a Me vs. You world rather than Me and You world.

Assuming arguendo that you (whoever you are reading this) and I share a "Me and You" worldview, how does one choose battles without complete self-sacrifice? And how is it justifiable when I refuse to fight a battle that I know is an injustice?

I know there's just not really an answer to that question. But it's one worth asking... I suppose?

-- KippMueller

This is not a satisfying answer, but I think it's all I've got because the right balance isn't at one end of the spectrum or the other. Doing nothing to help others is inhuman(e), but trying to throw yourself at every problem you see isn't going to make you a very effective agent. John Brown, for example, focused zealously on abolitionism...slavery was the wrong that he couldn't bear not confronting. I don't think the fact that he wasn't also off fighting to break up the Trail of Tears makes him any less Good. I'm not as good as he was, but I don't think making a comfortable life for yourself is something to be ashamed of, if it doesn't prevent you from working against whatever wrong keeps you up at night.

-- MarcLegrand


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r14 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:38 - IanSullivan
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