Thursday, April 27, 2006

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 27: Trivializing John Brown the "madman"

Goodbye to old Ohio, for we are southward bound
We're gonna fight for freedom with Captain John Brown
We'll march into Virginia with the truest of the brave
Down to the plantations to liberate the slave

                       - Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino, "Goodbye to Old Ohio"

I've always been fascinated by "psychohistory".  But I also realize it's a very tricky field.  Kenneth Carroll's contribution to Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (2005), "A Psychological Examination of John Brown", is a good example of why.
It makes a lot of sense to try to use psychology to understand historical characters and events.  But it's also something that requires careful fact-checking.  A classical example is one of the pioneering works in that area, Sigmund Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci (1910).  Freud took as his starting point a childhood dream of Da Vinci's, which involved a vulture.  He explored various mythological and artistic representations of vultures and what they symbolized and used that to make some inferences about Da Vinci.  There was a small problem, though: he relied on a faulty German translation of Da Vinci's Latin.  The dream was about a kite, not a vulture.  Oops!
Carroll's essay exhibits some of the same flaws.  Except that Freud's Da Vinci study had a lot of other things to recommend it.  Carroll hangs a far-reaching assumption on some pretty thin threads.
To be fair, space limitations may have prevented him from providing some more convincing details.  But his argument as it appears is far from convincing.  Carroll argues, "The evidence that [John Brown] was mentally ill is clear and abudant".  If so, it's more than a little remarkable that his essay essentially relies on the same old arguments of Brown's detractors.
I wouldn't assume that Carroll was constructed a smear job on Brown.  But his essay lends itself far too easily to pro-Confederate arguments that dismiss Brown as a madman.  His concluding paragraphs provide good illustration of the problems in his argument:
Perhaps the more interesting question is this: Had Brown not been laboring under the influence of his illness, would Harpers Ferry or his adventures in Kansas have happened at all? Again, probably not. Had he not been driven by his illness, Brown, in all likelihood, might have stayed in one place, put down roots, attended more faithfully to his domestic responsibilities, and applied himself more prudently to his businesses. Given his intelligence and moral character, he would probably have fared well. He would have been too busy and too duty bound to neglect family and business to go crusading. He would have had less need to compensate for failures with dreams of glory because he would have had too much to lose. In short, he might have been an ordinary man.  (Russo/Finkelman; 135; my emphasis)
This is a classic example of how psychohistory can slip, intentially or not, into crude reductionism.  That paragraph could charitably be described as reflexively conservative.  "Bone-deep reactionary" might not be too much of a reach.
I mean, how pitiful is this assumption, really.  An "ordinary man" - a healthy man, a responsible man - would never have been been moved to fight Border Ruffians in Kansas on behalf of free elections and democratic government.  Or to actively oppose slavery.  Or to put patriotic, religious or compassionate concerns ahead of purely selfish and familial interests.
Oil and business barons like Bush, Cheney and Rummy going into politics to help their cronies make money and invading a Middle Eastern country in pursuit of those psychiatrically healthy goals, now that's responsible and normal.  But some white guy, who wasn't wealthy or anything like normal, healthy people all are, who wants to go off crusading to free black slaves, who goes off "crusading" in his fifties to fight for democracy and the principles of the American Revolution?  Well, he must be crazy as a loon!
You have to wonder what someone with such assumption would have to say about the mental health of Americans who volunteer for military service.  How would they go about "honoring the troops", as all good conservatives are supposed to do, when the only people who would volunteer for service are those who are unable to "have stayed in one place, put down roots, attended more faithfully to his domestic responsibilities, and applied himself more prudently to his businesses".
Yeah, I'm leaning toward "bone-deep reactionary" to describe this assumption.  Carroll continues:
But he was, of course, an extraordinary man with great charisma and energy who threw himself into a noble cause. He was in some ways a genius or at least a visionary. Indeed, much has been written about the close connection between genius and madness.  (Russo/Finkelman; 135)
Yeah, a lot has been written about that.  And some large portion of it is bunk.  To take a couple of examples from country music, was Gram Parsons' creativity and artistic production enhanced by his drug problems that killed him in his 20s?  Has George Jones been helped by his alcholism more than hindered?  Did Johnny Cash's recurring bouts with drug problems, dramatized in the movie Walk The Line, help him be a better artist?
And, besides, who ever claimed John Brown was a "genius"?  Passionate, talented, intelligent, brave and a lot of other things, yes.  But if even admiring biographers like DuBois, Villard and Reynolds gave any emphasis to argue that he was a "genius", it somehow failed to stick in my memory.  It just sounds like a gratuitous association of Brown to "madness".  Carroll continues:
Hundreds of notable people in the arts, literature, science, and public life have suffered from a major mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, and have had brilliant periods of creative energy punctuated by episodes of psychosis.  There is a very fine line between the ability to view the world in new and unconventional ways and the inability to understand convention and maintain contact with mundane reality. Often, they are two sides of the same coin, and some people are better than others at managing this mixed blessing and curse. Some are able to harness the forces of their powerful emotions and differently constituted minds and drive them toward creative discovery. Others, unfortunately, lose the reins and are driven out of control. ...
And so the critical difference between genius and madness is one of competence and control. Brown, if he ever had it, lost such control and, impelled by powerful internal forces he could neither understand nor regulate, tumbled headlong into the vortex.
And, for good or ill, pulled the world in after him.  (Russo/Finkelman; 135-6; my emphasis)
Now, John Brown may or may not have suffered from some clinical disorder.  But was he "understand convention and maintain contact with mundane reality"?  Did he lose the reins of his mind and go out of control?  Was he "impelled by powerful internal forces he could neither understand nor regulate, tumbled headlong into the vortex"?
To put it briefly, no.  It could be argued that he made a strategic mistake in his plan for "taking the war into Africa" (the South).  He certainly made a tactical error at Harpers Ferry by remaining in the town too long, and also in releasing a train that came into town, allowing the passengers and crew to notify the authorities faster.  But his planning and execution of the raid didn't show any loss of touch with "mundane reality".
And losing control?  I would think that any search for psychological analysis of John Brown should focus instead on his remarkable degree of discipline.  If anyone ever had a stern super-ego, it was him.
His other implied assumption in those quotations also don't hold up.  Brown's business dealings have been hashed over in detail by biographers, and their assessments of his talents differ.  But so far as I can see, he suffered from some overconfidence and perhaps an excessive perfectionism at time.  But the notion that he was somehow careless about his business undertakings or unable to focus on them or the like just doesn't hold up.
The same is true of his family life.  His children were devoted to him, as were both of his wives.  He raised twelve children to adulthood.  And his "crusading" in Kansas dates to 1856; he entered the Kansas Territory when he was 55 years old and several of his adult children were already there.  The ideal suburban father of TV sitcoms he was not.  But he was far from neglecting his family.  On the contrary, he was clearly very concerned with them.  And, unlike many fathers of his time and situation, he was insistent that his girls as wellas boys needed formal education.  The girls in the Brown family clearly enjoyed more equal treatment to the boys than in most American families of the time.
Carroll's conclusions are so far from matching the facts of Brown's life in those cases that it calls his whole argument into question.
Given those kinds of assumptions, it's hard to see how he would have come up with a meaningfull result.  The only reason he was writing about Brown or that I'm writing about him now or that anyone is reading about him is that he was a famous antislavery fighter.  If you start from the assumption that there was something inherently abnormal and unhealthy about a willingness to take risks to fight against slavery and for democracy, what other conclusion can you draw than that Brown was sick in the head?  Along with every pretty much other Abolitionist activist, social worker, minister, soldier, or Good Samaritan that every lived.
As far as the actual methods he used to conclude that Brown either suffered from bipolar disorder ("manic-depression") or paranoid schizophrenia, they are pretty questionable.  One was that he had three people who had studied Brown closely take the MMPI-2 psychological test and answer the questions as though they were Brown.  Carroll avoids elaborate claims for the validity of this problematic approach.  But his essay treats it as though it was largely convincing - even though the results indicated things like "His petulant, demanding behavior may place a great deal of strain on his marriage", which would likely be difficult to document from other available material.  (Apart from being so vague that almost any married couple would fit the description.)
The other source of his diagnostic approach was to take 19 affidavits  that Brown's supporters submitted to Virginia Governor Henry Wise to persuade him not to execute Brown.  Carroll writes:
It has been suggested that Brown's friends and relatives, anxious to save his life, may have exaggerated or contrived their accounts of his symptoms.  This seems highly unlikely.  (Russo/Finkelman; 124)
Say what?  These were his supporters trying to keep him from being put to death.  That doesn't mean we should assume that everything that was inthose documents was false.  But since they were explicitly provided in an attempt to save the life  of someone they supported by arguing that he was mentally unfit, any of their specific claims bearing on his mental health would have to be regarded with great care in the absence of specific supporting documentation.  Just to be clear: these were not documents gathered by some independent police or Congressional investigations.  They were documents secured by Brown's supporters to prevent his execution.
Whatever the state of Brown's clinical mental health really was, Kenneth Carroll's arguments hardly seem definitive.  Or even especially plausible.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

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