Sunday, 2 October 2011

“Bad Bishop Brown” and the missing ideas

What could have softened the globalized blows to my sad old home village, the once thriving city of Galion, Ohio? [see post of 9/27 below, ‘Requiem for a Town’]. It has a charming physical landscape of gentle hills surrounded by solid-gold, Corn Belt farm lands, and it once was home to well-educated, industrious and civic-minded inhabitants, many of German Catholic or Calvinist origins, entirely disposed to remain there. But it was sent to the economic slaughterhouse by its own business elite, who built it up when times were good and shook its dust off their Gucci boots when it was time to jettison the place and seek profit elsewhere.

The local unions did grumble in the early stages of this dismantling, but there was no cultural or ideological foundation for unionism or social democratic/socialist politics upon which to construct real resistance. The Cold War was still in full force, and anything vaguely leftish was dangerously taboo—even everyday liberals were whispered about as suspect ‘pinkos’ during our ‘50s childhoods. The lasting symbol of this heretical radicalism was the abandoned downtown mansion of ‘Bad Bishop Brown’, the late Episcopal bishop who was drummed out the church and defrocked as a communist—which he was. In 1925 Brown had the distinction of being the first churchman tried for heresy since the Reformation, which he promptly turned into a book entitled, naturally, ‘My Heresy’.

We went to school next to this rambling, brick structure with an enclosed walkway to the old carriage house where a faint, eerie light always burned. For us kids the place was obviously haunted, and the idea that the last resident was a creepy old commie red meant that for sure he would snatch us from beyond the grave and do horrible things to us if we dared to get too close. I don’t remember anyone even making the suggestion that we try to get inside and roam the abandoned rooms. Our teachers said that since he had left his estate to the CP, the place was tied up in court, and so matters stood for decades.

Galion managed to acquire the Brown mansion, and the local historical society now runs a lovely museum there with fascinating material. Brown turns out to have been quite a character. He was such a charismatic preacher that the Episcopal hierarchy, impressed with the new converts he drew, made him a bishop and then sent him to Arkansas in 1899 for seven years—more on that later. But Brown had had a difficult and abusive childhood and cared about the downtrodden as his Christian faith instructed. He immediately sympathized with the Russian Revolution when it occurred, which of course meant trouble.

We had a tour of the place during the weekend of our class reunion, and the town seems to have made its peace with BBB’s ruby-red past, no doubt made easier by the demise of the Soviets he championed. The young lady curators can speak of ‘the Bishop’ respectfully and remind visitors, while viewing the hammer and sickle engraved on the floor tiles, that he handed out meal vouchers to hobos during the depression and was friends with Helen Keller and Eugene V. Debs. We even learned that our famed and acclaimed drama coach, the late Miriam Sayre, had read to the Bishop as a young girl when his eyesight failed, and we saw the study where this occurred, festooned with portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Since Brown paid for Miss Sayre’s education at Ohio State, we also were beneficiaries of his largesse without knowing it.

Aside from the curiosities [such as the priceless item at right that the bishop authored], however, the museum exhibition doesn’t really answer the question of what turned a small-town Christian pastor into a sophisticated champion of socialist thought? I don’t know enough of the story, but I suspect the break occurred during his sojourn in the Jim Crow South as bishop of Arkansas. Eventually, he was politely invited to leave the state as his thinking did not square with that of the locals, and we can imagine that the experience of official racism lovingly embraced by his Christian institution must have rattled his cage profoundly. Brown wrote a pamphlet on ‘The crucial race question’ dated 1907, just after his return.

From there it might well have been a fairly easy leap to question the entire structure upon which his life previously had been built. Continuous reading, as evidenced by his book-lined studies, must have introduced him to the ferment of iconoclastic ideas circulating in the early decades of the century, and then the Bolshevik upheaval put the icing on the cake. It’s easy to see the folly of enthusiasm for old Joe Stalin from our post hoc perspective, but a strong-willed intellect seeking to understand his world—and change it—could have found a lot of answers in the radical currents of the times.

I linger on this history in part because I relived it in my own way, five decades later. We were hatched in the overheated crucible of the Cold War and believed what we were told, embraced the dazzling history delivered to us about America’s glorious triumph over Naziism and the ongoing battle against the next evil foe. Then came the disturbing challenges to segregation, the scenes of brutality from Birmingham and Hattiesburg, and finally the carnage of Vietnam, in which we were expected to participate ourselves. Suddenly, the narrative did not hang together quite so seamlessly.

In the reactive search for a more convincing explanation of this disorienting new information about our world, I too careened into naïve and overly simplistic visions. Much of it has left me healthily skeptical, but I also thank my lucky stars and my innate caution that I did not swallow whole any of the more extreme versions circulating in the wild and woolly ‘60s and ‘70s. Eventually, journalism gave me the discipline to look more closely and more deeply at a variety of situations and enabled me to realize that the truth is radical enough and usually needs little ideological embellishment.

And yet a structured framework for understanding is also essential to confront the whirlwinds of change, to make sense of phenomena and sort it into patterns. Bad Bishop Brown’s discovery of Karl M & Associates would have helped him see that the local captains of industry were not entirely free agents but just as buffeted by forces beyond their individual control as the workers laboring in the factories lining the Erie-Lackawanna tracks that I played along (despite strict prohibitions).

But Brown was dismissed as a dangerous nut, and his ideas suppressed. Galion is so much the worse—and yet now, with the town in ruins, the questions posed by the bad bishop about the nature of our economic system have never been more relevant. As one local lady said to me, ‘Maybe the bishop was just ahead of his time’.


Anonymous said...

Most who are ahead of their time are thought to be heretics aren't they? Let's talk Leonardo. And today we all fly. Just sayin'.

Tom Roberts said...

I seem to recall Bishop Brown had some ideas about correcting the race issue that today we would find wildly inappropriate. I have read that he loudly preached the white race should take on a all-compensating paternal role with the black race. It offended even the typical liberal Episcopalians. Communism in his day was not the dirty word it became with the Cold War. I will have to look in my files for the this old article.

Tim Frasca said...

Lincoln had similar ideas in his day. Almost no one contemplated (or dared to suggest) that racial differences should be dismissed as irrelevant and that "blacks" and "whites" should co-exist as equals.

Anonymous said...

The race issue would probobly have worked out. Really, if u think about it galion is 98% white from german decent, even today. All stats too. Look it up. You have to give him some credit. You say he can't have that opinion about the race issue? Really? Did u pay attn. To what century he was in? That issue wasent settled till th 1960s. And if you know anything or pay attn. The race issue has not really got any better, actually its worse. I saw the new black panthers getting mad and saying ignorant slurs at a young white teen girl at a african heritage convention in new york. Saying every black should go intto every white house and kill man woman and child. Demanding reperation for crap no white living has anything to do with!! Ignorance! It doesent matter what skin color! Its what kind of human bein u choose to be.