Robert Johnson -- now beyond the bounds?

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Sat, 11 Mar 1995 15:09:00 -0500

Quite frankly, I am tired of Robert Johnson's childishness. I had
thought that we should simply ignore him. That does not work,
partly because he does raise legitimate issues. But to address them
in the way he does is inexcusable. I have known people like him.
Some of them are content to point their plastic AK-47s at the CNN
announcer and blast away, lost in their own little worlds. Others
end up causing harm to themselves and to others, or contributing,
sometimes unwittingly (and RJ is truly witless), to the general
pollution of violence that we all have to contend with, to varying
degrees, and that none of us can really do very much about. When
Robert Johnson wrote some time ago something to the effect that
"justice in South Africa will have to be bought in blood', I was
disturbed, and offended. When he says, as he has now, that 'the
only way to go to Chiapas is with a gun' I think we on the list
can, and should, deny him the forum for his dangerous witlessness.
His grasp of legal issues is clearly weak, weaker even than his
grasp of conventions of normal discourse on the net (thank god there
is _that_ distance), but advocating transportation of weapons across
international borders on the internet is, surely, beyond the bounds
of reasonableness, and perhaps beyond the bounds of whatever laws
might cover such issues. Clearly, he has only just spoken about it.
So long as he stays in Colorado, shooting beer cans in the back
garden with his .22 rifle (or whatever), I suppose he is no cause
for concern. If he should decide to actualise his fantasies, he
would constitute a danger to himself and to others. While there is,
in fact, almost nothing any of us can do about whatever is going on
in Chiapas (or the thousand other places in the world where there is
lethal conflict)-- other than to _know_, and perhaps to tell and to
write -- we can censure Robert Johnson for his own perverse
violences, and perhaps deny him the forum for the rehersal of his
sad madnesses.

My feeling is that the Internet, and this list, is not the place
for Robert Johnson to work out his anger and his frustrations, and
certainly not the place to advocate violence, no matter whose side he
may really be on. (And I must say, I really do not know.) I do not
normally advocate censoring any discourse. I do not do so now from
any moral high horse. I know something of violence, however, and
what merely a romantic puerile attachment to it may bring, and I
feel that Robert Johnson has now stepped over the limits.

I mourn for all who are caught up in wars and violence and who suffer
from it. As a draft resister during the Vietnam war, I never went to
Vietnam, and never saw combat, or military service. My age cohort
had the highest casualties during that conflict, and I have friends
and long-ago-schoolmates who were there, and some did not survive.
In the end, I escaped the draft. I have now lived outside of the US
for longer than I have lived in it. I do have direct experience of
violence, however, and have been in the middle of chaotic combat in
Uganda during the Idi Amin revolution. (I did not intend to get into
the middle of it, but went out to try to find out if there was any
news or promise of end to fighting, and came under fire from APC-
mounted 50 calibre machine gun. I was literally pulled to safety by
a Sudanese friend who had lived in combat all his life.) I have seen
'good' violence in Tanzania during forced relocations under Ujamaa
('african socialism') and 'bad' violence during forced removals in
South Africa under the name of Apartheid. The destruction, the
damage, was the same. My father was deeply traumatised by his role
in combat in Europe (even though he killed for the sake of goodness,
as Robert Johnson believes he would like to do), and was eventually
wounded himself. He did not speak about the war to me, his eldest
son, for forty years. He has only recently copied his letters from
the European front and added commentary for his grandchildren, now
that he is in his seventies, and WWII is so very distant. He was a
minor hero == at least I thought he was -- and I could not understand
at all, when I was child, why he would not tell me war stories, why
he would not tell me how many Germans he had killed and how. Until
one night he did tell me one story about killing Germans, and burst
into tears as he sat on my bed one night -- my father, the soldier,
whose uniform still hung in the hall closet. Later, my friend and I
stole his father's service revolver, and with me wearing my father's
medals, we played 'war' in Iowa cornfields. When we loaded it, and
tried to hit a target, the noise and recoil nearly took it out of our
10-year old hands. But the joy was terrible. My father was a
pacifist. But he can shoot, and so can I. I enjoy hunting, even
though I understand the moral dilemmas. I understand fully the
attraction and the repulsion of violence, and I understand, at least
within myself, why it is so confusing. My response to violence has
been to write, I hope intelligently, about this confusion. In my
experience, I have concluded that violence is never an effective or
efficient cause of social change, or social instrument for the moral
'good', whatever that may be. I now live in a society that has been
deeply traumatised by violence. My students have been in the armies
of the ANC and the old Apartheid regime. Many of them are deeply
troubled by violence. We teach about the anthropology of violence,
and we discuss it in class as anthropologists, and as participants in
a new democracy. Nelson Mandela, whom I deeply revere, and who is no
stranger to violence, tells us we must now put it aside. To do so,
however, is one of the most difficult struggles that South Africa has
yet to face. To stand his ground against the advocacy of
violence, is, I believe, the most courageous thing Mandela has yet
done. I support him fully in this. It is important, as Robert
Johnson does say, to stand against violence. As Nelson Mandela says
to South AFricans, however, and as I say to Robert Johnson, there is
no way to stand against violence with violence.

People have suggested that Robert Johnson leave Colorado and see
something of the rest of the world, and, in effect, that he grow up.
He may be too angry, confused and hurt -- too limited an individual
altogether -- to grow up; but I hope he stays in Colorado. I can
take flames and anger. He has the right to criticise anthropology or
any other system of thought and knowledge. But whatever his motives
may be, and whatever his background and experience, I do not want to
read his advocacy for human bloodshed on this list anymore. I have
had enough of that, and I have had enough of Robert Johnson, the moral
child, and his tantrums.

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
Home tel: (011) 646-2578
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