Heroic, Historic, Flawed

You have probably heard of John Muir.   According to Wikipedia, His letters, essays, and books describing his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada, have been read by millions. His activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, and his example has served as an inspiration for the preservation of many other wilderness areas. The Sierra Club, which he co-founded, is a prominent American conservation organization. In his later life, Muir devoted most of his time to the preservation of the Western forests. As part of the campaign to make Yosemite a national park, Muir published two landmark articles on wilderness preservation in The Century Magazine, “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park”; this helped support the push for U.S. Congress to pass a bill in 1890 establishing Yosemite National Park.[6] The spiritual quality and enthusiasm toward nature expressed in his writings has inspired readers, including presidents and congressmen, to take action to help preserve large nature areas.

I read today that amid the ongoing cultural reckoning over Confederate statues, the Sierra Club announced that it will consider renaming or pulling down monuments dedicated to its founder, the iconic conservationist John Muir because of his racist views.  I had no idea that John Muir was a racist and if the Sierra Club feels it necessary to disavow that element of the man’s life, that’s fine.   But to remove his name and pull down monuments to his accomplishments as an environmentalist and advocate for our national parks is just wrong.   I understand and support the Black Lives Matter movement but I do not support the tearing down of monuments to important figures in our past.

Yes, John Muir was a racist, yet he was largely responsible for the preservation of our national parks, a national treasure.   Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners, yet they were instrumental in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are lofty and noble goals, even if we have failed miserably in living up to them for some of our people.  Nelson Mandela is remembered around the world as a symbol of peace and freedom, for ushering South Africa into a democratic, post-apartheid future yet earlier in his life he was a terrorist who befriended the worst dictators in Africa.  Mahatma Gandhi is revered as the man who led his nation to  independence from Britain through passive resistance, yet there is evidence he was a racist toward black Africans during his years in South Africa.  Martin Luther King did more to advance the cause of race-based civil rights than perhaps any other person in recent history yet he advised a young gay man that his gayness was a “culturally acquired” “problem” in need of a “solution” – a “habit” stemming from a series of negative “experiences and circumstances.”   This would clearly be considered anti-gay today.

We are a flawed species.   And our always flawed historical figures reflect the mores and norms of their times.   We want to make them heroes when what we really should do is recognize their heroic acts without requiring that they be above reproach in all areas of their lives.  We should see them as historical figures who accomplished great things without requiring them to meet the ethical demands of today.  We can honor their accomplishments … whether it be by words or monuments … without ignoring their shortcomings.  In fact, we should teach our children about their shortcomings.   I can honor Thomas Jefferson for authoring the Declaration of Independence but remain horrified that for so long our nation supported slavery.  I can admire Dr. King’s contributions to racial civil rights but wonder why he couldn’t see fit to extend his vision to LGBT people.  We accomplish nothing by painting over our past, whether that paint is white, black or rainbow colored.  We need to learn from it, the good and the bad.

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