We humans are complex and flawed creatures
“(R)eaching back in history to judge how historical figures acted and judging them in the context of more evolved and enlightened laws and human rights protection can be a treacherous undertaking.
— Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown and first African American to lead an Ivy League university
By Herbert Rothschild
Last week, Ashland.news reported that the Ashland School Board renamed the school formerly named for John Muir. Now it is TRAILS Outdoor School. In addition to favoring the concepts for which TRAILS is an acronym (Trust, Respect, Awareness, Interdependency, Leadership and Stewardship), a second motive for the change was the view that John Muir was politically incorrect. “There were a number of concerns by members of the school community who were familiar with the history of John Muir and some of his statements earlier in his life, reflecting around Native Americans specifically,” said Samuel Bogdanove, Ashland School District superintendent.
I have no interest in second guessing the school board and the students, staff and parents who participated in the decision. TRAILS is a fine name. I am, however, very interested in the larger matter of removing the names of, and monuments to, historical figures who fail to pass moral muster. It poses an intellectual challenge, which is one reason I’m attracted to it. Another is that it asks us to consider what we should require of each other.
First, the matter of John Muir. It was scrupulous of Bogdanove to say that the statements of concern were made early in Muir’s life. Raymond Barnett, a retired professor of Biology at Chico State, in 2016 published “Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity’s Only Future on a Changing Planet.” The book was highly appreciative of Muir. As the blurb on its Amazon site says, “Earth Wisdom charts John Muir’s amazing wilderness adventures and explores the worldview that sprang from them: a way of seeing the world unique in the West … Muir’s worldview now provides the ‘new way of thinking’ called for by Pope Francis to rescue humanity from the existential threat of climate change.”
Regarding the “statements of concern” Bogdanove referenced, Barnett wrote a short piece for the Sierra Club titled “John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?” In it he discussed Muir’s 1869 journal entries that were unflattering to the Native Americans he met when he was herding sheep in the Sierras at age 31. I don’t think they were racist, but you can make that judgment for yourself. More important, 20 years later, when he met Alaskan natives, his entries are consistently appreciative.
Still more important was his outspoken opposition to the U.S. Army’s campaign to exterminate Native Americans. A letter survives that was written by one Mary Swett in which she recounts what happened when Muir was a guest at a dinner party she gave in San Francisco in 1880. Another guest was involved in the extermination campaign. Muir “told Colonel Boyce the other night that Boyce’s position was that of a champion for a mean, brutal policy” and that he should be “ashamed.”
As I’ve tried to arrive at criteria for removing names and statues, one that struck me as workable is the extent to which the persons in question earned their place in history for espousing ideas or practices that were morally problematic in their own day. Using that criterion, Yale University was correct to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges, and cities like Charlottesville and New Orleans were right to remove statues of Robert E. Lee. Using the same criterion, I think it wrong to erase the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson even though they were slaveholders.
I know that there will be cases in which the application of this criterion won’t easily settle the matter. And for those — mostly the young, but also the ideologically rigid — anything less than politically “woke” is intolerable. But for those of us who have lived long enough and been honest enough with ourselves to know that humans are complex, flawed creatures and that each of our stories includes passages that should be abiding sources of regret, such a stance appears unreflexively arrogant.
Another consideration I’ve pondered — although it hasn’t yet gelled into a criterion — is whether the persons in question developed morally. Did they change their earlier views, perhaps even repudiate them? Surely, posterity shouldn’t discount growth. Indeed, if we haven’t grown beyond some of our youthful understandings, either our experiences have been extraordinarily narrow or they were wasted on us.
The actions of two people deeply involved in the January 6 insurrection and its aftermath have reinforced my appreciation of human complexity and my preference for valuing our moral successes more highly than our moral failures. Liz Cheney, the only Republican seeking reelection who is serving on the House committee investigating the event, has demonstrated admirable moral clarity and courage, first by voting to impeach Trump for his pivotal role in the assault and now by helping to communicate the findings of the committee. I’m sure that if I combed through her record, I would find numerous votes that, to me, exemplified moral shortcomings. When the moral stakes were the highest, though, she came through.
Mike Pence even more so, in both ways. He spent four years toadying to a man who continually displayed contempt for morality and law. Yet, when the future of democracy and the rule of law were at greatest risk, he stood firm under intense pressure. He deserves our gratitude. If not for him, our nation would have plunged into civil war. Were a public place to be named for him, I hope later generations would make the effort to understand that decision.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at email@example.com.