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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Selecting and De-Selecting Our Model Americans

The recent wave of protests over the brutality of some police to Black people, and its blooming into a wider protest over the indefensible treatment of Blacks in America and colonialism in general, has been long overdue and thrown a harsh light on a subject that America needs to confront—and resolve. 

 

Deciding what exactly needs to be done, however, is not something that street protests are well-equipped to do.  Toppling statues of Confederate generals and slavery advocates is one thing; but many wonder about statues of Ulysses S. Grant and prominent abolitionists (because they didn't go far enough).

 

Throughout the nation, committees of NGO's (Sierra Club, for example) and local governments (school boards and city councils, for example) are preparing to eliminate prominent names from their monuments and schools. Here I acknowledge the contributions of the protests and the urgent need to begin the righting of wrongs. But I also suggest criteria for these committees to consider, means to ensure that schools and monuments honor not only appropriate Americans, but that the process of making these decisions is also a source of pride and honor. 

 

Three criteria ought to be considered integral to that process.  First and foremost, factual accuracy and context must be assured.  America these days is rife with partisan distortions and outright lies. These should have no part in decisions of import with lasting consequences. 

 

Any assessment of John Muir's attitude toward Native Americans, for example, must include his fulsome and detailed praise of Alaska's tribes after much time amongst them; his long support of Indian rights activist Charles Lummis and his Sequoyah League; and particularly his actions at an 1880 San Francisco dinner party hosted by Mary and John Swett, when he got in the face of Colonel Boyce of the Indian Extermination Campaign and denounced the "mean, brutal policy" as something Boyce should be "ashamed of."

 

A full and representative array of factual information must be acknowledged on any matter being considered, rather than "cherry-picking" isolated episodes out of context. Let's be sure we've got the facts straight before we judge.

 

Secondly, we must keep proportionality in mind; the consequence should "fit" the offense.  To do this, a gradient of offense should be established.  Should the consequence be different for someone who pens an unflattering description of Blacks, than for people (in the port city of Bristol, England, for example) who transported captured Blacks in horrible conditions to the American colonies? 

 

Is our natural revulsion at Muir's occasional unflattering descriptions of Sierra Native Americans affected by our realization that these unfortunate people likely appeared and acted very much as he describes them? They were, after all, in the very midst of a holocaust, their people murdered by White militias, the survivors scraping a living in marginal habitats.  Muir in fact was one of the few Californians of his time to actually look closely and see their suffering. Does it matter that in nearly every instance Muir follows his descriptions with praise of their positive accomplishments, and sometimes a reminder that all men are brothers?

 

In judging offenses and consequences, an offense at the low end of the scale might have the consequence of a prominent plaque at a site acknowledging the offense and its context forthrightly; an offense at the other end of the scale might merit stripping the name of the individual from the site altogether.  And of course, many consequences between these extremes can be devised.

 

Thirdly, we should consider whether relatively minor offenses might be balanced by signal achievements in other, positive areas.  I have read that U.S. Grant fell in love and married a women who owned slaves. As we judge this blemish, should we take into account that General Grant was instrumental in the victory of the North in the Civil War which ended formal slavery? Or that Grant as President was vigorous in his prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South after the war?  Are these contributions perhaps more important than the offense of a slave-owning wife? 

 

We must remember: this is not about finding saints and casting aside as fatally flawed everyone who falls short.  Most of us have done some things we're not proud of. But we don't make a career of those shameful acts. Is it appropriate to honor decent, high-achieving folks in spite of relatively minor blemishes? Might not that be more real and inspiring than demanding sainthood? 

 

Every committee of people making these judgements will haves its own way of going about it. But I suggest that these three criteria be carefully considered. Selecting—and de-selecting—our models and heroes is serious work. And so we must have serious, thoughtful people doing that, people experienced in making graded judgments about their fellow Americans. 

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