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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Four Fallacies to Avoid in Evaluating Historical Figures


Guest blog by Edinburgh, UK editor and publisher Jacquetta Megarry; see note at end


Michael Brune's 22 July 2020 manifesto accusing John Muir of racism embodies four dangerous fallacies. They are not unique to the Sierra Club. Indeed, in the wake of the George Floyd's brutal death in Minneapolis in May 2020, worldwide reactions have included statue-toppling, cancelling of distinguished names and reputations, and attempts to rewrite history. The proposal to take John Muir's name off an elementary school named in his honour in San Francisco and elsewhere should be seen in this context of over-reaction to a tragic event that took place over a century after Muir's death in 1914. The proposal rests on four fallacies, which must be avoided:


1. Don't rely on a few words quoted out of context: evaluate the man's whole life.
Brune's attack relies on a few negative phrases quoted from the young Muir's unedited and unpublished journals. He ignores Muir's many other positive comments and, throughout his long life, his campaigns and travels. Later he travelled and spent time living with Native Americans, and commended their stewardship of the environment.


2. Never find somebody guilty by association.
Brune criticises John Muir for his friendship with "people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race". Muir respected Osborn's work as a zoologist and paleontologist. Osborn's role in founding the American Eugenics Society, though, was years after Muir's death. Muir had a very wide circle of friends and colleagues; nobody is responsible for opinions other than their own.


3. Don't attribute prejudice to a person for words that became pejorative long after his death.

Fashions in language evolve over time. Words such as "negro" were at first purely descriptive, only later acquiring racist overtones. According to the Jim Crow Museum, until "black power" was coined in 1966, "negro" was how most back Americans described themselves. From the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson promoted the term African-American. Nowadays in some countries it's common to refer to people as black, in others as BME or BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic), BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour), and in others simply as people of colour. Before too long, any or all of these may become unacceptable as new words are adopted as "correct".


4. Beware of anachronistic judgement and woke rewriting of history.
Muir lived at a time when unthinking racism was the norm, and yet he challenged it by his words, deeds and campaigns. His radical thinking and pioneering conservation should be celebrated, not grotesquely rewritten by people who have barely studied him.


--Jacquetta Megarry is the founder of Rucksack Readers, a successful publisher of trail-handy guides to hiking paths in Ireland, England, and Scotland--including The John Muir Trail there.


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