Culture

John Muir Is Canceled. Who’s Next?

John Muir, c. 1902 (Library of Congress)
Martin Luther King Jr.? John F. Kennedy?

The cancel culture has now reached into every nook and cranny of life. Eskimo Pie, the chocolate-covered ice-cream treat that has been around for a century, will be renamed after critics said the name was insensitive. What’s next?

We have a partial answer. Last week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

The Sierra Club is “celebrating” the event in an unusual way. It is dumping any association with John Muir, the “father of the national parks” who founded the Sierra Club back in 1892.

Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, tells members that “it’s time to take down some of our own monuments.” Brune says members must now “reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”

It turns out that, as a young immigrant from Scotland, John Muir made “derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” Brune wrote in a statement on the Sierra Club’s website. “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

But in a form of guilt by association that would make a McCarthyite blush, Brune goes on to rebuke Muir’s for his friendship in the early 1900s with zoologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, who, twelve years after Muir’s death in 1914, helped establish the American Eugenics Society, which labeled nonwhite people as inferior. Notice that the founding of the society followed Muir’s death, but he still must be held accountable for it.

Many Sierra Club members with whom I spoke are privately appalled at the group’s attempt to erase its history. A few years ago, the club itself published a study that noted Muir was considered a progressive for his era and never advocated any discriminatory policies.

Indeed, Muir later lived among various Native American tribes. “He grew to respect and honor their beliefs, actions, and lifestyles,” wrote scholar Richard Fleck, in the journal American Indian Quarterly. “He, too, would evolve and change from his somewhat ambivalent stance toward various Indian cultures to a positive admiration.”

In an interview with the California Sun, Donald Worster, a professor and noted biographer of Muir, says the attack on Muir is completely devoid of context:

He saw the effects of white immigration and the diseases that came along, wiping out whole populations; the presence of alcohol and its effect; trade relations that were not good for the Indians. He wrote a diatribe against the white invasion. He said this is something the government should be up here doing: taking care of and protecting these people from being exploited, from being hurt and dying from all this. . . . It wasn’t just the Indians who got him saying unflattering things. The white population, the people who were invading — the frontier types, the miners — he thought they were uncouth, savage, brutal, dirty, given over to alcohol. His writings are full of those descriptions. Nobody gets upset about that.

The debate over John Muir is only the beginning of a purge sweeping the environmental community. In Crosscut magazine, Glenn Nelson wrote a piece last month headlined “Toppling John Muir from Sierra Club Is Not Enough.”

Nelson called for dramatic efforts to “overcome a violent history of exclusion” by environmental groups. He said the next focus should be on the National Audubon Society, whose namesake, artist John James Audubon, “was an enslaver who opposed the intermingling of races.” The fact that Audubon may have himself been born to a black Creole woman in Haiti is less important than the fact the Audubon Society “has not reconciled its association with a man who, like Muir, embraced racist ideas and activities.”

If we are to expunge from their place of honor all the historical figures who changed their views later in life or who held views that were common in their time, where will it stop?

Larry Elder, an African-American radio-talk-show host, recently noted that for years Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an advice column for Ebony, a monthly magazine for black Americans. A closeted gay teenager once asked him:

My problem is different from the ones most people have. I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don’t want my parents to know about me. What can I do? Is there any place where I can go for help?

King answered:

Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. Your reasons for adopting this habit have now been consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with this problem by getting back to some of the experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. In order to do this I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.

Today, such views would get King flat-out fired in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and many other places of employment.

Or how about John F. Kennedy? Former New York Times investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported in his book The Dark Side of Camelot that Kennedy once said of a donor who hadn’t backed his campaign but still wanted to be an ambassador: “I’m going to f*** him. I’m going to send him to one of those boogie republics in Central Africa.”

But, when it came to others, Kennedy sometimes punished even those who supported him to the hilt. Singer Sammy Davis Jr. strongly backed JFK in the 1960 campaign, even agreeing to postpone his wedding to a white actress to avoid alienating white voters. Burt Boyar, Davis’s biographer, notes that when Davis finally got married, after Kennedy’s election, Kennedy rewarded him by disinviting him from attending the inaugural.

And let’s not forget Robert Kennedy. He was appointed as attorney general by his brother and authorized many wiretaps on Martin Luther King. The tapes they produced represent an outrageous invasion of King’s privacy, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover tried to use them to blackmail King.

Cancel culture is a tricky thing. It hasn’t reached the point where books or DVDs are being burned in squares, but it is providing many ominous parallels to authoritarian cultures. If it’s John Muir today, which soon-to-be-tarnished icon will it be next?

 

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