There are occasions when I second-guess the wisdom of airing emotionally charged musings. This is particularly so when some of the arguments might embolden the racist hounds set loose by the Donald.
Despite these reservations and the foreknowledge that this column may spark outrage among some of my closest friends, the furor over John Muir’s place in the pantheon of environmental icons forced my hand. Seems recent digging by a once-Sierra Club president revealed Muir’s use of words in his early diaries which — in today’s overheated climate — gave the appearance of bias.
My research failed to uncover the precise wording, but I suspect he may have used the n-word in reference to black people. It’s significant that a committee including a past Sierra Club president (herself a black woman) found no evidence that Muir was racist.
As a long-standing club member, I had to shake my head in wonderment at our power to rewrite history by imposing today’s standards of political correctness on historical figures like Muir.
This brouhaha brought back memories of how disappointed I was that my enthusiasm for the flesh-and-blood character, Alexis Zorba, (turned into fiction by author Nikolas Kazantzakis), was not shared by many women friends.
While it is true that, in the film version, Anthony Quinn does refer to women as “weak and helpless creatures,” it is also true that Zorba — alone, among all the men in the village where the story unfolds — fought ferociously to defend a widow about to be murdered. Zorba, the only man sensitive enough to gently nurture the hotel proprietress, Bouboulina, as death slowly took her.
The fictional character Kazantzakis described was a man of boundless love for life, a deep respect and caring for justice and — yes — a champion for those whom he saw as the weak and helpless. And he was a Greek. And he met Kazantzakis in 1915 in a very different time and place. As a young lad, I saw Zorba as the epitome of the man I should want to become. Blazing my own trail, rejecting the toxic beliefs of the toxic, male-dominated culture I was born into, a world where it is far too easy to thoughtlessly accept stereotypes and role models which debase humanity. Zorba was a man for the ages.
And yet, because he failed to meet the evolving standards of half a century and a very different culture later, he was dismissed. As was his moral lesson.
This self-righteous tendency to tar those from the past with the standards of contemporary America is wrong. I felt that in my late teens, I still feel it today.
I wonder if this same need to judge historical figures hasn’t played out in the heated controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments.
Are statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson torn down because they owned slaves? Can’t be. Otherwise, monuments to Washington and Jefferson would meet the same fate.
Not because they owned slaves? Perhaps because they fought for the Confederacy? Well, if that’s the case, let’s remove any visible reminder of the common Confederate foot soldier.
Here is where I must offer a disclaimer. Among the 880,000 men who marched off to defend what they perceived as their homes against what they correctly identified as an invading army (think Sherman’s March) were many members of my own family.
As a lifelong Civil War buff, I venture that few of those young men went off to fight for the Confederate States of America, an abstraction. They fought for the 16th Virginia infantry or the 4th Alabama cavalry Regiment. Hell, Jackson was dead set against secession; Lee, approached by Lincoln, considered taking command of the northern forces. Only when Virginia indeed seceded, both men owed their first loyalty to Virginia.
The last and most persuasive argument for tearing down statues is that many black Americans are deeply offended. This makes good sense, but — when that rationale is used to remove monuments of historical significance, where does it stop?
As part Cherokee, I find Andrew Jackson to be among the most despicable remnants of American history. Not only was he the architect of broken treaties, the forced relocation of an entire tribal nation, the destruction of what was the most advanced Native American culture, he was a slave trader. Not a slave holder, mind you, but a slave trader. Every time a $20 bill passes through my hands, I see Jackson’s hated image.
Just as with Zorba and Muir, I am deeply concerned about applying today’s standards to judge those who went before. Too many quality people smeared. If there must be such a standard, however, let us expunge the memories of those whose souls were ugly and whose inhumanity was loathsome. Let’s start with fellow slave trader and Ku Klux Klan founder Confederate General Bedford Forrest and replace Andrew Jackson’s face with Harriet Tubman’s.
McGehee, a lifelong activist, settled here in 1973 and lives in Palouse with his wife, Katherine. His work life has varied from bartender to university instructor to wrecking yard owner.