This article on the cancellation of John Muir, outdoor lover and founder of the Sierra Club, appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (click on screenshot below), but I also found the same piece in the National Review. (The author, John Fund, is the National Review‘s national-affairs reporter.) Yes, the National Review is a conservative magazine, but investigate the facts for yourself if you’re dubious.
The pieces begin with the revelation that Muir was not immune to the bigotry of white people of his time—he made racist statements. But he’s also being tarred for his association with other bigots AND, according to a statement on the Sierra Club website by Michael Brune, Muir even recanted many of his bigoted views. But that doesn’t matter, for the Sierra Club is intent on flagellating itself.
The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race. Head of the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn also helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir’s death.
And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. 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 is that the case. If Muir changed his mind—and the article at the top shows how he came to recognize that white people committed genocide on Native Americans. So why do his words continue to “hurt and alienate” people? Do people even know about Muir’s earlier attitudes, what his words were, or how he changed? I doubt it.
It’s even more unfair to tar Muir for being friends with Henry Fairfield Osborn (an famous paleontologist, which isn’t mentioned above), who helped found the American Eugenics Society after Muir’s death. If you’re to be canceled not just because of your own words, but because of your association with someone who had racist attitudes in the late nineteenth centuries, then virtually all white men from that era are guilty and complicit.
But wait! There’s more. No environmentalist organization is free from these taints. I’ve added a link to Nelson’s article in the excerpt below (also from the paper’s piece):
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.”
Mr. 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?
The rest of the piece is a series of whataboutery citations of others who weren’t canceled. For example, Fund notes that Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote an advice column for Ebony magazine, once told a gay teenager to get rid of his “culturally acquired” gayness. Of course he didn’t get canceled. But King wasn’t a bigot, either. Still, that part of the article is largely irrelevant, though it does call out a certain hypocrisy in the Cancel Culture.
We have two issues here. First, how hard do we come down on people like Muir and Audubon who expressed views common in white men of their time but are now seen as odious? In my view, not as hard as people are doing. For, as Steve PInker has amply demonstrated, morality has evolved and improved over the past several centuries. While it’s historically salient to recognize that men like Muir and Audubon did express a common white bigotry, it doesn’t seem fair to single them out—as opposed to everyone else—and then cancel every aspect of their legacy. It’s unfair to expect people brought up in a certain culture to overcome it by becoming super-moral. (Animals named after Audubon will be the next to go.)
This is especially true when Audubon, uncharacteristically, recognized his errors later in life and corrected them. The claim that the bigotry of these men still hurts people seems to me exaggerated and, as usual, is undocumented and unevidenced. The assertion alone is taken as the evidence.
The other issue, largely unconnected, is whether conservation organizations are either excluding people of color or have created an atmosphere that makes them unwelcome. If that is the case, it would seem to have little with John Muir’s bigotry. Nelson’s article makes a case worth hearing that yes, there has been both deliberate and unwitting exclusion of minorities from outdoor groups. And this article in Orion Magazine argues that Native Americans have been treated pretty shabbily by the National Park Service.
So, the eagerness of organizations like the Sierra Club to flagellate themselves for century-old words or attitudes of their founders is unseemly: a form of au courant virtue signaling. But if those organizations could do meaningful outreach to those who don’t often get opportunities to get into the wilderness, they should. After all, we’re all evolved humans, and, if E. O. Wilson be right, we all have a degree of “biophilia.” Surely those who don’t get the opportunity to exercise it should be exposed to the great outdoors, and although the main object of the Sierra Club is to appreciate and preserve wilderness, everyone should be given that opportunity.