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Smaller than Larger than Life

Visiting John Muir’s house is a bit of a shock to National Park travelers. Nearly every western park you visit has mention of John Muir: how he explored it, how he mapped it, how he lobbied for its entry into the National Park or Forest Service. Over and over again, you’ll see his weather-worn visage, like this:

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Clearly this was a larger-than-life figure, a man who walked the earth, one of the few who saw wonders and marvels in their natural state, long before the paved roads leading to well-marked vistas. He was clearly a man of the backwoods, in an era when that really meant something.

Then you go to his home in Martinez, California, and you see this.

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Um, what?

Well, turns out that John Muir was (surprise surprise) a human being.

John Muir basically grew old. At 42, after some convincing by his friends, he found he could no longer tromp through the wilderness as he once had. John Muir, like most men, wanted a family. He married Louisa Strentzel, settled down, and fathered two daughters. John Muir then wanted to provide for that family. He proved to be a successful orchardist and businessman, apparently earning enough in five years to provide for his family for the rest of his lifetime (even in the 1880s, that was a remarkable feat). Finally, John Muir needed a place to write and to organize. From his headquarters, he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service; organized the founding of the Sierra Club; fought the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; and published multiple magazine articles and books.

Far too often, folks look at historical figures as being larger than life: omnipotent and perfect individuals, single-minded, focused, driven to their one and only goal. But reality is actually quite different than all of that. John Muir put all his environmental travels on hold and became … a husband, a father, a farmer and businessman. And, apparently, a thumping good one. He lived in a very nice house, in fairly decent comfort, and enjoyed his life. He was not, as his grizzled visage would suggest, purely a “man of the woods”. He was a real human being, appropriate for his time.

Every great person in history, regardless of the pedestals we put them on, was really just a person.

John Muir and Cancel Culture

I recently read Nature Writings, a collection of John Muir’s essays. Muir waxes rhapsodic about everything, from the length of pine needles to the detritus comprising glacial moraines. This is a man who loved the natural world, spending significant amounts of time in the wild lands, sketching flowers and mountaintops and creek beds. His devotion became conservationist zealotry, and his efforts resulted in protecting thousands of square miles from scarring development.

And, apparently, he was also friends with some unsavory characters, including at least one avowed eugenicist. He also said some lousy things about native tribes, slaves, and freedmen. The organization he helped found, the Sierra Club, had a decidedly upper-class, whites-only mentality. The group has enough of a tarnished past, the current directors released a statement at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Conservative commentators across the country gleefully declared “John Muir is canceled!“, triumphant in the fact that the “the radical left” has as much ugliness in their past as they themselves do. Of course, this tarnishes yet another “noble tradition” of this country.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Muir was a solid racist. Frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified. I do think he disliked a lot of people, preferring to walk the woods and the mountains instead of towns and cities. Individuals such as Muir do that because they don’t like people in general. Still, the evidence against him is pretty strong, and the condemnation justified. None of that lessens his contributions to the country, to conservation, to the creation of the National Parks. It just means that he was a flawed man, that he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as any paragon of virtue, and that his unsavory opinions should be discussed alongside the magnitude of his accomplishments. Those who carry on his work today should strive to do better. Much better.

Fortunately, things are changing. Today’s environmentalists acknowledge that minority populations are at greater risk from environmental catastrophe, and are trying to help. They are also acknowledging that minority populations care deeply about the environment, breaking a long-held stereotype. And as was shown with the XL Pipeline controversy of the past few years, it’s now commonly known that Native reservations have it pretty bad, with some companies taking advantage of extreme poverty to build toxic waste dumps as “job creators”. It’s a shame these groups weren’t brought into the environmental and conservation movements from the very beginning, perhaps it would have gone a long way towards not only inclusion, but also improved living conditions and better health outcomes for those populations. But at least there is movement in the right direction.

It turns out that John Muir was not just a human being, but a flawed human being. It’s up to us to be better human beings. The mistake is not trying to improve on what was done prior. We can be better people than Muir was, while still trying to uphold the better side of his ideals.

Who would’ve thought Robert Johnson’s step-sister, a person who personally knew the famed blues guitarist, would still be alive? Who would’ve thought that person — his step-sister, 94-year-old Annye Anderson — would today reside in Amherst, Massachusetts? And who would’ve known that she would still have the faculties, and ability, to tell intriguing stories of perhaps the most important American musician in history?

Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, is still quite an enigma. He’s a larger-than-life figure who, legend says, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for writing the best blues songs in history. Johnson was a vagabond, a hobo, a showman, a visionary, and (according to some) the most important guitarist to ever exist. Johnson single-handedly re-invented the blues, and provided the musical DNA that evolved into rock & roll, inspiring acts from the Stones to Led Zeppelin to Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, and more. The devil met him at the crossroads, and together they changed the world.

To Mrs. Anderson, well, he was Brother Robert.

Brother Robert cuts right through all the mythical nonsense, and tells as much of the true story of Robert Johnson as one will ever read. She knew him, knew his roots, knew what he liked (Jimmy Rogers yodeling, for one), and what kind of man he was. Although she never knew how he died, or where he’s buried (beyond the various rumors), she does know how shady lawyers and the general music industry tried to screw her family out of any royalties from his work, about how fraudulent “descendants” tried to sneak their way into the legends (and the profits), and the pain all these dealings caused other members of her family.

None of that stuff, however, makes this book special. The heart of this book is Mrs. Anderson’s recollections of life in Jim Crow, Depression-era, Memphis, Tennessee. She tells stories of a hardscrabble life, where everyone worked every possible job imaginable to make some money to feed their families. She tells stories of moving in the dead-dark of night, the only way for a black man to survive when accused of pestering a white woman. She tells stories of juke joints and sewing circles and church socials and life of a long-dead era. This is a first-hand account of life lived well in a very dark time, and the way it both brought her family together and tore it apart.

Brother Robert is an engaging read, and highly recommended.

Family Time

I’m a solo traveler, especially on my national park trips. I’m a spectacular hermit; but also my friends and family have other hobbies and interests, and simply don’t share my enthusiasm for American history and the natural world. It’s OK, though. I find solitude enables greater opportunities for observation, reflection & understanding.

When I went to visit JFK’s birthplace, however, I switched things up, and made a conscious decision to share the experience. I took my mom.

It wasn’t just because I thought she’d enjoy the trip, it was also because I wanted to hear what it was like to live during the vaunted “Camelot” era. JFK was  the first  modern-day celebrity president, and I wanted to know what that was like. John and Jackie’s superiority in handling themselves on television changed everything about campaigning, getting elected, and serving in the highest office in the land. Suddenly, it became less about stump speeches, shaking hands, working the political machinery, and back-room deals. It became more about media savvy.

The tales of Camelot have entered into American legend. JFK’s photogenics destroyed Richard Nixon in the presidential debates. He then became the second youngest person to ever take office. Jacqueline Kennedy was charming and pleasant, with impeccable fashion sense. As a couple, the Kennedys were hip and new, and gave the promise of a bright future. 

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Funnily enough, my mom didn’t have too many stories about the Kennedy era. Neither her nor my father were political types, rarely turning on the news and never talking about it at the dinner table. The only thing she talked about was the shame of the assassination, and how it saddened the whole nation. She talked a lot about the funeral, and how Jackie held up with such grace through it all. 

Then she told me about how she met JFK. 

When she was in high school, she worked on the school paper. A young John Kennedy, then Congressman John Kennedy, was running for the Senate, and touring the state, trying to drum up votes. He came to Western Massachusetts, quite likely just once (the western part of the state rarely gets much attention from Boston). So the high school paper decided to go meet him for some photo ops. 

My mom went with three other girls from her class. The photographer asked the other three to step out of frame because, as my mother said, “they weren’t pretty enough”. [Note: her intonation suggested the photographer was a bit of a perv.] She then had her picture taken, which was published in the paper later that week.

Being a typical high school girl, she was unhappy with how her hair looked, so she never kept a clean copy of the photo. Fortunately, the local paper still had the photo in their archives, and she was able to get a decent copy. 

Mom and JFK

It’s been many years since we went to JFK’s boyhood home in Brookline. She enjoyed the trip, and had fun reminiscing. Today, she can’t get around quite like she used to, her days of travel are long over. She’s seen quite a bit in her years: the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, 9/11, a global pandemic, and now an insurrection. She’ll be 87 in a few weeks, still doesn’t like talking about politiecs and, woefully, is not happy with how her hair looks.

The Symptoms

Recent events have, not surprisingly, stirred up discussions of amending the U.S. Constitution. The presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 have folks crying out for a Voting Rights Amendment, eliminating gerrymandering, abolishing the Electoral College, and guaranteeing free & fair elections. The events since the last election, leading up to the insurrection on January 6, have led to demands to strengthen checks and balances; clearer definitions of treason, sedition, and impeachment; and improvements in the mechanisms to remove a President who is either incapable, unwilling, or opposed to fulfilling the duties of the highest office in the land. Then there are the age-old battles over the 2nd Amendment; the definitions of speech; the role of religion; and the legality of the Senate filibuster, to name but a few.

I suggest to you that these are symptoms, symptoms of a greater flaw in the Constitution itself, a flaw traced back to the very forming of the Union and the penning of the document itself. The Constitution is too difficult to change, and that is its downfall.

The Root Cause

Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult. Article V requires two thirds of both Houses, or two thirds of the legislatures of the States, to agree to simply propose amendments. Then three fourths of the States must agree to enact anything. This has led to the Constitution being changed only 27 times, and only 15 times in the last 200 years. That’s far too few for such a long-lived Republic. In contrast, the Connecticut Constitution (written in 1818) has been amended 31 times; the Ohio Constitution was effectively rewritten completely in 1912; and the Colorado Constitution has been amended an astounding 152 times. The French have rewritten theirs outright multiple times, the last in 1958, and it has been altered 24 times since then. And as far as the UK goes, well, I don’t have enough time to navigate that maze of constant evolution. The U.S. federal government is clearly an outlier when it comes to revision.

I will admit, there are some benefits to having laws that are difficult to edit. Stability and consistency are important to a civil society. Many countries have capricious laws, with whichever tyrant assuming power rewriting everything to punish the “other side”. There is great comfort in having a solid system of laws that the people can understand and navigate. However, I challenge that it is a far greater risk to have an unchanging, unyielding system of laws, especially in a democratic society.

An Immutable Government

There are several reasons why I suggest this, the most obvious being the practical one. Situations change in 200 years. There’s no way that even the wisest man can predict the effects of a written paragraph two hundred years into the future. Concepts once of high import can become irrelevant. Unforeseen issues can crop up. Even the meanings of words and the application of grammar can change in 200 years. There was no way they could predict the affect of the Internet on free speech or the press. There was no way they could understand that muskets would evolve into assault rifles. It was doubtful they even foresaw that Europe would no longer be controlled by monarchs, or a United Nations would be possible, and in no way were they prescient enough to foresee a world facing the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Then there’s the problem of the courts. Having an inflexible Constitution gives the courts far too much power. The courts rely on one thing above all other, and that one thing is precedent. Every interpretation, every ruling, unless countered through an appellate process, becomes a precedent. This is especially true of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the adjudicator of how this ancient document applies to modern situations, and those judgements become unyielding precedents. And frankly, some of these rulings (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, for one) are terrible. Terrible precedents not only linger, they linger for a long time. Consider the worst ruling in the history of the Court: Plessy v Ferguson. That magnificent “precedent” stayed the law of the land … for 60 years! That’s three generations of opportunity lost for millions of African-Americans, all because of the inherent racism of the courts in 1896. But precedent it was, and precedent is God. The people never had a say otherwise. The largest counter, the greatest check-and-balance, to the Supreme Court is the ability to amend the Constitution. Yet that is a nearly impossible task. (Side note: Plessy was never explicitly overruled, it just got squeezed into oblivion by various civil rights rulings in the 50’s & 60’s.)

The Philosophy of Democracy

Finally, there are philosophical problems surrounding an unyielding Constitution. The first seven words of the document state “we the people of the United States”, yet that is no longer true, is it? It is “the long-deceased people of the United States”, who wrote the thing, for their people, in their time. It’s not for us, in our time. We have no ownership, no responsibility for it. It’s a relic of days long past, not a document of the present. It’s almost taken religious significance at this point, something to be held in absolute reverence. This makes us adherents to it, followers of its mandates, instead of us being its master and keeping the fate of our country in our hands.

In 1787, George Bryan, former governor of Pennsylvania, wrote an editorial in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer. He spoke, at length, about the immutability of the Constitution. “This appears to me to be only a cunning way of saying that no alteration shall ever be made; so that whether it is a good constitution or a bad constitution, it will remain forever amended. […] The consequence will be that, when the constitution is once established, it never can be altered or amended without some violent convulsion or civil war.” Of course, that is just what happened: it took a civil war for the passing of the first three, and the most significant, amendments since the first 20 years of the nation’s founding.

Bryan continued “If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter.” Here’s an example of a liberty that is not fixed and established: the right to privacy. It’s not in the Constitution, only vaguely implied by stitching together other clauses. It should have been delineated in the Bill of Rights. But nobody thought it would be necessary. And now we have serious privacy problems in this Internet age. We’ll never get that particular liberty.

Bryan also foresaw the problem of entrenched power, a problem we certainly have today, with our lifetime Supreme Court appointments and members of Congress able to serve, unchallenged, for decades. “People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it; and we shall never find two thirds of a Congress voting or proposing any thing which shall derogate from their own authority and importance.” The Congress will never agree to term limits, or a balanced budget amendment, or anything else to reduce their power.

So this is where we sit. A document in a shrine, revered and immutable. An entrenched two-party system. A disengaged electorate, unable to set its own direction. An insurrection in the very halls of Congress. If the 3/5ths Compromise was the Constitution’s original sin, the stringent requirements to amend the highest laws of the land is its original flaw.