Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Today I had to stop the car on the road to let eight bison cross to the other side. That’s not something that happens every day. In fact, never. It was quite a thrill to watch them gallop as a small herd and equally exciting to see some pronghorn antelope, a distant moose, a yet more-distant black bear and the other furry and winged creatures who live in Grand Tetons National Park.

And so, with some dim memory of Teddy Roosevelt’s role in creating and sustaining national parks, I was all set to dedicate this Blog to Teddy and publicly thank him. But first, a trip to Wikipedia to get the facts straight. And there I read about all his laudable achievements, closing with:

“Roosevelt has consistently been ranked by scholars as one of the greatest United States presidents.”

Like any of us, I’m always happy to embrace a hero and Teddy’s memorable quote “Walk softly and carry a big stick” captures succinctly the essence of my “olive branch and the arrows” Blog. But I have read my Howard Zinn and James Loewen (author of “Lies My History Teacher Taught Us”) and am savvy enough to know that most of history as taught is the story of the winners told by the winners—kind of like an ongoing Fox News. So away from my books, I took to the Internet, found some stories by Howard Zinn, like one about Roosevelt’s congratulating the wholesale massacre of Filipinos. And then came quotes from Roosevelt himself from a variety of sources:

"I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."

"I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

Then two more stories from Zinn’s A People’s History:
When a mob in New Orleans lynched a number of Italian immigrants, Roosevelt thought the United States should offer the Italian government some remuneration, but privately he wrote his sister that he thought the lynching was "rather a good thing" and told her he had said as much at a dinner with "various dago diplomats . . . all wrought up by the lynching."
William James, the philosopher, who became one of the leading anti-imperialists of his time, wrote about Roosevelt that he "gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves, and treats peace as a condition of blubberlike and swollen ignobility, fit only for huckstering weaklings, dwelling in gray twilight and heedless of the higher life. . . ."

So there you have the bad and the ugly—the same-old, same-old shouldering the “white man’s burden” of conquering the world, with war as the preferred method, massacre if necessary, shady dealings (with Colombia and the Panama Canal), mostly big sticks and very little soft walking.

Except maybe in the wilderness (though even here, Roosevelt’s passion was hunting). At any rate, while President "he signed legislation establishing five national parks: Crater Lake, Oregon; Wind Cave, South Dakota; Sullys Hill, North Dakota (later re-designated a game preserve); Mesa Verde, Colorado; and Platt, Oklahoma (now a part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area)." This from Wikipedia.

So thanks Teddy, for that. Like so many in power, you protected privilege and wielded your big stick ruthlessly, but sometimes did the right thing. That’s the human drama—we’re all unique combinations of the “good, the bad and the ugly” ( I would also add, “the beautiful”). Good leaders do bad things (Jefferson and his slaves) and bad leaders do good things (Nixon in China). People get caught in the prevailing winds of their times, with neither the vision nor courage to stand firm or walk the other way. It happens on all scales, from the grand stage of history down to the school board and staff meeting.

Still though, when it’s time to choose our heroes and pass them on to the next generation, I much prefer William James and Mark Twain, two contemporaries who criticized Roosevelt’s policies, spoke their truth to his power. So thanks to Howard Zinn and others for not only telling the truth to bring the old heroes down to size (don’t get me started on Columbus), but telling the stories of the many hero-worthy Americans that the history books leave out or whitewash. (Everyone knows about Helen Keller’s struggle with her disabilities, but few know she was a radical Socialist.)

Meanwhile, Teddy, I’ll see you tomorrow at Mt. Rushmore, with renewed curiosity about what the guidebooks say about you. And maybe I’ll speak some of your quotes out loud to my fellow tourists, just so they hear the larger picture. But still, thanks for your work on the National Parks—they’re magnificent.

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