Tuesday, April 12, 2016

John Muir's Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf

I recently read "A thousand-mile walk to the Gulf" by John Muir.  It is the journal of his walk from Indiana to Florida's Gulf Coast when he was 29 years old.  It is a delightful book, full of florid but not stilted or heavy language.  In fact, the less-polished first part of the book is a better read for me than the last chapter, which was gleaned not from little-edited journal entries but rather from an essay he wrote in a magazine years later, and which is consequently much more verbose and clunky to my eye.

A lot of things touched me about this book.  One was Muir's carefree demeanor.  He set off from home with little money, some biscuits, and a plant press, and nothing else.  Often he slept out of doors, in whatever dry, soft spot of ground he could find, or with more or less gracious strangers (sometimes he really had to push to get people to allow him to stay at their house for the night).  Muir was totally interested in plants and the natural world, and not at all interesting in the comfort or trappings of human society (he was so uninterested in human society that he makes rather infrequent mention of the scars of war on the landscape and the people, even though his walk took place in 1867 through the areas worst-seared by the Civil War).  In this sense he reminded me of myself when I was younger.  I was never quite so reckless or ambitious to set off on so long a journey with so little in the way of personal belongings, but I can relate to his desire to leave behind material attachments and just get to know the world.

My reading the book coincided with a trip my family made to Washington, DC, a city we had left some six months before.  It was fun to see our old haunts, but this time as tourists; we traveled light and light-hearted, not worrying much about money, eating light, doing without too many toys or books or other comforting encumbrances of home.  Our kids slept on the floor of our rented apartment, and much of our food came from a dumpster-diving run I did behind Trader Joe's two days after we arrived.  In this sense Muir's book rang even truer for me, as we were in our own way living a bit of Muir's contempt for comfort as he sought new experiences and knowledge.

The one disappointing and dismaying part of Muir's book is his morbid, dehumanizing fixation on the black people he encounters along his walk.  From the very first pages of the book, he refers to blacks by a number of offensive terms, centered on their physical and animal features and framing them as some sort of strange, squalid beasts.  There are many passages dedicated to the whiteness of their teeth, the glow of their cheeks in firelight, their wild eyes or cordial ugliness or gorilla-like strength.  I can understand that Muir had never been outside of the white North, and so would have had little contact with black people prior to his Southern jaunt, and he of course is a product of his racist, dehumanizing time.  But he is so clearly and eloquently in touch with Nature, with such an expansive sense of personhood that he endows even on animals, plants, and rocks, that it is all the more shocking when he seems unable to relate on a human level to people who think and speak and walk and work just like him.

Notwithstanding his persistent and obsessive racism, Muir's work really stood out to me for its well-chosen language, its revolutionary advocacy of Nature's God as opposed to Man's religion.

Muir's eloquence was all the more striking because around the same time I read Donald Trump's interview with the Washington Post editorial staff.  I have tried to avoid most of the media machine's frenzy around Trump, and as such haven't read many of his speeches at length.  So reading an entire interview transcript was shocking.  Trump wasn't being offensive or confrontational--he was trying to be conciliatory.  This was even more dismaying to me, because my impression after reading it was not so much related to his specific positions but rather to his absolute inarticulateness, his mediocrity, his lack of any content in his words.  He rarely used a complete sentence, and all of his references to anything substantive stopped at the most shallow, superficial level, like someone determined never to dig deeper in any question.  Trump in this interview reminded me of your blustering uncle or cousin who says inflammatory things at a holiday meal, but doesn't have any further insight beyond the initial soundbite.  Or the person at a cocktail party or a book club that's talking about a play or book or movie that they either didn't actually get through or didn't pay careful attention to.  They either focus on something trivial (maybe something in the first 20 pages that they actually read) as if it were central to the plot, or say broad, meaningless things like, "I guess I liked it, but I didn't agree with all the author's points".  My friend described this approach as "fake it 'til you make it", and also used the cocktail party analogy--Trump is like the guy that gladhands everyone, everyone thinks is a blast, but he never says anything of substance (this is the type of person that pisses me off at parties or anywhere else, and whom I resolutely steer clear of).

My last reflection on this Trump interview, and on what I know of his public discourse thus far, is that he seems unable to go beyond himself, his own personal experience.  If his interaction was a ruthless genocidal dictator were that they'd played golf together, then his overall assessment would be, "Great guy.  Decent golfer."  He gets angry with the press or other public figures if he feels that they personally offend or question him, but doesn't seem to care about the larger issues he or they may be touching on.  In this sense he blithely avoids any real engagement with any real issues, except on the level of if someone is a good guy or a bad guy.  The height of all these idiosyncrasies of his is when, during the interview, he deflects a difficult question by saying something like, "Hey, this is a great group of interviewers.  Let's get intros from everyone so I can get to know you."

Normally Trump's determined fixation on his own immediate experience leads him to spurt out broad, stupid generalizations that are totally at odds with reality.  He shows no reluctance to opine or generalize on things if his narrow personal experience gives him a sound byte to share.  The only issue he seems reticent to opine on, where he defers to a more deep consideration and study of the case, is when he is asked about racial disparities in the justice system.  He says he's read some things that say that there is systemic bias against blacks, and some things that say there isn't.  He hems and haws, now putting on the guise of a responsible scholar wishing not to make any rash pronouncements from a feeble evidence base.  This is something that even the most cursory consultation of research, or the most passing contact with anyone in the black community, would have given him a very clear idea on.  He's willing to misquote or make up statistics, or simply to cite some one thing that happened to a guy he knew once, in order to support exclusion of Muslims, legal persecution of Latinos, and any other number of barbarities.  But he's not sure that blacks may be getting a raw deal in the US (he does, to his credit, suggest that the ghetto needs an infusion of "spirit").  If I were cynical, I would suggest that the one group Trump seems reluctant to offend is white supremacists, but I'll be more charitable and just assume that his silver-spoon life hasn't given him much direct contact with the victims of the perverse bias of the US criminal justice system.

Here to close is a reflection on the challenge Trump poses to Constitutional democracy in the US.  One of its conclusions is that either Trump's victory or loss in the general election might in fact serve to strengthen our country by drawing it out of the neat partisan divisions that it has entered into.  As an anti-trade, anti-immigrant conservative, Trump would force coalitions of big business conservatives with Democrats, as well as anti-trade Democrats with bluecollar conservatives.  I don't know what I think of the argument, but it is refreshing to see a non-Doomsday scenario being proposed around Trump.

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