An Upper Midwest intersection for multimedia expression
Author: Clay Jenkinson
Clay Jenkinson is a public humanities scholar who lives and writes in Bismarck, N.D. He grew in western North Dakota, not far from Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands. He attended the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He also is the host of the "Thomas Jefferson Hour," a syndicated public radio program dedicated to the search for truth in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.
Clay Jenkinson is a public humanities scholar who lives and writes in Bismarck, N.D. He grew in western North Dakota, not far from Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands. He attended the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He also is the host of the "Thomas Jefferson Hour," a syndicated public radio program dedicated to the search for truth in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.
View all posts by Clay Jenkinson
Donald Trump is almost certainly going to have to resign. His behavior in the Flynn-Comey affair is nothing short of obstruction of justice. Even Republicans who have defended his hijinks until now are beginning to understand the gravity of the President’s misbehavior.
We need to swallow hard and get this over with.
I knew long before the election that President Trump was going to be bombastic, crude, impulsive and that he would play fast and loose with constitutional and political niceties.
He flirted with an unapologetically extra-constitutional presidency, or at least Know Nothingism, openly declaring that he would profile Muslims, shake up long-established foreign policy norms and alliances, undo hard-fought environmental regulations, and undermine the credibility of some of our most important institutions, inlcuding the judiciary. He made all of that clear in his two-year campaign to become the Republican nominee and then president of the United States.
Donald Trump won the 2016 election. Elections matter. He had a right to try to change America in the ways he outlined. Millions of Americans voted for him because he told them he would fix what was wrong with the United States.
But what none of us could really know was that he would permit his closest cronies to commit treason against the United States by egging on Russian interference in our national election. We could not know that he would divulge state secrets to the Russians, demand loyalty vows from key figures in his administration or attempt to obstruct justice by first undermining the credibility of the FBI investigations, then trying to coerce FBI director James Comey and — when that failed — firing Comey, the national officer investigating the crimes of Trump’s cronies, and perhaps his own.
We are edging toward an impeachment crisis. Whether we have the national will to see it through will be a test of our genuine patriotism and our love of the American Constitution. It will also be a test of the Republican Party.
It seems to me that this can only end one way: Sometime in then next year, Donald Trump is going to leave the presidency one way or the other. Mike Pence is going to be the next president of the United States. If you try to construct a scenario in which Trump survives this crisis, you will find it impossible to see a reasonably plausible path.
The only way Trump can survive is to go on national television, admit everything, apologize in plain and unmistakably sincere terms, throw himself on the mercy of the American people, ask for a final opportunity to redeem his presidency and pray publicly for forgiveness. If he did this, he would probably survive. The American people believe in second chances.
The likelihood of Trump facing his limitations in an unmistakable and humble way approaches zero. Hubris is his brand. He does not have the right stuff to confess to his inadequacies and his crimes.
Here’s why we need to get this over with sooner rather than later. While we spend months processing these increasingly damaging revelations, with Trump’s diehards blaming the Democrats, the establishment and the media, our true enemies are plotting destruction to America and its vital interests. Their capacities for mayhem are equal to their appalling anti-American rhetoric.
Remember the Condit-Levy madness of 2001? For months, that summer the American people wallowed in sexual prurience after Chandra Levy was killed in the District of Columbia, and her boss, Gary Condit, denied, then admitted, he was having an affair with her at the time of her disappearance. Condit did not kill Levy. But his sexual predations distracted an entire nation at a critical moment in our history.
During those wild and crazy months, former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman were warning us that al-Qaida was planning a major attack on the United States. They cried out plaintively using every tool in their possession. They were right about the threats.
But the American people would not listen because they were drunk with intrigue and innuendo, and they preferred to obsess over a tawdry D.C. sex scandal than attend to the urgent security crisis that was unfolding just on the other side of the National Enquirer. Think of the price we paid for our prurience.
We know that our Islamist enemies are now intending a major attack on the United States. Probably it will come in the form of a series of airline bombings, using laptop computers or other electronic devices that can be slipped through airport security inspections. National security officials have said recently that the current threat is the greatest since September 11, 2001.
Two things are critically important now:
First, we need to get this political-constitutional farce over as soon as possible. Almost everyone now has a sense of how it is going to end, even many of the diehards.
Second, when the real crisis comes — something catastrophic, perhaps on the scale of 9-11 — we are going to need to have a president in place who can lead us through dark times to national survival and recovery. A stable president might even be able to prevent the attack.
I take no joy in the collapse of the Trump presidency. We are the most important nation on Earth. The stakes could not be higher. We don’t have the luxury of a protracted national comedy of political ineptitude and malfeasance. Who wants to hear the last defenders defend the indefensible as things spiral into collapse? We need to attend to the urgent issues of our time: energy policy, health care, immigration, natural resource conservation, education and above all, national security.
As in the summer of 2001, we have once again taken our eyes off of the ball. I am terrified by what is undoubtedly taking place behind the gaudy and sensational scenery as the fifth month of the Trump presidency begins.
Students at Columbia University recently put a Ku Klux Klan hood over the statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands in front of the journalism school.
The group, known as Mobilized African Diaspora, declared that “Jefferson’s statue makes it clear that black students are merely tokens of the university.” MAD argued that “venerating” Jefferson “validates rape, sexual violence and racism,” which they say is at odds with the university’s pledge to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all of its students. They are demanding the removal of the repugnant statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty and the Bill for the Government of the Western Territories.
So let me get this straight. Jefferson must go, because he was a slaveholder, but Alexander Hamilton gets to stay at Columbia, even though he despised democracy, distrusted the people, sought to overturn the election of 1800 after the New York results were in, called the Constitution a “shilly shally” thing, advocated a hereditary monarchy for the United States, wanted U.S. senators to serve for life and believed that adventuresome militarism was a primary path to American glory. Hamilton attended Columbia, then known as King’s College, before he became history’s greatest advocate for handing America over to what he called “the rich and the well-born.”
A KKK hood over Jefferson’s head at one of the premier academic institutions of the United States? Columbia, I thought you taught your students to think, to discuss, to reflect, to ponder, to debate, to imagine, to explore rather than merely to posture in righteousness. Really, the students of Columbia are now joining the new American Culture of Outrage? I thought Columbia was above cliché.
Here are five reasons this is a bad idea.
First, if you cover Thomas Jefferson with a KKK hood, what’s left for the KKK? There is a proportionality issue here. Jefferson did some ignoble things, but he never burned crosses on the lawns of his enemies. He never turned attack dogs loose on black men accused of a crime. He never burned down the barns of Catholics and Jews in Virginia. He never sent thugs to beat up individuals who called for general emancipation. He never set fire to polling places, tortured prisoners or joined a squad of sheeted goons on horseback who ran down a black man accused of a crime he may or may not have committed, tied him to a tree, gouged out his eyes and castrated him with a butcher knife and then poured kerosene on him and lit the pyre. For that matter, he never put a hood over the statue of someone he disagreed with.
Second, there is no way we can erase the past. Slavery doesn’t go away even if you pluck down Jefferson’s statue. Jefferson’s life and achievement are inextricably bound up with slavery, but in this he is not alone. To be logically consistent, we’d have burn images of George Washington (the strategic genius who won the Revolutionary War), James Madison (the father of the U.S. Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights); James Monroe, who declared that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to any future European colonialism; John Marshall (perhaps the greatest justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court); and Patrick Henry, our greatest revolutionary orator.
Wipe them off the map, them and many more, but that doesn’t change the fact that the United States was complicit in the systematic enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans between 1619 and 1865, and our civilization has not achieved racial equilibrium yet. I’d rather keep the Jefferson statue (and the Robert E. Lee and the Stonewall Jackson and the Jefferson Davis statues, too) and argue in front of them every day until we make things right, than rip them all down and pretend it never happened.
Third, when J. Robert Oppenheimer was being tried in 1954 for some radical associations he had formed during the 1930s, long before he was asked to head up the Manhattan Project, his countless defenders invoked what they called “the whole man theory.”
Taking Oppenheimer’s life and achievement in their entirety, his degrees, his books, his teaching, his research in quantum mechanics, his masterful management of the most significant engineering project in American history, his mentoring of young scientists, his profound ethical musings on America’s role in creating the greatest weapon of mass destruction the world had ever seen — given all of that, how much weight should we give to one or two minor incidents that did no harm to America’s security but did not exhibit Oppenheimer in the best possible light?
Taking Jefferson’s life and achievement in their entirety, what weight should we give to slavery? If we apply the whole man theory, does his complicity in slavery force us to erase him from Mount Rushmore, to raze Monticello, to throw paint on his statue at the College of William and Mary, to rename Jefferson high schools for someone better?
Or on balance, do we still need, respect, and even celebrate Jefferson, in spite of slavery and Sally Hemings, for the long list of his undeniable contributions to American civilization, from the Library of Congress to the University of Virginia?
The Declaration he wrote in 1776 did more to free American slaves than all the pamphlets of all the abolitionists combined. Plant the seed of universal liberty, and the rest is sure — sooner or later — to follow.
Surely, Jefferson can never again be seen as a flawless American hero. But to make him a leering, raping, horse-whipping fiend like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree is as silly as it is easy for those who would rather dismiss than discuss the blemishes of American history.
Fourth, what makes these students believe they are morally superior to Thomas Jefferson or any number of other figures from American history? What part of the human condition do they think they have avoided? I’m with Jesus: “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” All you have to do is get off your soapbox long enough to ask, “What will the future say of us?” — and if you are like me, you will just want to shrink away to your fracking rig, or your air conditioned Walmart in Phoenix, or your spring break in Cabo or your plastic water bottle, or perhaps start removing your clothing made in Taiwan or China under labor conditions we have not permitted in this our happy republic since 1905.
Really? We can be righteous, we who have caused the vast majority of the world’s scientists to warn that we are edging to global climate catastrophe?
I’m with Hamlet: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?”
Finally and most important, a mature response to the dark side of human behavior is not to turn away in smug superiority and disgust, but to wrestle with those impossible questions of human imperfection.
Why did LBJ jeopardize his magnificent vision of a Great Society to wage a war in Southeast Asia he knew to be unwinnable the moment he inherited it? LBJ’s decision left 58,000 American dead, a million or more Vietnamese, and yet he said from the beginning in 1965 that the war could not possibly be won.
Just for a moment, compare that legacy and those numbers with Jefferson’s admittedly damaging relationship with slavery. Why did FDR put more than 120,000 Japanese, many of them Japanese-Americans, in internment camps during World War II? How could Bill Clinton’s sole dream, from the age of 16, have been to become president of the United States, and then he jeopardized the whole progressive dream to diddle interns? How could Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered one of the handful of greatest speeches of the 20th century, have plagiarized his doctoral dissertation? How could Theodore Roosevelt have dishonorably discharged 167 African-American soldiers for a riot in Brownsville, Texas, when even he was pretty sure they were not guilty of the crime?
The list goes on and on. Shakespeare said, “We are all men frail, and capable of frailty.” George Washington told his niece, Nelly, there is something combustible in human nature, so we ought not play with the matches of temptation.
We humans are strange, paradoxical and wayward creatures, full of sound and fury and whopping moments of darkness and self-destruction. As Huck Finn said, “Humans beings can be awful cruel to one another.”
Who shall scape whipping? Not I, that’s for sure. My great mentor Everett C. Albers always said in moments like this, “Judgment is Easy, Understanding is Hard.”
When I moved back to North Dakota in 2005, I determined to plant a vegetable garden. I moved back to the Great Plains just in case the world collapsed and when it did, I wanted to be near farm country — where I could, like “The Martian,” grow just enough potatoes to survive.
The moment I got all the boxes into my house, I drove to Fergus Falls, Minn., to my grandparents’ old dairy farm, to get some of their rhubarb. They were long since dead, and the farm now belonged to the city of Fergus Falls, but I managed to dig up a few rhubarb roots before they bulldozed everything and transplanted them back at my house here in Bismarck, N.D. For me, this was as important as an ancient Roman transferring the family’s household gods — the Lares and the Penates — to the new hearth.
I’ve harvested rhubarb from that seed stock every year since. Every time I bite into a rhubarb pie or rhubarb bars, I think of my grandmother Rhoda Straus. She kept a garden all of her life, not as a privileged hobby, but out of actual necessity. As someone who lived through the Depression and the Dust Bowl, she needed to grow as much of her own food as possible — every single year — and then to can enough of it to get her family of five through the winter.
She’s my hero: Rhoda Straus. She was as close to a Jeffersonian as anyone I’ve ever met. She paid her taxes, voted every time, belonged to three or four church circles, made quilts, afghans, clothes, draperies, scarves, Christmas decorations, helped organize the annual farm bureau picnic. She had perfect penmanship, spoke and wrote in complete sentences, read all the county brochures on self-improvement and never borrowed a dime. She was what O. E. Rølvaag, quoting the Old Testament, once called a giant in the Earth.
My mother, who is a remarkable woman, walked away from Jeffersonian agrarianism when she was 18 and never looked back — not once. She wouldn’t crochet or make a quilt if you paid her by the inch. When she sees me out weeding my garden, or bringing in vast bushels of tomatoes to blanch and can, she can barely hold back a sneer. At her very-most generous, Mother will say, “Better you than me,” and from time to time, she explains that farmers’ markets are the best of both worlds: high quality, organic, locally grown food — and somebody else does all the work. But she loves, even covets, my creamed corn, and I have begun counting the frozen in my chest freezer before and after she visits.
I am not quite sure why I chose to leap over my mother’s indifference and back into the arms of my maternal grandmother, but I’m not sorry. My favorite meal of the whole year — whether I dine at my favorite restaurant in front of the Pantheon in Rome or at Delmonico’s steakhouse in Manhattan — comes about Aug. 15 when I come home from work, walk out into the garden, snap off two cobs of ripe sweet corn, pull three pear-shaped tomatoes off their vines, grab a cucumber and pull a baseball-sized onion out of the warm earth. I wash them in the kitchen sink, boil the corn, slice up the rest, add a little feta — if I’m feeling frisky — and some zesty Italian dressing, and then I eat what I regard as a perfect meal.
The taste of this salad to the one you get in a restaurant is the difference of hearing Paul McCartney sing “Hey Jude” live in concert or listening to the song on an 8-track tape that went through the wash. It is the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Matthew (13:31). It is, in its own humble way, a kind of agrarian Declaration of Independence. It is to make a sacrament out of the mingling of hands in the soil, modest little seeds, water and the sun.
Farmers are dreamers — and gardeners, too. I have big plans for this year’s garden. I’ve been buying and ordering my seeds. Yesterday, after work, I started up my lawn mower (first pull) and my rototiller (7,000th pull) then, like Romulus among the Seven Hills, I made one round with the tiller to claim my precinct and got started. I spent part of the evening trying to decide where to plant what. I will start my tomatoes this weekend inside — this is North Dakota, where you don’t dare plant a tomato outside until after Memorial Day — including, this year, several Joe Cocker tomato seeds given to me by my friends in western Colorado. I’m not even sure what that means — Joe Cocker tomatoes — but I plan to make them flourish with a little help from my friends. I planted potatoes on Good Friday, as the old wives recommend.
So where does Jefferson come into this tale of Rhoda Straus’ grandson? I think I speak for my friend, David Swenson, the semipermanent — well, you know what — when I say that Jefferson has changed both of our lives in all sorts of ways, including out in the garden. First, we keep careful records, thanks to the master. Second, we experiment with new crops and new varieties even when we know that might not work out. Third, we both truly believe that those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God. And perhaps most of all, we take solace from Jefferson’s letter to Charles Wilson Peale on August 20, 1811. Here’s Jefferson:
“I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another.”
The failure of one thing repaired by the success of another. If you think about it, this wisdom applies to all of life, not just a vegetable garden up where Lewis & Clark wintered between 1804 and 1805.
Thomas Jefferson would probably not have supported the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, at least in his own time.
Don’t get me wrong. He loved the arts. He read in seven languages. In fact, he was reading Thucydides in ancient Greek, without a grammar or dictionary, in the 83rd year of his life.
In his own state of Virginia, Jefferson wanted public libraries to have art collections that you could literally check out and display, this painting or that sculpture, in your own home for a time. He gave his life to the promotion of public education. In fact, he regarded his founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as one of the three prime achievements of his life.
Thomas Jefferson was America’s Leonardo da Vinci.
Jefferson believed that a national debt is a national disgrace, and he believed that the federal government should only do those things that were absolutely “necessary and proper” as the Constitution puts it, and not that which is delightful, life-affirming, useful, or personally satisfying.
Jefferson told Charles Willson Peale, the father of the America museum system, that we must not contemplate creating a national museum of the United States (effectively the Smithsonian) until such time as we had paid off the entire national debt and also passed constitutional amendments to authorize such things as a national museum or a national university.
Ok, we get it. No president was as fiscally Draconian as Jefferson.
But that was then and this is now. Now we have the CIA, the National Security Agency, billions of dollars of black-ops that never appear in the budget of the United States. We have the Consumer Product Safety Board, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Radio Free Asia, the National Forest System, National Monuments and on and on and on. Some of these things can rightly be called Jeffersonian. Some are so dark that it would be a slur against Alexander Hamilton or even Aaron Burr to say they might favor them.
The United States government funds a great deal of what might be called Enlightenment. But the United States government also funds an enormous amount of darkness-regime change, political assassination, arsenals of chemical and biological weapons, cyber-terrorist shops, extraordinary renditions, entities so horrific and so appalling that they make the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA look like a gathering of Girls Scouts.
We are no longer Jefferson’s nation. We are not, in any meaningful sense, a republic any longer. In 1909, Herbert Croly, in a book called “The Promise of American Life,” said we would only become a Jeffersonian nation if we adopted Hamiltonian means. From today’s ominous perspective, even that might seem cheerful and naïve.
People often ask me what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America. My answer is invariably the same. If we rule out Monticello, Poplar Forest, or the University of Virginia — all great candidates — or the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is maybe the most magnificent public building in America, my vote goes to that small cluster of cultural entities including: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, public television, America’s public libraries, and our fabulous national state and local array of public museums.
For me, above all else, it is the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Don’t tell me we don’t need the NEH, the NEA, public radio or that the work those entities do is not patriotic enough or that the NEH and NEA are not much more than welfare for scholars and artists.
The endowments represent that very thin gossamer of Jeffersonian thread that lifts our national culture to civility, nuance, context, thoughtfulness and public engagement. The NEH costs less to run per year than any one of the dozens of weapons systems, from unnecessary tanks to the failed F-35 jet fighter program that the Defense Department itself asks Congress to cancel as inefficient, over-priced, overbudget or no longer useful; programs and engines of death that members of Congress keep funding, not because we need them, but to please their pals in the military industrial complex.
My life has been marked, my life has been “made,” by the existence of the National Endowment for the Humanities and its 57 affiliated state and territorial humanities councils. Imagine living one week without National Public Radio, without the National Air and Space Museum, without the films of Ken Burns, without that local ballet performance by young girls and boys who would have nowhere to develop their talents without the town’s $1,432 grant from the Utah Arts Council.
Do we absolutely need the NEH and the NEA? That depends on how you frame the question and what you think a great civilization “needs.” Did we need the MX missile or the ABM defense system or the most recent of our wars in Iraq? As King Lear says, “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars /Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.”
American civilization has been lifted immeasurably for pennies on the dollar, indeed pennies on tens of millions of dollars, parceled out as competitive grants by the NEH and its state affiliates. To go after them because we need to balance the national budget is insane. To go after them because some simpleton thinks all art should be accomplished without institutional funding would be to deny the Vatican the Sistine Chapel, deny Florence Michelangelo’s David, deny St. Louis the national Gateway Arch, deny PBS the great genius of our finest public historian Ken Burns.
If you love the “Thomas Jefferson Hour” or the republic Thomas Jefferson sought to create, you must fight to maintain funding for America’s cultural agencies, for they truly are the most Jeffersonian thing in America.
The other day, our Steinbeck cultural tour made the journey from Monterey, Calif., to Pinnacles National Park. There is no clear and obvious Steinbeck connection, except that the National Park is part of the Gabilan Mountain system, and that range marked the eastern boundary of the Salinas River Valley, sacred to Steinbeck and the source location of several of his novels, including his great late work “East of Eden.” The Pinnacles are a recent National Park (since Jan. 10, 2013), but the site has been protected as a National Monument since January 16, 1908. That’s where Theodore Roosevelt comes in.
Roosevelt, the greatest presidential conservationist, designated 18 National Monuments between June 1906, when the Antiquities Act was passed, until March 4, 1909, when he grudgingly relinquished the White House to his handpicked but ultimately disappointing successor William Howard Taft.
Roosevelt never saw the spectacular Pinnacles, but he hearkened to the urging of his friend, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University. Jordan was a serious ichthyologist, the author of “A Guide to the Study of Fishes,” an important book that TR had on his shelves at Sagamore Hill. Jordan believed the Pinnacles, a stunning 23-million-year-old set of volcanic plugs, home to 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 69 butterflies and a whopping 400 species of bees, should be given permanent federal protection.
Roosevelt was instantly convinced. He set aside 2,500 acres, the heart of the Pinnacles themselves, but the Monument was enlarged over time until by 1969 it included 26,000 acres.
It’s a stunning place, lightly visited, accessible only by a narrow asphalt road. We hiked to the top — strenuous but not lung-coughing — and watched at least a dozen of the world’s last condors soar overhead or perch on the high rocks waiting for something to scavenge.
For a long time, I sat on the east face of one of the highest Pinnacles and looked into the American West from the other direction for a change. And I gained even greater respect for Theodore Roosevelt. His footprint is everywhere. His enthusiasm for protecting the most beautiful landscapes in America was profound, unnecessary, not particularly advantageous politically, often very controversial and not at the center of the significant social problems the United States faced as it braced for the 20th century.
Roosevelt knew what he did not protect would be destroyed, exploited, compromised or turned into luxury mansions for the super-rich. He believed the great natural beauty of America belonged to all of the people, and he insisted that the United States practice democracy in its public lands and not turn the most sublime places over to the most privileged as their private pleasure grounds.
There is no one quite like him. I once asked the great environmental legal theorist Charles Wilkinson of the University of Colorado if it is possible to exaggerate TR’s achievement in conservation. “No,” he said, “his achievement and his influence have been incalculable.”
Stanford’s President Jordan was one of the founders of the Sierra Club. He had the ear of the president of the United States. He used his power — including his intellectual gifts — on behalf of the Enlightenment. TR could not visit every property he chose to designate for protection, but he had a brilliant environmental network, and he trusted his friends in the field.
Steinbeck does not write about Theodore Roosevelt. He was a friend of FDR and later JFK and LBJ, but my instinct is that Steinbeck would have found TR’s massive personality trying.
I did not know what I am now writing when I ventured to Pinnacles National Park. Had I known I would have been better prepared to drink in the glories of the landscape. But I knew the Pinnacles belong to the whole people of the United States thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, and I know he would have loved the place had his hectic life permitted him to climb up into the empyrean of the condor.
Join our annual adventure — the Summer Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour on July 18-25 — through the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River and the most pristine portion of the entire Lewis & Clark trail, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula, Mont. Participants must be in good physical shape to participate. For those who do not wish to engage in the more strenuous activities, vans will be available with alternative delights, and we will all meet up for dinner.
The accommodations are perfect. Our favorite outfitter, Wayne Fairchild, and his crew move ahead of us, set up the camp, prepare the appetizers, make sure the beer is cold. On the four camping nights, two on the Missouri, two in the Bitterroots, your tent is set up before you arrive, with your preferred mattress or cot. Bring your own sleeping bag or ask Becky to provide you one at modest expense.
The food is excellent. Fresh ingredients, a cheerful and delightful kitchen crew, excellent hors d’oeuvres. For those with special food needs, Becky Cawley can make arrangements.
DAY 1, TUESDAY, July 18
Welcome to Great Falls, Mont.! Settle in, then gather in late afternoon for a welcome reception hosted by Becky and Lewis and Clark scholar Clay S. Jenkinson. Clay is with us through the entire adventure. After a quick orientation meeting with our Missouri River outfitter, we will depart for the Great Falls (named by Meriwether Lewis) at Ryan Dam on the Missouri. It’s more beautiful than you might think. At the falls enjoy an early-evening encounter with Capt. Lewis as he explains what his patron Thomas Jefferson had in mind for the journey and how what became Montana filled Lewis with such a sense of enchantment that he found it impossible to write a journal entry equal to the spirit of the place.
LODGING: La Quinta Inn Riverfront, Great Falls Montana
DAY 2, WEDNESDAY, July 19
Today our journey takes us to our launching point at the portal of the most beautiful segment of what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” First, we’ll stop at “Decision Point” at the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers. When the expedition arrived here in early June 1805, nobody was quite sure which of the two streams was the Missouri. The captains rightly chose the right branch, but everyone else, including the trailsman George Drouillard, believed the Marias was the proper stream to ascend. This is one of the great photo ops of the Lewis & Clark Trail. As with most of our stops, Clay will provide a historical but often comic riff about burdens of discovery here.
The launch of our three-day canoe adventure begins at Coal Banks Landing, east of historic Fort Benton, Mont. In the next couple of days, you will have plenty of opportunity to hike through some beautiful landscapes along the Missouri River. Some offer petroglyphs, others teepee rings on bluffs high above the river. While our guides prepare dinner, our outfitter, Wayne, will take us through the intricate Slot Canyon. In a side canyon invisible from the river, wind and water have carved a beautiful white sandstone labyrinth, full of delightful surprises, on a route just strenuous enough to prepare us all for the fabled Wendover Death March. Back at camp, set precisely where Lewis and Clark overnighted two hundred years ago, hors d’oeuvres, wine, and cold beer await, followed by an excellent meal served over tablecloths and actual dishes. As always, an informal evening discussion with Clay.
CAMPSITE: Eagle Creek
DAY 3, WEDNESDAY, July 20
Coffee at dawn, a hot camp breakfast at 8:30, and now the real adventure begins. Eagle Camp, just across from a famous igneous plug named LA Barge, is the gateway to the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, accessible only by water. The buffalo are gone now, but in almost every other way you are gliding quietly through the river as Lewis & Clark witnessed it (but downhill!). Five minutes after we start the day’s float, Clay will ask you to turn your canoe around to observe the Stone Walls, painted by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer in 1833. You suddenly realize that you camped last night “in” Bodmer’s famous painting.
The rest of the day takes us past beautiful hoodoos, igneous dikes, sandstone formations in which Native Americans found spiritual messaging and other spectacular formations that led the rationalist Meriwether Lewis to speak of “scenes of visionary enchantment.” As Jefferson said of the Natural Bridge in Virginia, “it is worth a trip across the Atlantic to see this object.” After lunch under a lone cottonwood tree at the base of the famous Hole-in-the-Wall rock formation, we’ll work off our restless energy by climbing up to the summit, where you can be photographed standing in the Hole-in-the-Wall (or plummeting into the Missouri if you prefer!) This is one of the great hikes on the Lewis & Clark Trail, 40 minutes up and then 15 down. There is no way to explain the grandeur to beheld here. You have to earn it with your feet. After another leisurely float, those who wish it bob down the last mile to camp in their life jackets, feeling the gentle but inexorable tug of one of the world’s great rivers. It’s a perfect way to cool off on a hot dry afternoon and experience geomorphology at the molecular level!
In the evening, another fine meal, great conversation, and, if we are lucky, a lightning storm.
CAMPSITE: Slaughter Creek.
DAY 4, THURSDAY, July 21
Last day on the Missouri River. After breakfast and a leisurely paddle of 12 miles, we disembark at Judith Landing, where the river William Clark named for his future wife, Julia Hancock, flows sweetly into the Missouri. The American Prairie Reserve, dedicated to creating the artist George Catlin’s vast buffalo and range park in the American West, has recently purchased the PN ranch at the mouth of the Judith. Over lunch, Clay will discuss the near-extermination of the bison in the 19th century, and the painstaking work undertaken by the Smithsonian’s William Hornaday and his new friend, Theodore Roosevelt, to save and restore the species. We leave the canoe portion of the river just as it enters a wider, sagebrush zone known as “The Breaks of the Missouri.” By mid afternoon, we’ll get you to a hot shower at a historic hotel, laundry, grocery and hardware service, and time to retire your river gear as we prepare for the second half of our adventure. In the evening, live music on the hotel terrace and fine dining in the Grand Union Hotel, Montana’s oldest, built in 1882, seven years before Montana became a state. Shower as many times as you want.
LODGING: Grand Union Hotel, Ft Benton.
DAY 5, SATURDAY, July 22
This is what is known on the Chautauqua circuit as “jump day.” After breakfast in the hotel dining room, we’ll take an air-conditioned trail coach through some of the most beautiful country in western Montana. Our destination is the whimsical Lochsa Lodge, our headquarters in the Bitterroot Mountains for the last dozen years. This is Clay’s favorite resort in America — just enough frills to be satisfying, just enough of the rustic to be authentic. Great food, a wide variety of drink, the unbelievably beautiful Lochsa River five minutes by foot from your cabin, almost the platonic idea of a clear mountain stream. We often spend the late afternoon sitting in the river talking, sipping beer, trying, as always, to walk across it without tumbling in among the trout. On the coach journey, we’ll eat (and resupply) in Missoula, where there is an REI coop, and then climb over Lolo Pass into Idaho. Eat and rest well, friends. For tomorrow we make our ascent up to Wendover Ridge. For those who prefer not to undertake the Death March, we offer a satisfying alternative: a fishing weir known to Lewis & Clark, the expedition’s 12 Mile Camp, and Rocky Point Lookout, now decommissioned by the Forest Service, but available for overnight lodging next time you come to the Bitterroots.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
DAY 6, SUNDAY, July 23
This is the day of days on Clay’s Lewis and Clark Adventure Tour. When Capt. Lewis discovered that the Shoshone guide “Old Toby” had led them astray, he ordered his company to make its way to the Nez Perce Trail straight up. One of our loudest customers, years ago, was heard screaming at mile four, “Didn’t those morons understand @#!@$#@ switchbacks?!” Our 8½-mile hike uphill, (a 3,000-foot climb in elevation), is follows the expedition’s Sept. 15, 1805, ascent through slushy snow leading pack horses. Here, more than anywhere else on the nationwide LC trail, you can be sure you are walking precisely in the footsteps of America’s most famous explorers. You can make the hike at your own pace. With luck, we will be led by the infamous Chad Jones (Clay’s “tree dork”), a wilderness guide who combines Herculean stamina with a low comic routines. Nobody who has begun the Death March has ever failed to make it to the top. In a sad historical note, Russ Eagle, who briefly held the record ascent of 3:01 (what he calls “three naught one” — he’s from North Carolina), has relinquished the world record to the Iron Man master Mike Harry of Franklin, Tenn., the site of “the last great battle of the Civil War.” In spite of Clay’s drama-queen exaggerations of the Wendover DM, this day is tremendous fun, and those who make the hike are filled with the pure joy of the “strenuous life,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Tonight’s camp, (another L&C campsite), is aptly named Snowbank. They melted snow here for drinking water. It is on this evening when our participants look around the camp circle to discover that we have become what Lewis called “the best of families.” Whatever shyness or urban tension you bring to the trip will have slipped away somewhere at mile five, and you will realize that you have discovered your soul again, and the joy of your body, the magic of the wilderness, and the esprit de corps that comes from relaxing our tightly-formed social identities. This trip changes lives. It renews lives. Just wait: you’ll see.
L&C CAMPSITE: Snowbank.
DAY 7, MONDAY, July 24
Today, we wander west on the Lolo (Nez Perce) Trail. Our transport is minivans, but we stop half a dozen times during the day to look at Lewis & Clark historic sites. We are now in the heart of the heart of the Lewis & Clark trail, in a remote, still largely inaccessible high mountain terrain with what Lewis called “range after range of impenetrable mountains in every direction.” This portion of the Rocky Mountains is heartbreakingly beautiful. Our fearless guides will take us to such LC sites as “Bears Oil and Roots,” “Indian Post Office,” “Lonesome Cove,” “the Sinque Hole” and “Smoking Place.” You will stand “in the journal entries”of the expedition’s diarists, in places no casual tourist ever visits. This is Greek Spanakopita night, after a “we cook for the crew” initiative that Clay insisted upon a few years ago, until the crew said it is just so much easier to do it themselves! After Greek salad, kabobs and spinach pie, we climb up Bald Mountain to view as beautiful a sunset as you will ever see. Later, back at camp, dessert and guitar music either by members of the outfitter crew or the kind of lame crooners we attract on this trip.
L&C CAMPSITE: Dry Camp.
DAY 8 TUESDAY July 25
Because they were explorers, Lewis and Clark could not know just when their troubles in the Bitterroot Mountains would end. When Clark and a few iron men finally punched their way through to the end of the Bitterroots, they rejoiced to see a smooth plateau in the haze to the west. They named this vista “Spirit Revival” ridge. We visit it after breakfast on the last morning of our time in the mountains. The expedition tumbled into a Nez Perce camp, exhausted, malnourished (unlike us) and frightened. The Nez Perce held a formal council to decide whether to assist the poor Anglo refugees or to kill them and get it over with. Thus began one of the best white-Indian friendships in the history of the American West (until 1877, that is). Clay will explain how a Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis saved the expedition and how the remarkable Nez Perce helped the expedition fashion canoes (at Orofino, Idaho) and guided them to the Great Falls of the Columbia River.
After a final mountain lunch, we will hike down off the mountain. This time, it’s more than nine miles, but gravity is on our side for once, and at the end, we’ll be greeted by bottles of ice cold water and one of the prime swimming holes in the Lochsa River. For those who have the patience, there are thousands of huckleberry bushes along the trail.
Back at Lochsa Lodge, an evening of endless mirth, good drink and the satisfaction of having triumphed over what Lewis called “those tremendious [sic] mountains.”
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge, Powell, Idaho Meals: BLD
DAY 9, WEDNESDAY, July 26
After a lodge breakfast, you’ll meet a guest speaker, who brings new perspective to our LC adventure. Often enough, this is the great David Nicandri, occasional guest host on the “Thomas Jefferson Hour,” or Allen Pinkham, an elder of the Nez Perce Nation. This is a day of leisure and farewell. After lunch, you have the afternoon on your own, but almost everyone winds up in the magnificent Lochsa River. The day ends with a formal farewell banquet in which Clay claims that Becky tried to drown him yet again this year, that “next year” he is going to scamper up the Wendover DM like a bighorn sheep, and that no one ever quite recovers from walking off the map of the known world.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
July 27 Homeward bound. After your last huckleberry breakfast at Lochsa Lodge, a 45-minute ride delivers you to the Missoula International Airport, or to your vehicle at a cooperating hotel.
Donald Trump delivered a 16-minute inaugural address January 20. Some have called it “the most divisive in American history.” I did not hear it — with Trump tone and delivery matter greatly — but on the page it certainly does not seem to me to be that divisive.
Here are my thoughts about reading it quietly in my library.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address will either stand as one of the most important or one of the most delusory in American history. He made big promises, wild promises, and he drew a line in the calendar of American history — asserting that his installation as president of the United States would repair, restore and renew the American experiment.
If he “succeeds,” his inaugural address will be seen as pivotal, by those who thirst for his leadership and by those who dread what he represents and seeks. If he fails, it will be regarded as a piece of naive bombast that shattered against dynamics bigger than his will and his ego. I fear that in 10 or 50 years, his inaugural address will be regarded as not much more than hyperventilation.
Trump should have read through the inaugural addresses of his 44 predecessors as he prepared for his big moment. Here is what he could have learned from one of the most extraordinary men who ever held public office in America, Thomas Jefferson.
Humility. Thomas Jefferson was one of the most talented men in American history. He was, after Abraham Lincoln, our greatest writer among presidents. He was a polymath who knew seven languages, read incessantly, invented labor-saving devices and what he called gimcracks, conducted serious scientific experiments, helped to create American paleontology and archaeology and made the Library of Congress a universal repository of human knowledge. He was America’s Da Vinci. And he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Donald Trump is a successful businessman. He did not write the books issued under his name. All of his life, he has been surrounded by allegations of sharp business practices, fraud, self-promotion, human rights abuses and sexual adventurism. He has bankrupted his businesses repeatedly and left investors, partners and Trump university students holding the bag.
There is not a single word in Trump’s inaugural address about how humbling it is to be selected as the principal representative of the principal representative of the American people.
Three times in his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson informed the American people that he was not sure he was equal to the grave responsibilities of the presidency. He declared “a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents.” He said, “I humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking.” He compared himself unfavorably to the first president, George Washington. And he said, “I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment.”
And Jefferson said, with extraordinary insight, “it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it.”
It is possible that Jefferson was emphasizing his sense of diffidence more than he actually felt it, but I believe he was essentially telling the American people how he felt in being made first among equals in a nation of 6 million people that included such worthies as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Patrick Henry, James Monroe and the late George Washington. He was also reminding us all of the sense of respect and even awe that any president-elect should bring to the highest elective office in the United States.
Donald Trump did not make even a half-hearted statement of those humble sentiments. He is not a humble man. So far as we can tell, he has no doubts about his capacities.
Trump promised “I will never ever let you down.” Jefferson admitted that he could not possibly satisfy those who disliked him or his policies, but he would do what he could to conciliate them, and he admitted — with some firmness — that he knew he would sometimes “let the American people down,” even those who were his ardent supporters.
Acknowledge the primacy of the legislative branch. Donald Trump told us some ways in which he intends to make America great again, and he paid a number of populist tributes to the People, but he never told us how he intends to accomplish his goals and through whom. Someone from Jupiter reading his inaugural address might conclude that he intended to do all this by himself — with the support of the American people — but without any help from the other two branches of the national government. That is the very definition of one-man rule. In fact, President Trump went out of his way to condemn what he calls the Washington establishment. Jefferson said, “To you gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are embarked.”Trump blamed established politicians (in other words, members of Congress) and the Washington insiders — bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists—what he called “a small group in our nation’s capital,” of prospering at the expense of the American people, protecting its own perks and power without any desire to serve the rest of us who do not live in the District of Columbia and of “triumphing” (strange word) while the rest of us suffered. He even accused the Washington establishment of “celebrating” while factories closed and families struggled all across America.
Such pronouncements are not just populism. They are irresponsible, irrational and just not true. The Washington establishment may not have been sufficiently responsive to the needs and demands of the American people, but the portrait President Trump painted will make it harder to govern rather than easier. It woefully misreads the Constitution of the United States. It shows no understanding of how difficult it is for 535 members of Congress to craft legislation for a third of a billion people in places so mutually distinct as Hawaii and Mississippi, Montana and New York.
By denying any virtue, good will, earnestness or good sense to the Washington establishment, which he portrayed as a parasite on the body of the American people — worse, a gang of parasites bent on enriching themselves and living in sybaritic comfort while deliberately destroying the American dream — Trump may have pleased the radical wing of his populist base, but he showed a lack of professional balance and decorum that manifests a fundamental contempt for the American system. He spoke like a strongman of a hapless island regime. He spoke like someone who would be Mussolini if he could get away with it.
Explain your philosophy of governance. Jefferson not only laid out what he took to be a consensus view of American public happiness — “a wise and frugal government that shall restrain men from injuring one another, but leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement” — but he went on to outline his own “philosophy of governing,” in other words his own playbook for serving as the third president of the United States: majority rule, a preference for state rather than federal solutions to public problems, a deep commitment to free speech, freedom of religion, payment of the national debt sooner rather than later, a firm preference for a people’s militia over a permanent army and navy. Etc.
In other words, Jefferson not only explained what he took to be the national consensus about how much government the American people wanted and how it should operate, but he outlined his own theory of presidential power.
Donald Trump provided no clues of any sort about how he intends to preside over the United States and by what processes and procedures. He merely told us what he intends to get done: rebuild America; force our international partners to pay their own way; protect our borders; utterly destroy Islamic terrorism, etc. But he gave us no indication of just how he intends to do all of that.
He promised to give America back to the people — a Jacksonian pledge, even a Jeffersonian one — but how exactly does he plan to do that?
He talked as if America were a giant corporation of which he is new CEO, governing without even a board of directors; but he will soon learn that that is not how the American constitutional process works. It is not how a 21st-century democracy works; and if the American people put up with such dictatorial actions, it will indicate that the republic is now officially dead, and we the people have lost the spirit of America’s constitutional genius.
Finally, conciliate, unite, forgive, seek national reconciliation. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson famously said, “Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”Jefferson acknowledged that the election of 1800 had been vicious, bitterly partisan and destabilizing, but he promised to do all that he could to reach out to his detractors and take their concerns seriously, and he carefully warned his own majority that they must not lord it over their defeated brethren. “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate which would be oppression.”
There was no spirit of national reconciliation in the inaugural address of Donald Trump. There was only triumphalism. At the beginning of his speech, he praised his predecessor and Michelle Obama, but only for “their gracious aid throughout this transition.”
In his address, Jefferson never said a single negative thing about the government of the United States, about the “establishment,” about his predecessors, about his political enemies, about opposition newspapers, about sincere and angry critics. He gave one of the most inclusive and gracious inaugural addresses in American history.
Even his personal and ideological enemy, John Marshall, said, after hearing Jefferson’s address from very close proximity, that it was “well-judged and conciliatory.”
Trump spoke again and again of the People of America, but at no point did he acknowledge that only 27 percent of the American people voted for him, that Hillary Clinton received several million more popular votes than he did, that about half of the country believes he is a disaster, little short of Beezebub, and that no president since Lincoln has entered office under such a cloud of anger, bitterness, disapproval and disbelief.
Had he been a Jeffersonian, Trump would have acknowledged the polarization of the country, the bitterness of the election and the intensity of those who are having a difficult time accepting the fact that he is now the 45th president of the United States.
Had he been a Jeffersonian, Trump would have reached out to all of those who distrust or dislike him and said it is his intention to do what he can to win them over, to gain their trust and respect and to remember that as a president with a little less than half the country on his side, he cannot possibly succeed without at least the grudging cooperation of the other 170 million individuals.
Instead, Trump spoke of the people as if it were a monolithic phalanx of 340 million people “all of whom” support him against the establishment and the elites, “all of whom” are praying that he will give them back their country. By not acknowledging the fact of the opposition, and making some gesture of his desire to represent them too, some urge to find a way to win their approval, Trump wound up speaking of “the People” in a way that is merely demagogic and self-serving, but without any fundamental truth or reality. Or generosity of spirit.
Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of good things about Donald Trump’s inaugural address. To be a good president or candidate for the presidency, you must be able to sing what I call the Jefferson Music about America. Trump did so, admirably. He was profoundly Jeffersonian when he said the country belonged to the American people not its government, that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around, that he intends to give the country back to the people, that the people will not be ignored and held in contempt any longer. He said, “This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.” I was moved by that — and I do hope he meant it.
Trump spoke movingly of American optimism, the can-do American spirit, the boundless opportunities before us.
He spoke of our universal desire for good schools, safe neighborhoods and good jobs. And he spoke movingly of those trapped in bad schools, unsafe neighborhoods and dead-end jobs, if they have them at all.
These are great things. If we did not know so much about Trump, if we were just reading the inaugural address of January 20, 2017, in the abstract, not knowing who delivered it, not having witnessed the circus and mayhem of the last two years, it might be possible to see the speech as the utterance of a populist democrat, even a social and political liberal.
But Trump has been so profoundly Trumpish, Trumpastic, Trumperistic, Trumpompous, Trumprageous since he burst into the political arena, that it is no longer possible to read his words without seeing his wild gestures, his grimaces, his clowning, his scowl, his self-love, his arrogance, his bombast and his colossal self-assurance.
Donald Trump, you should read Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, and Lincoln’s second, and Washington’s second, and John Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s first.
I find it interesting that for eight years the anti-Obama legions kept their eyes open at all times for signs that Barack Obama was “an angry black man.” If at any time, he showed the slightest impatience or raised his voice above a certain level, or spoke in something that could be thought to resemble black street English, the conservative punditry accused him of being an “angry black man.”
They had slightly better luck with the first lady Michele Obama, who seemed to have a slightly more volatile temperament than her famously self-controlled husband. The academic papers of her young womanhood were examined for any sign that she hated white people, hated America or sought radical revolution. Her statement in Milwaukee on Feb. 18, 2008, that “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” was cited as proof that she hated white America.
That sentence was proof positive to millions of Obama detractors that we had somehow put into the White House a couple bent on destroying America, or at least the America we know and love. Every Obama association, no matter how ancient and no matter how thin — the Rev. Wright, Bill Ayes, Saul Alinsky — was routinely trotted out to prove that the president of the United States was a dangerous radical, and perhaps a treasonist.
Apparently, all black men are angry and violent. You can go to Harvard or Princeton, speak in perfect grammar, dress with great elegance, exhibit ceremonial decorum not seen in the White House since Jack and Jackie, write thoughtful and eloquent books (by yourself) and exhibit an analytical capacity that even Bill Clinton rarely exhibited and still be regarded by the yahoos as a Black Power radical likely to reveal his core rage at any moment. Apparently, you cannot be a black president of the United States unless you have built up no resentment about the historic and ongoing oppressions of White America, and never reveal anything but a sunny minstrel temperament.
Now, in 2016, we elect not just an angry white man, but an almost continuously angry white man.
I doubt that a day went by on the two-year campaign in which Donald Trump did not lash out at some one or some group. At times, he slavered in his rages. At times, he became incoherent as he tried to find words sufficient for the level of anger and denunciation he felt. From the podium he singled out individuals for ridicule and abuse. He heaped abuse on American war heroes, parents of young men fallen in America’s battles, journalists just doing their job, women who had tearfully and reluctantly confessed that he groped them in public.
When was the last time in American politics when a major candidate was so angry, so often, and with such a mean-spirited manner?
If you are a student of history, you can think of only two obvious examples. Remember in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was upset by the logistics of a Republican debate in New Hampshire? His face darkened, and he said, with unmistakable anger, “I am paying for this microphone?” The reason we all remember that minor incident is because it was essentially the only time the even-tempered, genial and happy Reagan ever lost his temper in public.
The only other modern politician worthy of comparison with Donald Trump is former Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the 1960s — with his famous leer and sneer — a vicious Southern racist whose every pronouncement during those years was “dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it.
Think about it. Barack Obama was routinely accused of being an angry black man, but he wasn’t. He was about as gracious a human being as you could ever put into the presidency (whether you like his policies or not). Donald Trump is perhaps the most angry man ever installed in the presidency.
Barack Obama had a great deal to be angry about: the history of American racism, oppression, racial profiling, segregation, lynching, belittlement. But he was invariably professional and often serene.
What does Donald Trump have to be angry about? He has always been one of the most mollycoddled, indulged and privileged of Americans, a man who can afford to install gold faucets in his homes. (Try as I might, I have never been able to find gold faucets at Home Depot).
Angry White Man with no reason to be angry: OK.
Gracious Black Man with plenty to be angry about, but beyond anger: Dangerous radical.
But as the far right likes to say, “I ain’t racist, ain’t no racism or prejudice in my body.
There is a dreary predictability about the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, especially in the words that come out of people unsympathetic to the protest. I’m listing those I hear most often:
1. There are lots of non-Indians down there. They have no business here. They discredit (here’s the special kicker in this argument) “what otherwise would have been a perfectly legitimate protest.”First of all, the people who talk this way don’t actually think the Lakota have a legitimate reason to protest, so this is just posturing. But why do protest detractors get to decide who gets to show solidarity with the Lakota?
Does this mean NO white person has a right to join the protest? Does that mean that only Americans got to protest the Sept. 11 attacks or only Jews got to protest the anti-Semitic laws in Hitler’s Germany? Does that mean no male can walk in a women’s protest march? Does it mean that no German or Brit or Canadian can protest the treatment of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China? I’m with John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of himself … any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” I’m with Martin Niemoller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out …” Etc.
It’s inconvenient to get to North Dakota, to live in a primitive camp, to be away from work, family, one’s own bed. It’s expensive to join such a protest. The weather in North Dakota, even in the temperate months, is often severely inhospitable. The wind blows like a son of a bitch. My view is that the overwhelming majority of the “outsiders” who have come to join the protest are idealists, not opportunists. Are there some schnooks? Of course. Does that discredit the protest?
2. The legitimate sovereignty protest has been hijacked by the anti-carbon crowd and they have discredited the protest. Well, yes and no. I would have liked the protest to stay focused on the issues of Native American (Lakota) sovereignty and the responsibilities of true intergovernment consultation. But once the word went forth that the Lakota were protesting an oil pipeline being sited on the northern perimeter of their sovereign-nation-state reservation, a wide range of people who believe the first world’s carbon addiction is not just damaging historically colonized places and peoples but impairing the health of the planet Earth, decided the Standing Rock crisis was an opportunity to gather people from the U.S. and worldwide to protest the continuing growth of the carbon-based economy at a time when we should be backing away from gross carbons.
The fact that the larger carbon debate could be coupled with the protest of a historically oppressed people was bound to get the nation’s and the world’s attention. So, from a strategic point of view, the anti-carbon forces made a very intelligent decision. Whether this was truly in the best interests of the Standing Rock Lakota is a question that cannot yet be sorted out, but I see nothing illegitimate about the widening of the protest.
For the Lakota the resource issue is more about water quality and the Idea of Water (white people don’t use those capital letters) than about oil per se, but it is after all a Natural Resources debate and oil is a very important natural resource, exploited by non-Indians as dis-spiritedly as water, grass, the buffalo, etc.
3. Unless you got to the Cannonball River on foot or horseback, you are nothing but a hypocrite. Really? The Al Gore Gambit again and again and again? According to this argument, you cannot legitimately worry about the effect our industrial carbon is having on the biosphere of the Earth unless you renounce carbon altogether.
This is formally known as the “law of the occluded middle,” or “reductio ad absurdam.”
Believing that professional football causes concussions and must be reformed does not mean that you can never watch an NFL game again. Believing that alcohol is a source of liver disease, domestic violence, and lethal driving does not mean you can never again have a beer or a cocktail. The most enlightened First World countries are addressing the carbon problem with intelligence and creativity. Germany has the most vibrant economy in Europe, and yet it has dedicated itself to a deeply significant investment in green technologies.
Very few individuals are arguing that humans should stop using carbon. The argument is rather that we must find ways to transition sensibly out of our carbon addiction, which has obscenely distorted our foreign policy for generations, increased economic colonialism, permitted an unwise and unsustainable product manufacture and delivery system, encouraged us to be much more sedentary (with all the ill effects that come with sedentariness), and — yes — unmistakably contributed to global climate change in ways that have already adversely affected third world populations that have the least ability to adjust. The argument of the “Al Gore = hypocrite” crowd seems to be “that you are either all in or entirely out of the carbon economy.” The truth is that moderate adjustments of our habits would not only attenuate the deterioration of our biosphere, but permit a more equitable distribution of the world’s limited resources and increase our physical and spiritual well-being. If you believe we ought to move toward a smaller dependence on carbon, buying a hybrid vehicle is better than driving a Humvee. Driving a hybrid almost certainly makes more sense than walking to New York or Los Angeles. Wanting to lower your carbon footprint and save money might inspire you to turn your thermostat down or wear a sweater, but it would not be intelligent to take your furnace to the dump to prove your purity.
There are, of course, hypocrites in all areas of human endeavor, but if you think someone you never met is indisputably a hypocrite for flying to a protest rally, you had better take a look at the hypocritical logs in your own eye before condemning — like Pavlov’s reactionary — the motes in the eyes of those you disagree with.
4. Celebrities have no right to protest. What is Leonardo diCaprio doing at Standing Rock? What can Bono or Sean Penn possibly have to say about current events worth knowing? What? They cease to be citizens because they are famous? These are people we follow in the gossip magazines and permit to shape a wide range of our habits: the jeans they wear, the cars they drive, the yoghurt they eat, the way they groom their hair, the computers they endorse. We feel free to make pronouncements about their mating habits, the appropriateness of the film and TV parts they take on, the wisdom of their subscribing to Scientology or Roman Catholicism, Islam or Quakerism, but at the same time argue that they are not permitted to use their hard-earned fame as a bully pulpit to advocate the world they wish to live in?
Of course some celebrities are vapid cultural faddists (unlike the rest of us), but most of them have actually done more homework about the causes they espouse than the great bulk of talking-point citizens. I would very gladly hear a debate about carbon or Native American sovereignty or sexual trafficking or Haitian poverty or Edward Snowden or Russia’s policies in the Ukraine between Leonardo diCaprio (or Sean Penn) and a right-wing talk radio host. Let’s see who has a better command of the evidence.
5. The misdeeds of the most extreme protestors discredit the Lakota pipeline protest. They certainly don’t do it any good, and I commend Chairman Dave Archambault, the Standing Rock tribal council and the elders of the Lakota for doing everything they can to keep the peace, to press for nonviolence and to insist upon respect for property and the law.
Any protest phenomenon of this magnitude is going to attract some undesirable people, perhaps even undesirable elements. We should all insist upon respect for private property, respect for legitimate law enforcement authorities, respect for our courts, respect for innocent people who are just going about their daily business. But we can hardly discredit the entire protest movement based on such irresponsible deeds as are inevitable in any large gathering, from Woodstock to a Clinton, Sanders or Trump rally.
I don’t remember the people who now make this “bad apple” argument using the same logic with those UND hockey fans who showed disrespect for the Lakota during the prolonged “Fighting Sioux” controversy. Logo and mascot defenders rightly said that the behavior of the larger community should not be condemned merely because a few drunk or irresponsible people misbehaved at ballgames. I don’t remember the “drill, baby, drill” crowd (or the conservationists) condemning the oil boom because of a few spills or the misbehavior of some of the oil workers who flocked to North Dakota. Quite the opposite: the adamantly pro-development crowd argued strenuously that we must look upon irresponsible behavior as a minor problem that must not be regarded as representative of the boom.
6. Until American Indians, including the Lakota, solve their drug and alcohol problems, their violent crime and domestic abuse problems, their truancy and school dropout problems, we do not need to take their protest seriously. In the last six months, I have heard dozens of people say, “So there are your great environmentalists, leaving trash around the encampment, using drugs, drinking and hurting innocent animals.” Whatever dysfunction exists in Indian Country is not without some pretty serious historical dynamics — displacement, colonization, conquest, cultural genocide, forced assimilation, etc. And the argument that Indians have no point of view “until they get their act together” is a little threadbare in a state where the white community has the highest youth binge drinking rate in the country, a serious meth and crack cocaine problem and a significant problem of domestic violence and spousal abuse.
If most white folks are responsible and law-abiding, so too are most Native Americans. We must all fight against the stereotypes and the optics of our tragic history. When an American Indian is drunk in a bar s/he is often seen as “a typical Indian.” But when a white farmer is drunk in a bar he’s just relieving tension or he’s just some guy making a fool of himself. But we don’t chalk it up to “typical white man.” Can we keep the focus here?
This is not the time to debate the dysfunctions of the Indian populations of America but to try to sort out the government-to-government responsibilities of the state of North Dakota and the Lakota Nation. There will be time to talk about social ills later. There is a significant history of drug and alcohol abuse in my family. I just did Ancestry.com and I have learned that I am entirely non-Indian. I doubt there are many non-Indian North Dakota families that don’t have some traces of drug and alcohol abuse — the stuff of human nature, the stuff of poverty, the stuff of mental illness, frankly the stuff of rural America.
On the other hand:
1. I also want to combat the argument, by those who are wholeheartedly sympathetic to the Lakota protest and Native American causes generally, that non-Indians are invariably wrong and American Indians are invariably right. In this, as in most human crises, there is no unambiguous right, no unambiguous wrong, no simple dichotomy between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. This is a very complicated situation.
Nobody is 100 percent right or innocent, and nobody is 100 percent evil or oppressive. There is plenty of responsibility and even blame to go around. My own sympathies are complicated and mixed; and my attitudes toward the pipeline controversy have wild mood swings. My analytic mind is often at odds with the workings of my heart. My critical thinking skills wax and wane. My capacity to make sense of a kaleidoscopic and fast-changing situation comes and goes, and every time I think I know what a responsible and caring North Dakotan or American should think about this crisis, some new information or rumor or statement or incident upsets my best thinking. On some days I have no idea what I really think about all of this.
But I know this much: I want to try to respect every point of view, even those that make very little sense to me. Because this land was theirs before we took it — almost entirely by chicanery and deception and broken treaties — and because American Indians have been historically oppressed (can anyone really deny that) and because I would not want an oil pipeline to be sited by Canada or Mexico one mile from my nation’s borders and because American Indians have been so unbelievably patient in the face of what Jefferson called “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” my basic sympathies lie with the Lakota.
But I also have great sympathy with the hard-working law enforcement officers who have tried to keep the peace in southern North Dakota in very challenging and frustrating circumstances. I have sympathy with state government officials who have tried to stay on top of this shape-shifting crisis. I have great sympathy with non-Indian property owners near the encampments who have lost property, livestock, gasoline, fences, their accustomed mobility and peace of mind over a crisis that they did nothing to create. Truth told, I even have sympathy for the pipeline company that just wants to fulfill its contract to site and build a pipeline to carry the oil we all use in great quantities to market. I believe that everyone and every entity has a point of view that we must respect, even when we disagree.
I certainly cop to my own deep addiction to carbon in every one of its industrial and chemical applications, and I know without question that my home sits on land that was once the very center of the Mandan Nation. I know that not everyone who reads this will agree with my point of view, but I remind all of us of Voltaire’s statement: “Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Of the great American writers, John Steinbeck is the most accessible. His masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath,” is perhaps the most widely read of all American classics. He wrote it in the white heat of anger — how the 1 percent were mistreating displaced Americans, “Okies,” good agrarian men and women of the Plains, who had made their way to the fields of California in search of subsistence.
“The Grapes of Wrath” represents a “perfect storm” of art: a writer at the top of his game, with a subject of world historical importance; centered on an American road trip, featuring a broken family seeking to reinvigorate the American Dream.
Steinbeck is a quintessentially California writer. His world — Salinas, Monterey, Los Angeles, the great Central Valley (Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia), and Route 66 — is a central part of American memory.
I’m taking a group of Steinbeck lovers, mostly from the ranks of “Jefferson Hour” listeners, on a weeklong tour of the places that helped form his mighty fictions. Strange though it may seem, these cultural tours change lives. They give people an opportunity to wade into the humanities in a delightful, satisfying, affirming, and sensuous way, without the academic intimidation usual in such enterprises. They remind us of what is really important. They create friendships. They have created lasting romances. They renew the tired and deepen the lives of people who want more books and ideas in their life, but don’t quite know how to make it happen. There is endless laughter — and always a sense of adventure.
It’s what Thoreau said, “How many a man has dated a new era of his life from the reading of a book?”
All the logistics are handled by my travel partner, Becky Cawley. All you have to do is show up with your curiosity (and a modicum of reading!).
For more information, see the descriptions on this site and at Jeffersonhour.com. Or call Becky at (208) 791-8721.