Monday, May 31, 2010

History and Democracy; or Why I Can't Stand Ken Burns's National Parks, pt 1: Just the Facts

In a review yesterday morning of a book on classified governmental information and the press, Alan Dershowitz writes, "in a democracy, there should be no permanent secrets, since history and accountability are paramount." Not a bad justification for History in general, I think, and not just of the national security kind. What I took from this is that healthy democracies rely on an educated citizenry to function. Citizens need to understand not just how the government works, what is and is not constitutional, but also where a government came from, what actions democratic societies took in the past, and how history, politics, and power have shaped the society of the present. A knowledge of History, in other words, even though the discipline abhors prophecy, allows citizens to make informed choices on how to correct the injustices of the past, especially in a society such as the United States, dedicated as it is to the principles of equality and liberty.

I'm thinking of these kinds of things as I prepare to go to Alaska to participate in a Teaching American History grant on "The Klondike Gold Rush and Beyond." The TAH program aims to teach primary and secondary public school teachers historical content and methodology that they might not have been asked to learn when getting their education degrees or teaching certification. I'll be in Alaska for an entire week, and one of the topics we'll be covering is the National Parks. So what aspects of history and accountability should we keep in mind when thinking about our nation's public lands?

There's a popular story, or myth really, that Americans tell themselves about the parks: the National Parks were the culmination of the efforts of a few, saintly, forward-thinking individuals, philosophically pure and morally untouchable. These men, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and George Catlin, from the mid-nineteenth century, and John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold from the Gilded-Age/Progressive era, were all ahead of their time. They had the best interests of Americans and their children and grandchildren at heart when they stood up to the excesses of big business to proclaim a small sliver of nature pure and pristine, worth "saving" for generations to come. Indeed, this is how it was told by ersatz historian and filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns's six-episode history premiered this fall amid cheers from TV critics, while historians largely ignored the enterprise. Academic historians have made something of a sport out of critiquing Burns's output, yet this time, the silence from environmental historians was, to my ears, deafening. Perhaps the series was too long, too repetitive, and too ignorant of recent scholarship for historians to even bother.

In Burns's telling this story fits into the history of America because the parks were, in essence, the culmination of the best elements of American democracy, democratizing the very landscape and nature of America, reserving it for the enjoyment of all Americans.

Yet, as I'm about to write a lesson plan for public school teachers about the national parks, I'm worried that they might either a) have seen the documentary, or b) have drunk from the same cultural wellspring of triumphant American progress that Burns writes into all his documentaries. It it not what I want the teachers I spend a week with to remember about the national parks.

What's more, thinking about Burns's documentary in light of Dershowitz's justification for history, it seems to me that Burns's story leads to a more narrow sense of what's possible, and even what is just. In short, Burns's Whiggish hagiography of environmental leaders and their commitment to democracy just doesn't hold up when viewed against the historical record and might work against it's avowedly democratic impulse.

The documentary opens with its thesis: the National parks were, first and foremost, an extension of the essence of the America -- democracy. Burns stresses continuity here as Emerson ends up in the same paragraph as Muir, Roosevelt, and Carl Pope, the current director of the Sierra Club. Roosevelt, Burns notes, justified the park system as being "noteworthy in its essential democracy." In the next breath, 100 years later, Carl Pope asks "what could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, parks were owned by aristocrats. In America, magnificence is a common treasure. That is the essence of our democracy."

It was at this point that my head almost exploded. Too many not-too-recent histories have been written that directly contradicts this sentiment. For the full story, I suggest you read any of the following: Mark Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Louis Warren, The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America, or Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. Together, these books and many others, complicate beyond Burns's meaningless platitudes, the nature and notion of democracy, and whether or not the parks represent a democratic impulse.

First of all, the impetus for the parks, these historians tell us, came from the American elite who feared that the nature of America (both its landscape as well as its ideological essence) was being ruined not just by rapacious capitalists -- for many of these men were themselves some of the most successful businessmen of the age -- but also the supposed closing of the frontier, the increasing importance that industrialization was having in American society in general, the immigrant hordes storming American shores, the rise of an increasingly vociferous and organized labor movement, and the supposed feminization of American cities and civilization in general.

American elites feared that with the close of the frontier, the essence of American-ness (read: white American manhood) would be lost. Subduing Indians and western lands (were they even separate?), in other words the  frontier experience, had provided what historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed was a "crucible" where the impurities of the old-world were burned off, and what was left was the pure essence of white Anglo-Saxon masculinity. Or, in other words, the wilderness was where Americans learned to stop being European (effeminate) and start being American (masculine, individualistic, and democratic). What would happen to the nation, now being overrun by swarthy southeastern Europeans -- Greeks, Slavs, Jews -- and slavish Catholics -- Italians, Irish, etc. -- if the wilderness were no longer there, a trial by fire, to unmake the Europeans?

Simply put, the national parks were a rear-guard action by American elites who were increasingly criticized by both the working class as well as by members of their own class, as effeminate. The parks would provide a recreational experience that they hoped would retain some of that Americanizing tendency of the frontier. But for whom?

At their creation, the parks were simply not accessible to the masses. Expensive train tickets, their distance from urban centers of population, not to mention the general code of gentility that governed tourist travel to and in the parks made it all but impossible for most Americans to enjoy the parks (that would not come until the rise of the automobile, an event which no one could have predicted). In other words, strike one against the supposed democratic impulse of the parks.

It would be one thing if the parks were just difficult to access by everyday Americans. But what's more, the model of park creation runs directly counter to any notion we might have of the National Parks being "open to all." Open for what? Most all of the landscapes set aside by the federal government were inhabited and used by either Native Americans as part of their ancestral or treaty-defined homelands or members of the working class. In both instances, the presence of actual people interrupted the elites' understanding of "pristine nature," so park promoters worked to dispossess these people of their rights to the land in question. In short, they kicked them out.

Indians were forced off lands that had been explicitly guaranteed them in treaties with the federal government, or were kept from practicing traditional subsistence practices on those lands. Working-class whites, hispanics, Asians and others who had used the public lands as a supplement to wages earned in the market were also forced to stop. Thus, in the words of Warren, local commons used for subsistence were turned into national commons used solely for recreation. Practices like gathering wood for fuel, hunting game for meat, or fishing to supplement one's diet were either eliminated or tightly policed seasonal activities, eg., sport fishing licenses, hunting permits, and fishing and hunting seasons. What used to be the everyday lifeways of a people become criminalized. Hunting out of season or without a permit was "poaching." Cutting down trees in the Adirondacks for fuel was "stealing" timber. Not coincidentally, as long as you did these things under the supervision of federal authorities -- and not coincidentally, primarily as recreation -- you were fine. What kind of democracy was this?

The growth of federal power represented by these measures was part and parcel of the transition to modern America, complete with a bureaucratic nation-state and highly centralized corporate power. Bringing what was once undifferentiated public land into administrative view (and its inhabitants into the market by outlawing subsistence practices thus forcing them to devote all their labor time to waged labor) is what James C. Scott calls "seeing like a state." It is part of a larger move by administrative bureaucracies to make "legible" the peoples, resources, and lands of a nation. Originally, the federal government had hoped that it would sell off all the public domain to private holders. It was Jefferson's hope that the land gained by American empire would be transferred to individual farmers, creating an agrarian nation of small landholders. However, the landscape of the West complicated that, as did the aggregation of industrial capital and central political authority in the aftermath of the Civil War. You can't farm a mountaintop like Pike's Peak.

As the nineteenth-century wore on, the government began to administer these lands in cooperation with big corporations (railroad land grants, industrial mining, and industrial timber greatly aided this effort). The national parks were just another way to carve up the administrative capacity of the federal government as well as to carve up the public domain into privately owned land and publicly administered land. Because there were individuals inhabiting these landscapes, as Jacoby explains, it also seems reasonable that part of the push for legibility was to push workers into the market, thus making them legible to capital as well.

In other words, the parks represent some kind of neo-enclosure movement, not unlike that of ... Europe! ... a few hundred years before. Sorry Ken Burns, I guess the exceptionalism of American parks isn't so exceptional after all. Strike three!

So what does this tell us about democracy (and History's role in democratic society)? It would be too easy to argue that the parks were simply "undemocratic": as tourist destinations go, the parks today are certainly visited by a wide swath of the American population (not to mention foreign tourists). More interesting to me is what the history of the parks says about democracy itself. To me, it shows how complicated that term is. We take democracy for granted. By that I mean, pundits and propagandists throw around the term as if it's meaning is clear, self-evident, and obvious. But it is none of those things. Democracy is messy, by nature (pun intended). Cleaning it up the way Ken Burns always does only narrows our understanding of ourselves and of the politically possible. Worse, it contributes to a certain black/white, polarized thinking that may play well in the era of Fox News/MSNBC, punditry as fact, but it's not as good for thinking about a complicated place like the United States.

Ken Burns' America? That's not much of a democracy.


strayerdc said...

One uncomfortable truth is that the interests of environmentalists are often directly counter to those of the poor. One man's forrest preserve is another lumberjack's job.

I think you overestimate the democratization of the Parks, even today. It takes a lot of gas to drive to Yellowstone.

Ryan J. Carey said...

I agree on both counts. In my more optimistic moments, I wonder if state parks give us a more democratic nature. Of course, the fact that they are state parks means that they don't fit the bill of grandeur of the national parks. Hence, the problem remains: sublime landscapes are for the privileged few.

Not for nothing, I think this impulse is paralleled in the wilderness movement itself, and a strain of that ideology was something that we saw at Dartmouth in the outing club: only those who truly appreciate Nature -- and thus pay thousands of dollars for expensive technical camping gear that allows them to "leave no trace" -- should be out there in it. So, work hard, get rich, and then go on a wilderness vacation.