Monday, July 31, 2006

Republican crows

The great naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs wandered these parts a century ago or so. He was born in 1837, died in 1921, his life overlapping those of my grandparents, which makes him in a way our contemporary. If we are lucky enough to have had older relatives, I mean people who were old when we were young, our memories---and our memories are the measure of our lives---extend back into their youths. There are teenagers who are, measured by their memories, a hundred years old.

I'm lucky in that my great-grandfather kept a notebook, so I have some memories that go back to 1903.

Most of Burroughs' writing describes sights and sounds, plants and animals and the seasonal activities of both, that I could see and hear everyday for myself if I had less lazy eyes and ears. But at least when I read his essays, I recognize things in glimpses.

Like Thoreau, Burroughs stuck close to home, preferring to explore his own small patch of ground thoroughly.

What a voyage is this we make without leaving for a night our own fireside! St Pierre well says that a sense of the power and mystery of nature shall spring up as fully in one's heart after he has made the circuit of his own field as after returning from a voyage around the world. I sit here amid the junipers of the Hudson, with purpose every year to go to Florida or to the West Indies or to the Pacific Coast, yet the seasons pass and I am still loitering, with a half-defined suspicion, perhaps, that if I remain quiet and keep a sharp lookout, these countries will come to me.

Burroughs, again like Thoreau, built a house for himself in the woods, but unlike Thoreau, Burroughs was a family man---though his marriage was unhappy---and a sociable one, and Slabsides is a proper house, meant to be fit for company. It still is. Visitors are welcome. Slabsides is a National Landmark and the 125 acres of land around it are a wildlife sanctuary---and it's only about a 40 minute drive from house, a fact I only just found out or I'd have visited it at least once by now.

All I know is what I read in the newspapers and what I know about Slabsides I know from reading Wayne Hall's column in yesterday's Sunday Record.

Hall included some quotes from Burroughs' writings and this one struck me particularly.

Hardy, happy outlaw, the crow, how I love him! Alert, social, Republican, always able to look out for himself….

You can guess what word I stuck on.




I can't find the quote in my copy of John Burroughs' America, so I can't read it in context. I don't know if it was a throwaway line, or if Burroughs was being serious.

Obviously, in his mind, Republican was a compliment, at least when applied to crows.

Burroughs was born and grew to manhood before there was a Republican party. In fact, in his youth, there were Democrats who thought of themselves as Republicans, the word being favored by Jeffersonians as a self-description and personal boast.

I don't know what Burroughs' politics were. He was friendly with Theodore Roosevelt, but he was friends with Walt Whitman, an arch-Democrat.

Probably, Burroughs was not being partisan, one way or the other, and was using Republican as a synonym for American. Republicans these days are inclined to think of Republican and American as conditionally linked: To be a good American you must first be a Republican.

But once upon a time the word meant a citizen living under a particular form of government, not an idealogogue loyal to his betters because of their willingness to share a little power with him and cut his taxes and start wars he can root for as if they were sporting events.

Republican could be used as a compliment for Democrats the way democratic can be used as a compliment for Republicans today.

Republican described a person in opposition to a European.

In those days Americans thought of Europe as a continent of kings and peasants, of wolves and sheep who let themselves be devoured by the wolves and were grateful for the privilege. Since it was largely Catholic, it was also the place where the priests and the Pope did people's thinking for them. It was a land of ancient authorities, superstition, and spirit-crushing traditionalism, of unchecked aristocratic power and craven obedience.

Americans, in contrast, were self-reliant, independent, energetic, scientific, skeptical; willing to flout tradtition when tradition got in the way of progress, and contemptuous of the privileges of wealth, rank, status, and ancient authorities.

Hence, the compliment in "outlaw" crows.

Americans defied. They stood up for themselves and they thought for themselves. They charted their own courses and they made sure they had a say in how their lives were run. They believed in equality and the essential dignity of all men and women. They did not let themselves be bossed around. They were Republican.

That's probably what Burroughs was celebrating when he called his crows Republicans.

But I suppose he could have been being partisan, as well.

In the 19th Century the Democratic Party was a strange two-headed monster. In the South it was the party of the old planter aristocracy, the slave-owning class.

But in the North it was the party of working men and artisans, skilled craftsmen and small business owners, who recognized early on that their best defense against the power and depredations of the monied elite was to join toghether in common cause. They formed trade associations---unions!---and they called upon the government, which they, having a curious notion that in a democratic republic the government was the people, that is they themselves, saw as their government with the job of protecting their rights and interests.

When riled they had a tendency to take to the streets and let the world know it.

Protest marches by the rabble always look to the ruling elites like riots. And unfortunately protest marches in the 19th Century had a habit of turning into riots.

Consequently, Republicans in Burroughs' day could and did tend to look at the Democratic Party as the party of slavers and mobs, of aristocrats and drones, and, because the Democrats were also the party of the immigrants, Irish and Italian in the main, Catholics, it was the party of the superstitious and the priest-ridden.

The Democrats then were, by Republican lights, Eurpopean, throwbacks, atavists.

Republicans were American, progressive, forward-looking, the future and the hope of the world.

The Democrats were also the party of the corrupt city bosses who bought votes and obedience by giving the ignorant and the incompetent (or the poor and needy and the willing to work, depending on your point of view) jobs they hadn't earned and couldn't handle (again, an opinion that depended on your point of view). So Republicans could congratulate themselves on their honesty as well as their self-reliance by comparison.

I don't know, though.

Burroughs was a clear-eyed man. By the time he was an old man the Republican Party had been taken over by the bosses---the political bosses like Mark Hanna, Karl Rove's hero, and the financial bosses, the factory owners and rising class of big business types---and by the Babbitts and the preachers. It was the party of the clubbable man, the joiner, the insecure, status-seeking, greedy little man.

Burroughs' admirer and ally in the nascent conservation movement, Teddy Roosevelt, thought of himself as the representative Republican. The election of 1912 cured him of that idea.

It's getting harder and harder to remember that the conservation movement was a Republican idea and cause and that thrift and forebearance in all their forms, in regard to the land, to money, to personal behavior, were Republican virtues.

These days there are still Republicans you can compliment as republicans.

But their party is now what their great-great-great-grandparents would have called Democratic, and not as a compliment. It's the party of rank and status and wealth, the party of ancient authorities, the party of the preachers and the priest-ridden.

It's the party of the corrupt political boss in the person of Karl Rove.

It's the anti-science party. The party of superstition.

The House vote on the minimum wage proves that it's the party more concerned with the privileges and feelings of the 18 richest families than with the plight of millions of the working poor, and in that way it's the party of obedience and obiescence to the aristocrats not the party of the independent and the self-reliant.

It's the party of corporate welfare.

The party of the bosses and those whose ambition is to please the bosses.

It's a party that has banished all its crows.

Partisan that he was, Walt Whitman was using the word Democratic in his essay Democratic Vistas
the way I think Burroughs was probably using Republican to describe his crows.

Last month, Time Magazine, as part of its ongoing mission to fawn over and flatter and appease Karl Rove, gave Rove space to pretend to be an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt while actually trying to put a shine on George Bush's reputation by turning Roosevelt into a proto-Bush Leaguer. Eric Pfeiffer explained the joke in the New Republic.

Link to TNR courtesy of Andrew Sullivan.

Update: After much enjoyable searching, reading, re-reading, and skimming, I finally found the crows quote in my copy of John Burroughs' America. I posted it here. You'll see that at least in this edition republican is spelled with a small r.

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