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“Nothing dollarable is safe.”

If you haven’t been following the latest Ken Burns series on PBS, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” you really should. Tonight PBS aired the second of six episodes that promise to equal Burns’ epic stories of the Civil War, New York City, baseball, jazz, World War II and other aspects of our common heritage.

Burns, the great biographer of the American people, has created a wondrous testament to one of America’s unique contributions to the world: the concept of a national park, which was born in fiery controversy in California and has since spread throughout the world, from Australia to Africa.

While today the idea of the National Parks is a treasured value of the United States, it was not always so. In an early form, the idea of the National Parks was born to prevent industrialization of the great Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone. Today it is the stuff of lyrics we sing, “America the Beautiful,” but at the time many conservatives felt it was a dangerous idea that inhibited commercial advancement and industrial freedom to destroy the land for the enrichment of the few. In fact, for 30 years the United States Army had to occupy Yellowstone and Yosemite to protect the parks from rapacious capitalists who sought to enrich themselves off the National Parks at the expense of the American people.

The comparison of the struggle to preserve our greatest national natural treasures with the current struggle to provide health careĀ  to all Americans is unavoidable. As we see the huge lobbying power of the health care industry arrayed against any reform, we are reminded of the warning John Muir gave in regard to the National Parks: “Nothing dollarable is safe.”

Conservatives opposed the creation of the National Parks as they opposed anything valuable in our history. Here is a list of just a few ideas of the top of my head that we have had to fight conservatives to establish:

Election of senators, allowing Catholics to own property, religious freedom for Catholics, abolition of slavery, allowing Catholics to vote, allowing African-Americans to own property, allowing African-Americans to vote, allowing women to vote, allowing African-Americans to marry, religious freedom for Mormons, honoring treaties with Native Americans, sanctuary for Jewish immigrants, Catholic immigration, Chinese immigration, abolition of Jim Crow laws, integration of schools and universities, interracial marriage, establishment of the National Parks and National Monuments, Social Security, bank regulation, anti-trust regulation, interstate highways, anti-pollution measures, wildlife conservation, anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, protection of endangered species, seat belts, airbags, integration of the military, Medicare, accessibility for the handicapped, immigration reform, minimum-wage legislation, HIV research, civil rights for Mexican-Americans, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and oh, I don’t know, give me another 10 minutes and I could come up with more.

In each of the above cases, conservatives argued against the proposed reform with one or more of the following arguments:

a. It was against the law of God,
b. It would cause the collapse of civilization,
c. It would lead to economic ruin, and or
d. It would destroy the United States

It is important to note that in no instance did these dire conservative warnings ever prove true.

In these past struggles, there was an element that is missing today. A powerful example of that missing element was the meeting in 1903 of the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive activist John Muir. Roosevelt wrote Muir and told him that he would like to spend time with Muir in Yosemite. Roosevelt rode out with Muir into the Yosemite Valley, accompanied by a great cavalcade of dignitaries. At the end of the day, the dignitaries turned around and went to a hotel to fete the president on his noble mission with an elaborate banquet. But the president never showed up at the hotel. Instead, Roosevelt spent three days and three nights with Muir hiking and sleeping under the stars in Yosemite. They debated and shared intimate stories, discussing with each other what the experience of nature meant for them as they stood awestruck together before the majestic vistas of Yosemite. Today we would call that dialogue, and it’s missing from our national conversation.

The Republican Roosevelt emerged from his retreat with the progressive immigrant to become the nation’s greatest conservationist president. As the PBS website for the Burns series notes:

As president, Roosevelt created five national parks (doubling the previously existing number); signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its special provisions to unilaterally create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres’ worth of national forests.

For over 100 years, the American people have been engaged in a struggle to provide health care to all our citizens. That struggle was begun by the very same Theodore Roosevelt who made conservationism an American virtue. Today, our century-long struggle has reached a fevered pitch. Conservatives have trotted out the same four arguments they have to every social advancement since the beginning of our republic, along with the new accusation of socialism. That would be the same evil concept of socialized nature (National Parks), socialized protection against crime (police), socialized communication (the Postal Service), socialized fire protection (fire departments), socialized education (our public schools and universities), socialized culture (our great public museums), socialized transportation (the interstate highway system) and so on.

The irony, of course, is that as in every struggle toward social improvement, the children and grandchildren of today’s opponents of progress will embrace the progressive values that will triumph, just as the descendants of those who fought the establishment of the national parks enjoy those same parks today.

John Muir lamented the greed that caused the dynamiting of the Grand Canyon, the near-extinction of the buffalo, the destruction of the Petrified Forest, the mining of Yosemite’s forests and other such crimes against our stewardship of the environment because he saw these places as cathedrals for the worship of God. Today we are engaged in a similar battle, for the powerful are arrayed against us as they seek to perpetuate the commercialization of the human body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, for corporate profit.

But unlike the era of Roosevelt and Muir, there are no nights spent talking into the early morning under the stars of Yosemite; there is only ugly demagoguery, lies spread to fuel the fears of the ignorant. Our society has lost the value of civil discourse and mutual concern for the common good. It has entirely vanished. Who will rise up to be the advocate of the people against the greed of the health care industry? So far, our prospects are bleak.

What would Roosevelt and Muir say about our current crisis? I suspect the Republican president and the immigrant activist would agree: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” And sadly today in the United States that includes human lives.

2 Responses to ““Nothing dollarable is safe.””

  1. Joleen P says:

    Thank you for this large simplicity.

  2. Cindy Kwiatkowski says:

    I love this. I watched the PBS series last weekend while my husband and young daughter were away on a trip to the grandparents. I had an unusual amount of time to myself and spent almost the entire day curled up on the couch watching Burns’s National Park series. The episode documenting the life and work of Muir was of particular interest to me and I was struck by the quote “nothing dollarable is safe,” and how it relates to the health care reform argument.

    I’ve recently posted numerous Facebook comments expressing my disgust over reactions to President Obama’s attempts to fix a broken system. Ninety-eight percent of my “friends” are like-minded. My sister-in-law, however, is not (and how can you turn down a sister-in-law’s FB request). Like everyone in husband’s family she is vehemently anti-government and pro-corporate and yet hard core Roman Catholic. I converted to Catholicism a few years ago through the Paulists who preach compassion and social justice. I saw a huge disconnect between what Annie, my in-law, was ranting about–dollars and cents, and businesses going under, and people having to pay more–and the basic needs of people and families. The instinct toward greed, both personal and corporate, and what could have been if people had not stood up to it, is beautifully illustrated in the series and outlined in your article. I doubt I will argue this with Annie, but I reaffirmed my belief that Catholicism is about sharing, and not hoarding. Dorothy Day would have loved your post.
    Peace to you,

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