U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Problem with Heritage

The following guest post is by T.R.C. Hutton, who teaches at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and is the author of Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South.

We live in a world of buzzwords and catchphrases, memetic speech that recreates itself across the Internet and unrestrained by context. In a political context, some have been called “dogwhistles,” terms with arcane meaning special to particular ideological communities used to stir up or condemn (Sarah Palin’s 2011 reference to “blood libel” stirred up accusations of Anti-Semitism against a white evangelical community that usually idealizes God’s chosen people). It is an imprecise concept because buzzwords are themselves imprecise, malleable even with a core association and an affinity to a select set of folks; ‘catnip’, taken literally or as a metaphor will probably serve as a better buzzword among people who own kitty cats. Not all buzzwords are dogwhistles, but almost any term has the potential to become one.

Here’s an old one: heritage, a common word in many contexts but with an undeniable continuity. ‘Heritage’ suggests that the past not only did not go anywhere but it has also worked to the present’s benefit even when the present does not acknowledge it. It is just as likely the past dressed up to affirm or validate elements of the present we like or condemn the ones we don’t. Invocation of “heritage” is useful, politically or commercially. Writing in the 1980s, David Lowenthal wrote that the American landscape “seems saturated with ‘creeping heritage’ – mansarded and half-timbered shopping plazas, exposed brick and butcher block décor in historic precincts, heritage villages, historic preservation…once confined to a handful of museums and antique shops, the trappings of history now festoon the whole country.” [1] Anyone who has visited the South or the Midwest and noticed the bric a brac nailed to the wall – rusty ice skates, black-and-white photos of who-knows-who, products festooned with the Red Ryder and Radio Flyer brands – knows this to be even truer in the 21st century than it was in the Reagan era. But what does this (faux) antique collection mean exactly? Judging by the restaurant’s use of the word on their website, it means a peculiar, but not altogether unfamiliar, concoction of patriotism and consumerism.

Speaking of patriotism, heritage has had a special currency of late during the coinciding (if not co-incidence) of the Black Lives Matter movement with the renewed controversy over the Confederate battle flag that followed a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. The buzzword gets the most buzz when it is used as a defense of the flag as a past artifact preserved not for political purposes but as a symbol of “pride” (another word that might deserve unpacking at a later date). “Heritage[,] Not Hate” is the bumper sticker slogan seen most often in the company of the familiar emblem. In its defense, it is both alliterative (slogans are more believable when they’re alliterative) and believable; you can have things passed down to you that are yours alone even if they resemble other less appealing cultural lineages. And yet, as Joan Walsh, Salon.com’s leading ideologue, pointed out in July, ‘heritage’ and hate are not necessarily antithetical. But they are certainly not antipodes to one another either. The separation of the two is conceivable, probably grossly disingenuous, but conceivable nonetheless. Most of those who adhere to “Heritage Not Hate,” and it is safe to say they are mostly white Southerners, would happily relate to John Crowe Ransom’s self-assessment: he (or she) “persists in his regard for a certain terrain, a certain history, and a certain inherited way of living. He is punished as his crime deserves. He feels himself in the American scene as an anachronism, and knows he is felt by his neighbors as a reproach.” [2] Anyone who would cling so tightly to a symbol just for its historical associations probably does not mind being a reproach all that much. And anyone who displays said symbol superimposed with an image of a largemouth bass would have to admit that ‘heritage’ runs the risk of becoming kitsch.

In most contexts as far as I can make out, heritage is a buzzword presented with unalloyed positive connotations. So why does the Right seem to like this word more than the Left? Both white and black leftists spent a fair chunk of the 20th century making use of folk traditions as a unifying theme to muster their respective working classes. Pete Seeger’s banjo was rarely seen in the same company as anyone wearing a dashiki, nevertheless, it is conceivable that heritage might buzz in the ear of the Occupy movement if put to the right beat. Yet it does not; the current Left, the most culturally heterogeneous Left in American history, has far less interest in volkish symbols than the Old Left and the New Left in the twentieth, because today’s Left has concerns that are almost completely material rather than cultural (apologies to Joan Baez). Heritage has a relative: ‘inheritance’, a word more closely related to material gain. And the twenty-first century Left represents those with nothing to inherit.

So, for all rhetorical intents and purposes, heritage is the sole possession of the Right, and with good reason. Heritage, above all, suggests sentimentality. “Heritage,” as opposed to history, “allows you to ignore the stuff that looks bad,” historian Steven Conn succinctly put it in July. But it also suggests ownership. Perhaps not ownership of the information age’s means of production, something that few white Americans can claim (it should not surprise us that the “rebel flag” has its closest associations with the more dispossessed elements of white society). Rather ownership of a memory of when whiteness carried with it an ownership of humanity through slavery and the sole destiny of humanity through imperialism. Heritage, like an inheritance, is the exclusive domain of the few, not the many, just like the mechanisms of capital. Those who wave the flag may be consciously sincere when they say that they are not racists, but by keeping it flying in the name of heritage they are transmitting a concept that by itself, with or without colorful cloth, suggests the continuance of an unequal society. And even if you do not fool with flags of any stripe, if you apply heritage to any subject you speak a language of exclusivity. UNESCO’s “World Heritage Sites” notwithstanding, in a fragmented world it seems difficult to apply heritage to anything with truly cosmopolitan value. So “heritage not hate” may not be hateful, but it is certainly not ecumenical.

What’s worse, heritage suggests a mandate from the past that is meant to be a blessing to the present, a sort of “original intent” nostalgia. Lowenthal’s “trappings of history” may appeal to some Americans on a purely aesthetic level, either as an appreciation of beauty or nostalgia. But for others, I suspect that even something so anodyne as a reproduction Red Ryder BB gun (in the aforementioned Cracker Barrel) conjures a past that can be a fictive whiter refuge from a browner America or from whatever other negative stimuli associated with life in the twenty-first century. This may sound like a relatively comical case of commodity fetishism but I believe there is more going on. In 2011 conservative journalist Reihan Salam was quite frank in admitting nostalgia was a thinly-veiled chimera for “same race preferences” among white Americans. But even on a more abstract level, heritage privileges an unattainable, evanescent past over a tangible present. I will submit that the implications of heritage by itself are just as disturbing and irksome as the symbols they are used to defend. Racism may be an enemy of democracy, but the uncritical veneration of the past, for any reason, is the enemy of historians.

So, is heritage simply a sentimental dogwhistle that white conservatives blow at one another and on occasion toot to fend off progressive coyotes? Or is it something far more complex that gets to the root of not just who “owns history,” (in Eric Foner’s famous phrasing), but who owns the present as well? Not so much the present in the cultural sense but the material as well; heritage seems to be the domain of those of us who own the most stuff and want to keep it that way or their less acquisitive allies who may not have as much stuff but still consider transgenerational ownership an article of faith. The flag is one thing, but it is only one thing. It is very likely that those who use the word with a straight face do not do so in the interest of revanchist nationalism (American, southern or what have you), but instead in the interest of neoliberal complacency. Given current economic circumstances, said complacency is nearly as dangerous as any given hate group, and certainly more so than a kitschy flag.

[1] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, 1985): xv.

[2] John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed But Unregenerate,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge, 1930), 1.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “a sort of ‘original intent’ nostalgia”–that’s well said and I think captures much of what is going on here: it gets at both the subjective or intimately personal dimensions and the attempt to valorize (as perverse transvaluation) objectively ‘ugly’ or morally despicable historical facts and contemporary realities.

  2. This is a really thoughtful and elegant essay. It is interesting to note that “heritage” was a major theme in the Left thought of the 1930s, with many for and many against. The most interesting version of a pro-heritage argument from this hothouse moment, to my mind, is Ernst Bloch’s The Heritage of Our Times. There, Bloch argues for an affirmative Left approach to cultural “heritage” in order to extract the utopian content of those signs and symbols that Fascism had stolen from working and poor people’s traditions.

    More recently, Bernard Stiegler has made a different, but equally interesting, argument for a Left reconciliation with “heritage.” Stiegler adds something genuinely new by collapsing the content of “heritage” with its form. Since all of human consciousness is mediated by technological supports of memory, “heritage” names not the kitschy stuff of antiquarian nostalgia, but the infinite ways in which the past insists in the present. Like Bloch, Stiegler argues: there is no escaping “heritage.” The only question is political: who will decide what “heritage” means.

    Thanks again for this wonderful meditation!

  3. Thanks for this great post, which got me thinking about the uses of the concept of heritage. You say:
    “the current Left, the most culturally heterogeneous Left in American history, has far less interest in volkish symbols than the Old Left and the New Left in the twentieth, because today’s Left has concerns that are almost completely material rather than cultural (apologies to Joan Baez). Heritage has a relative: ‘inheritance’, a word more closely related to material gain. And the twenty-first century Left represents those with nothing to inherit.”

    This seems to me only half right. The conflicts between, say, Bernie Sanders’ campaign and Blacks Lives Matter activists, for instance, suggest that their really is a fissure on the Left. Many on today’s left have turned to a materialist conception of the social order, but there is an equally resilient commitment to the multicultural left of the post-1960s on the part of many, including those committed to racial and ethnic justice, feminism, and queer politics. And for the multicultural left, I think, what you are calling “heritage” is in fact incredibly important, if less so than it was 30 years ago. I would go so far as to say that, perhaps, the rise of the claim to “heritage” on the right among white southerners is an attempt to play on the field of multiculturalism as pioneered by the left. Unable to make public appeals on the basis of explicit white supremacy, white southerners who claim “heritage not hate” seem to be trying to make an argument on what they regard as the field of legitimate respect for cultural integrity as a resource of identity. That many of these advocates can’t see the difference between, say, having a month dedicated to African-American history (which, in practice, is a form of “heritage,” and not history in the sense that historians generally understand it), and having a special month to celebrate white heritage, speaks to their general blindness to (or denial of) the actual legacy of race as a historical force. Perhaps this is a case where the right is mirroring the left, as has so often been the case in the twentieth century, as Corey Robin and others have argued. Just as conservatives have often taken the concepts of the left (think “political correctness,” “the New Class,” “American exceptionalism,” etc.) as their own, perhaps “heritage” and “culture” (both of which do have older conservative origins) in the 20th c. became part of the vocabulary of the Left. That advocates for the white south have been reduced to claiming “heritage” rather than white supremacy may, in fact, represent the triumph of the Left in moving the vocabulary to a ground that recognizes the autonomous cultural integrity of various groups.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post!

    • Thanks very much. I must disclose that the bulk of this was written in late July, before the interactions between Bernie and BLM. Both are legitimately Left, to be sure. However, for some reason the Left I was writing about (and I now realize how solipsistic I was being) is/was Occupy and Fightfor15 (the latter has caucused with the university union I belong to). This was a paragraph I should’ve fleshed out a bit more.

  4. Provocative and interesting post T.R.C. Cracker Barrel is really something isn’t it? I recently went with some out of town friends who wanted to see this place in Nashville called “Antique Archaeology.” It’s a place that sells old objects that these two dudes and others root around for across the country; their exploits are featured on a show called “American Pickers.” The interesting thing about it was that the objects themselves were priced in the stratosphere. I suspect most people I saw in there wouldn’t have been capable of paying thousands for an old Wurlitzer, or Victorian S&M gear or whatever. The place was a bait and switch. The “found objects” were there to sell the new trinkets and disposable kitsch emblazoned with “Antique Archaeology” ™ or “American Pickers” ™ logo. It was also nestled in a repurposed factory space. The message I got was that properly venerating the material history of the past costs dearly in dollars. Of course, it’s a form of conspicuous consumption. The poor schlub who wears the new t-shirt with the logo is not the same guy who buys the vintage S&M outfit. The t-shirt wearers get to join in the fun vicariously by buying an array of new and worthless trinkets featuring the logo of the people who hunt for the objects. It’s a kind of transubstantiation. The prices they ask are an attempt to re-enchant the older objects with an aura. I think they’re serious about this in moral terms—the pathos of the whole thing was too much to take. The place was just jammed with people. I’ll take the lousy chicken fried steak at Cracker Barrel over that any day.

  5. Heritage, in the end, serves as a kind of solvent for the injustices of history. Stir in some heritage and, voilà, the bad parts of history disappear! Heritage, I think, is just another form of selection and emphasis, another narrative. When I think of heritage I think of the “Moonlight and Magnolias” school of southern history. History as heritage is a kind of glamour shot of the past—all sexy fuzziness and no imperfections.

    I really like Dan’s comment about heritage as another form–a distortion if you will–of multiculturalism. Perhaps more of a way to smuggle in white supremacy.

    We should talk more about this point from Hutton: “it should not surprise us that the “rebel flag” has its closest associations with the more dispossessed elements of white society”

    If this is true, what can a justice-minded historian do, in his/her own work, to repossess those “white” elements—i.e. to bring the dispossessed back into the polis? I have some thoughts, but would love to hear from others on that front. – TL

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