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.”  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.”  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.
 David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, 1985): xv.
 John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed But Unregenerate,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge, 1930), 1.