Today we are bombarded with allusions to the “culture war,” the conflict over the basic values that govern public life in the West. The war is grounded in a clash between the traditional West with its roots in the Christian heritage and a growing disillusionment with truth and meaning itself arising from a materialistic and secularistic world view.
The full dimensions of the conflict are seldom recognized primarily because of the superficial understanding of the intellectual heritage of the West, a superficiality spelled out by E.D. Hirsch in his Cultural Literacy (1987). Furthermore, Stephen Prothero has maintained in his book Religious Literacy (2007) that even among Americans--who overwhelming purport to believe in God--there is a “lack [of] the most basic understanding of their own religious tradition.”
Paradoxically, despite our cultural illiteracy, we are absorbed in preserving, promoting, and disseminating what is touted as heritage. Under the banner of “historic preservation,” government agencies, private organizations, and specialists constantly urge us to preserve heritage in the form of vast quantities of buildings and artifacts. The rationalization is that these things will help us understand “who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes. . . us,” as Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation once noted. Of course, this hearkens back to heritage as a dialogue with the best of the past in pursuit of wisdom. However, the pursuit of wisdom seems of little relevance to the primary fixation on preserving objects -- old buildings and cultural curiosities. These are foisted by preservation advocates onto an unsuspecting public as matters of transcendental concern.
For example, I once attended a public presentation on archaeology in a small Mississippi town. Following a week of excavation in primarily twentieth century debris, the results were presented to the local residents in a lecture that made an unconvincing attempt at relating this very arcane research to community concerns. Upon concluding, a cafeteria tray filled with rusted nails and fragments of beer bottles was passed through the audience, while the archaeologist proclaimed that "this is your heritage!" I waited expectantly for someone to exclaim "You mean that our heritage is trash?!" But no one spoke; who would question the expert?
Some while ago it dawned on some enterprising preservationists that although old stuff might attract a few “history buffs,” marketing strategies should aim at broader audiences to generate tourist dollars. Heritage was thereby transformed into a commodity to be marketed as “heritage tourism.” Furthermore it was realized that entertainment and celebrity could provide the medium for reaching large audiences, because they require little thought and can enthrall the educated and uneducated alike. Furthermore, as entertainers acquired a patina of age they could be transformed into “heritage.”
It didn’t take a genius to see that Elvis Presley sites, such as his birthplace and Graceland, had provided economic boosts for Tupelo and Memphis, but most communities don’t have Elvis connections. So other entertainers and celebrities were ferreted out for promotion. In the process the blues was rediscovered and justified by virtue of having influenced famous British rock groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whose celebrity and value were apparently beyond question. Furthermore, the blues already had an international audience, especially among post-Christian Europeans who -- having rejected belief in God -- were looking for new gods and prophets among the ranks of artists and musicians.
Most of the heritage experts have neither the educational background nor the incentive to discuss the ideas that undergird our civilization. Consequently they are not likely to reconsider the path that their organizations follow. Furthermore, the mere suggestion that there are problems is likely to provoke, not dialogue, but defensiveness. I have seen preservation leaders actively discourage preservationists from discussing fundamental issues so as not to upset the constituencies. Such behavior strongly suggests that preservation organizations are more concerned with political means--maintaining the allegiance of their constituencies and their own access to money--than they are in preserving a defensible vision of heritage.
The paradox we face is that our understanding of the basic principles of life--integral in the pursuit of wisdom--is actually suppressed by the very organizations we have established to preserve and promote heritage. The millennial legacy of thought on the nature of the good life has been reduced to rubble and replaced by a potpourri of novelties which divert public attention from the pursuit of wisdom to the pursuit of entertainment and saving old stuff. In effect as millions and millions of well-intended tax dollars are spent preserving and promoting “heritage,” the public understanding of heritage becomes increasingly superficial. As cultural illiteracy grows so grows materialism and secularism.
Jack D. Elliott, Jr. is a Historical Archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Lecturer at Mississippi State University.