Sunday, July 3, 2011

July Fourth as Cultural Preservation

As we get ready to celebrate July 4th a comment about historic preservation is appropriate.

Those of us who work in this field protect from development, damage, or desecration, significant tangible evidences of our past.  “Our past” is understood from many levels (local, regional, national, world, or ethnic).  My own work pushes me to focus on the national because the National Historic Preservation Act is the primary driver of my work.

I am often asked why I do this type of work.  I rarely have a good answer.  Most of the stuff I get to protect doesn’t seem like much to others.  Sometimes I agree.

So, let me pose a hypothetical situation.  If China were to successfully invade North America through Puget Sound what do you suppose they would destroy?  After all, conquerors have to destroy something because the act is symbolic of the success. When our military took Baghdad, we toppled the statues of Saddam Hussein and occupied his palaces.  Oh, the desecration we did there.  It was all televised to prove that success was achieved.

I think China would target the Space Needle and trash Microsoft.  Those are easy targets that represent our technological prowess.  Given more time, they would also destroy all evidence of World War II and, more deeply, our cowboy culture.  World War II made America a super power; destroying its remnants proclaims that that heritage is dead.  Smashing the cowboy culture is a deeper expression of this too because the Cowboy is the global symbol of America.  The Marlboro Man still rides in the imagination of the world, which is why conservatives continue the image.  Kill the cowboy to symbolize that America has ridden into its sunset.  Burn the ranches, the hats, the boots, & kill the cows and horses.

Take away the symbols of a culture and it is dead.

Historic preservationists work to protect those symbols, even the small humble ones that don’t obviously suggest national greatness but likely do contribute in some small way.

What about the intangibles, those ideas that sustain America?  What are they?

William G. McLoughlin [1] provided the following as the basics of American ideology:
a)  We are a chosen people;
b)  We have a manifest (or latent) destiny to lead the world to the millennium;
c)  Our democratic-republican institutions, our bountiful natural resources, our concept of free and morally responsible individuals, all operate under a body of higher moral laws (and to transgress from them threatens our destiny);
d)  And, our personal and social ethic (aka the American dream, the protestant work ethic, the success myth) causes the general welfare to thrive by allowing the greatest possible free play and equal opportunity to each individual to fulfill his/her potential.

These are the simple recurring ideas that have sustained “America” from its earliest puritan days.

Where are they now?  They seem to be lost to most Americans; and in some cases, they reek of a conservatism that is not appealing anymore.  They need to be reborn.

They have not been destroyed; they are now latent as we go though our great secular crisis (here & here).  We will begin to recover and reinvent ourselves when these ideas are reworked to guide our future.

America’s recurring transformation is well underway.  It will have turned a corner and we will be able to see the light at the end of its dark tunnel when these ideas are transformed to meet the needs of the 21st century.

July 4 (1776), Gettysburg, and D Day are all great turning points in American crises.  We will have another one soon. 

If China was successful as described they would also ban Fourth of July celebrations because they are acts of historic and cultural preservation.

Enjoy your BBQs and parades.

1.  William G McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, Chicago, 1978, pg. xiv.

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