Daniel Herwitz on What Makes Heritage Worth Talking About

“Through heritage, marketed in political campaigns and filtered through dense layers of American media both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin become celebrity figures gifted with special powers.”—Daniel Herwitz

Daniel Herwitz, Heritage, Culture, and Politics in the PostcolonyIn this first part of a two-part interview, Daniel Herwitz discusses one of the central questions regarding his bookHeritage, Culture, and Politics in the Postcolony

Q: What makes heritage worth talking about?

Daniel Herwitz: Heritage may seem to some the stuff of bad PBS Documentary TV, bringing up images of stale tours of the great houses of Europe, dull paintings of bearded Presidents hanging on the walls of the White House, the Daughters of the American Revolution and their dance parties, programs and tours narrated by announcers with fake Royal accents. The valence of that brand of heritage is that of a particular brand. There are others: the “heritage Thanksgiving turkey”, old bonded bourbon, authentic backwoods banjos, over-priced organic local fruits and vegetables. Today the world of Ralph Lauren is one in which anyone can drape themselves in the heritage (read: aura) of Old England by purchasing the three piece hunting suit or the Ralph Lauren royal bed. Heritage is an advertising logo, a suit of clothes tailor-made for lawyers and stockbrokers, not to mention their six-year-old daughters clutching American Girl dolls bedecked in homespun Amish pullovers.

But heritage is also live action and especially for new/emerging nations: a tenebrous, rewriting of the past into a contentious common origin which gives the nation a sense of shared longevity and shared destiny. Heritage is the anvil on which a new and common citizenry is meant to be forged. Central to decolonization is this scripting of the past into a sign of uniqueness, dignity, and difference from the colonizer, into a source of future destiny and purpose. Often decolonization imagines a past prior to the rude entrance of the colonizer, a pre-colonial, idealized state which demonstrates that the emergent nation was always already in existence before its fall under the colonial yoke, and is ready to rise again. Heritage is the set of myths through which the new nation proclaims its longevity and futurity. It always leads to political controversy, since such myths inevitably favor this population over that, this group instead of that. Scripting the distant past is part of contemporary politics, a route to the power of some to speak in the name of all.

When the new nation is a settler state (the United States, Israel, South Africa) the state may claim that its origin is not simply in past injustice (done to Pilgrims, Jews), but in the very act of settling itself. By taking possession of an uncharted wilderness the settler society creates core values (thrift, bravery, ingenuity, community spirit) and comes to celebrate the experiment of settling itself. This historical experiment, endlessly recited in poems, church services, public spaces takes on the aura of heritage: a heritage of perpetual innovation, endless youth, triumph over adversity. The settler society finds its origin in the history of settling and this origin becomes understood as manifest destiny: This land is ours, God gave this land to me, this brave, and ancient land to me (Exodus, the film). Because I staked my life to settle it, I can rightfully lay claim to dominion over land and peoples therein. Today American politics continues to play itself out through such myths. They raise Barack Obama, Presidential candidate of 2008, to the status of Lincoln: Lincoln the man, the monument, the movie. They allow a dame from Alaska to swan into Washington as the noble outsider who, knowing nothing except heritage values (of the small town, the church, the family, the instinctive survival tactics of long winters, the dog sled race) is thereby entitled to sort out Washington from its corrupt insiders. Sarah Palin is thus raised to the stature of a Frank Capra film hero, an American Idol Contestant/Winner, a strong mother from a weepy TV serial. Through heritage, marketed in political campaigns and filtered through dense layers of American media both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin become celebrity figures gifted with special powers. Nothing could be more contemporary than this heritage game, proving that heritage is a live action practice that continually morphs with the times rather than (merely) the stuff of stuffy White House tours.

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