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Saturday, February 20, 2021


Back in 1965-66, Robert R. (Bob) Garvey Jr. (1921-96) was one of the authors of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). At the time he was the Executive Secretary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Upon enactment of the NHPA, he became Executive Director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), created by the NHPA, which at the time was lodged in the National Park Service (NPS). A couple of remembered vignettes about Bob – one long, the other short – seem to me to perhaps be relevant to the current discussions around replacing the ACHP’s Chair and Executive Director.

Hearing What the Indians Have to Say

The first vignette dates to about 1971; at that time, I was an anthropology graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, overseeing the University’s newly formed archaeological research unit and working with an Indian tribe, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to document and protect landscapes that were important to the tribe. One of these was Tahquitz Canyon, which figures in Cahuilla origin traditions and is accordingly a very sacred place. The Corps of Engineers at the time proposed to dam up Tahquitz Canyon to protect high-value residential property in Palm Springs from a hypothetical 300 year flood event. Agua Caliente strenuously opposed the project and wondered if we could use Section 106 of the NHPA to force the Corps to consider the canyon’s cultural significance.

In those early, benighted days, Section 106 required agencies to consider the effects of their actions only on places that had been included in the National Register of Historic Places, so my colleagues and I got to work with the Tribe’s traditional historian and its elders to prepare a nomination. This was my introduction to the kind of place that 20 years later Pat Parker and I, in National Register Bulletin 38, would call a traditional cultural property (TCP). Our nomination was successful, so the Corps had to consider the Canyon’s cultural significance, which otherwise they would’ve ignored.

There were not then any regulations for implementing Section 106, and the ACHP staff consisted of Bob Garvey and some three other NPS employees – Glennie Murray, Lou Wall, and Ben Levy. So the Corps flew Garvey and Murray out to Palm Springs to walk them around in the desert heat showing them that the Canyon contained no great architecture, indeed nothing, in the Corps’ eyes, that might be culturally important. The Tribe was not consulted, but the Corps put on a public hearing at which Agua Caliente was invited to testify. The Tribe asked me to help coordinate the testimony. My colleague George Jefferson and I got up and gave what we thought was a pretty impressive showing of the canyon’s archaeological significance, which George, Steve Hammond, and Tribal Council members had documented in minute detail during surveys over the preceding baking-hot months.

I sat down feeling reasonably good about what I had said, and about all George’s spectacular graphics, and then Garvey – here’s the vignette – rumbled from the back of the room: “that’s all very interesting Mr. King, but I’d like to hear what the Indians have to say.”

This was a surprise to all of us; we had understood this 106 review stuff to be all a matter for discussion among white-eye professionals. But Agua Caliente’s historian and Vice Chairman were eloquent speakers, so they quickly took their feet and explained in detail the role the canyon played in traditional history.

The ACHP comments drafted by Murray and signed off by Garvey were very negative about the Corps’ project, and to everyone’s surprise, the Corps walked away from it. There were questions about why this actually happened, and there were many more acts to the Tahquitz Canyon saga, eventually leading to a much scaled-down flood control facility, a major archaeological research project carried out by Agua Caliente, and transfer of the canyon’s ownership to the Tribe, which now maintains a handsome visitor center and self guiding trail.

What I want to emphasize in that vignette is Bob Garvey’s polite dismissal of my fancy-pants professional explanation of why the canyon was significant, and his insistence on hearing from the people themselves. This was absolutely fundamental to Bob’s character, and it was a very important part of my education. Bob had this strange notion that what ordinary citizens had to say about historic places was important, and should be respectfully attended to.

Putting Ourselves Out Of Work

The second vignette – really a suite of vignettes but I can deal with them much more directly – dates to the 1980s, by which time the ACHP was an independent agency with a staff of 40 or so people. I was its guy overseeing Section 106 review, with Garvey as my boss. What I remember him saying, repeatedly and with emphasis, was that our job at the ACHP was to work ourselves out of our jobs. We should work to make the thoughtful, consultative consideration and resolution of impacts on historic places so fundamental to the workings of every agency that there would be no need for anything like the ACHP to remind them of their duty. Not, perhaps, a very realistic expectation, but a noble one.

So What?

How do these vignettes relate to the ACHP’s current situation? In a couple of ways I think.

First, I think that both the Chairman and Executive Director should be guided by Garvey’s sort of populism – not populism in the fascistic Trumpy sense, but populism in the sense of paying close attention to the voices of those most affected by federal undertakings, notably local residents and members of low income and minority groups – including but not limited to Indian tribes. Experts and government officials have important roles to play, and are citizens themselves and hence people whose concerns agencies should address, but they’re not the only important participants. Candidates for the Chairmanship and Executive Directorship should be closely questioned about how they would make sure the voice of the people is heard and attended to by the Federal establishment.

Second, I think the ACHP leadership should undertake, as an urgent matter, a thorough review of the Section 106 regulatory system. In the years since Bob Garvey’s retirement and untimely death, Section 106 review has become steadily more distant from the public, more and more a matter of deals cut between agencies and State Historic Preservation Officers. Programmatic Agreements and other alternative ways of doing 106 review routinely cut out the affected public and substitute complex, agency-run decision making systems for the simple consultation-to-agreement approach that is at the core of the 106 regulations. Bob Garvey’s populism, tempered by the clever deviousness of his General Counsel Ken Tapman, created regulations that called for something pretty straightforward: figure out what your project may affect; figure out how it will be affected; figure out what to do about it – all in open consultation with those affected. It would be wise to try to get back to such a system. Those regulations – initially issued with very thin statutory authority – were far ahead of their time in being centered on consultation among affected parties, aimed at reaching agreement; I don’t know of another environmental regulation that’s so populist, and that’s too bad.

There are understandable reasons that the Section 106 process has become so impenetrable by the public, and I won’t deny my own responsibility for some of its complexities. But the biggest factor in the deterioration of Section 106 review, I think, has been a disinterested ACHP leadership that devotes little intellectual energy to it. That leadership has been much more interested in doing other things – giving awards, overseeing grant programs; nice quiet activities that get attaboys from congressmen and presidents, stuff that doesn’t make trouble. Forgetting Garvey’s dictum of trying to work itself out of existence, the ACHP seems to have become more devoted to its own survival and prosperity than to its legal mission.

I hope that the new Chairman and Executive Director will change things; I hope they’ll be inspired by Bob Garvey’s legacy and devote real brainpower and creativity to resuscitating the Section 106 process and putting it to work in the interests of our planetary heritage.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The National Mall Underground

I’m pretty skeptical of most infrastructure construction projects, thinking them usually ill-considered and likely to create unanticipated environmental impacts. But one I support, and hope to see made a part of President Biden’s infrastructure program, is the National Mall Underground in Washington DC.

The Underground is the brainchild of the National Mall Coalition, a spunky little non-profit, and notably of its vice-president, the internationally acclaimed architect Arthur Cotton Moore. It would install a large structure under the Mall between the Smithsonian Castle and the National Museum of Natural History, theoretically invisible but for a couple of low-visibility access/egress structures. The structure would include:

·               Facilities to receive and store up to 30 million gallons of stormwater – the volume of a 200-year flood event like the one that swamped the Mall in 2006

·               Parking for a large number of tour busses and cars – the former especially contribute mightily to DC congestion and lousy air quality;

·               A field of geothermal rods to provide clean heating and cooling energy to nearby government and Smithsonian buildings;

·               A visitors center serving all the Mall’s museums, monuments, and public buildings, perhaps including exhibit space to augment what’s provided by the existing museums;

·               A “shelter-in-place” facility for tourists and others during inclement weather or other disaster; and

·               Cisterns to receive, store, and distribute groundwater to irrigate the Mall’s greenery.

It wouldn’t be a huge project – its cost is estimated to run about $300 million – but its location would make it a highly visible one, a symbol of the country’s determination to put the dark years behind us and build for the future. And the needs it would meet are serious ones. Flooding from interior sources as well as tidewater and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers has been described as an “existential threat” to the Smithsonian museums, federal buildings, and National Archive facilities around the Mall, and nobody’s come up with better solutions than higher levees along the rivers and pumping plants to shoot floodwater over them. No better solutions other than the Underground, that is, which actually was inspired by the unrealized recommendations of interagency committees over the years.

Such committees have looked at the Coalition’s proposal too, and generally been supportive but unable to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles to doing anything. Governance of the National Mall is divided among half a dozen federal agencies, the District of Columbia government, and the Smithsonian. Nobody seems able to make the thing happen.

The Corps of Engineers has examined the Coalition’s proposal and concluded that:

The Underground offers an innovative, multi-purpose potential alternative for stormwater retention and flood risk management on Constitution Avenue and in the Federal Triangle area. Concurrently, it could address the documented need for tour bus parking, as well as provide a tourism visitor center, geothermal energy, and irrigation for the National Mall turf grass and gardens. Additionally, revenue potential from parking fees and water credits may offer self-financing opportunities that attracts a public-private partnership.

But the Corps can’t take action by itself, and neither can any other federal agency. Direction is needed from Congress, and maybe from the President, who after all lives on the Mall with his family, and whose basement (he wasn’t in residence then) was flooded in 2019.

Some of my historic preservation colleagues have asked me how such a project could possibly be permissible under the National Historic Preservation Act, given the requirement of that law’s Section 106 that federal agencies “take into account” the effects of projects on historic places like the Mall. I respond that “take into account” does not mean “don’t touch” – as the whole history of Section 106 review since the law’s enactment in 1966 vividly documents. A proposal to build the Underground would trigger consultation among interested parties – negotiations aimed at a Memorandum of Agreement as to how the project would be carried out; I don’t see much in the way of legitimate obstacles to achieving such an agreement. Of course, what’s “legitimate” to my eyes may be very unlike what’s “legitimate” to others, which is precisely why Section 106 review has multi-party consultation as its centerpiece.

But maybe I’m wrong. I invite everyone who’s interested to take a look at the Coalition’s Underground web page -- National Mall Underground | National Mall Coalition – and let me know of any objections.

Or additional ideas. For example, what might the visitors center contain in the way of fixed exhibitions? It’s been suggested that the workings of the Underground – its automated parking, its circulating groundwater cisterns, its geothermal plant – might be on display as examples of green engineering, and this seems to me a good idea. Perhaps the visitors center might also be a place to acquaint people with the indigenous Piscataway, Pamunkey, Nanichoke, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Monacan, and Powhatan peoples of the area. One can learn about them at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall, but one has pretty much to go there by intention. A treatment of indigenous history and culture in the Underground’s visitors center might help all visitors meditate on our use and misuse of the lands occupied by the predecessors and victims of colonial governance. I’m sure there are lots of other good ideas out there, and the Coalition’s very keen to learn about them.

Incidentally, a lot of interesting ideas were discussed, leading to some refinements in the Underground’s design, during a presentation the Coalition made to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) last June; see .

Take a look, and let me know what you think. And if you like it, you might mention it to your Congressperson. Thanks.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Voice of the People: Traditional Cultural Places and National Register Bulletin 38

 Just posted on  (45) Discussion: The Voice of the People: Traditional Cultural Places and National Register Bulletin 38 -   an excerpt from an ebook I'm composing for my granddaughter Olivia (Livy) King, about the life times, and career of her late grandmother, Patricia L. Parker. It deals with the origins of National Register Bulletin 38 on "traditional cultural places."

Bulletin 38

Let’s rewind, Livy, to the early and mid-1980s. Pat was focused on caring for your father and finishing her dissertation, and starting to do contract work for the Park Service.

My life at the Advisory Council had been dominated by several heavy-duty Section 106 cases having little or nothing to do with the interests that Pat and I shared. Demolition of the Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit was one, and the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway in New York was another – the latter a case in which the New York Times characterized a letter from me as “the plaintive wailings of an embattled bureaucrat.” And my ACHP colleagues and I were doing what we could to fight off the Reagan Administration’s efforts to eviscerate the National Historic Preservation Act, particularly Section 106 and the SHPOs. And if possible to make good use of the Reaganauts’ populism.

Populism? Yes. I don’t know how the word will be used when you read this, Livy, but back in the day, it was something that sort of kind of made common cause (at least rhetorically) between people like me and people like Reagan.

Wikipedia (I hope you still have Wikipedia) says “populism…”

…refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of ‘the people’ and often juxtapose this group against ‘the elite’. The term developed in the 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties, and movements since that time, although has rarely been chosen as a self-description.”

A few years before, in his plywood house on the midden spilling down to the shore in Mechchitiw Village, Chief Chitaro William had handed me a beautiful conch shell. Pat had translated as he’d said that when I got back to Washington DC, to the White House (I think he conflated the two), I should keep this conch shell – used to call people together in the wuut to discuss weighty topics – to remind me always to listen to the voice of the people.

I’d tried to do that, and Pat kept reminding me to. I held onto the thin hope that the populism of Ronald Reagan and his people could somehow be made to amplify the “voice of the people” embodied in the conch that sat over my desk at the ACHP[1].

We’ve learned a lot since the 1980s, Livy, and you’ll learn more in the years to come. Wikipedia now wisely distinguishes between right-wing and left-wing populism:

“Both right-wing populism and left-wing populism object to the perceived control of liberal democracies by elites; however, populism of the left also objects to the power of large corporations and their allies, while populism of the right normally opposes immigration…”

I’m a left-wing populist, and so was my boss at the ACHP, Bob Garvey. Ronald Reagan, we now know, was very much a right-wing populist, and his heirs – Donald Trump and his compatriots in this country, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil – have pushed right-wing populism to the point of fascism, and sullied its name.

But none of this was apparent in the 1980s. Cock-eyed optimists like me imagined that we could build populist bridges with Reagan’s people, and we tried to do so, without utterly selling our souls.

In about 1986, about the time your grandma became a “real” Park Service employee, two cases presented themselves that were all about “the people” versus “elites” and that seemed to make pretty obvious points precisely at the intersection of Pat’s and my concerns. One was an urban case – Poletown in Detroit, Michigan; the other was a quintessential rural, Native American case, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona.

Poletown was an ethnic Polish, mostly Catholic, low-income neighborhood, the wage earners mostly autoworkers, that had grown up around a Dodge plant (Dodge Main) built in Detroit’s early 20th century heyday. By the 1980s the plant had closed, overtaken by automation. The city government, headed by the charismatic Mayor Coleman Young, had negotiated a deal whereby the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would help the City acquire and demolish Dodge Main – which had been found

eligible for the National Register – and the surrounding neighborhood, so that General Motors could build a new plant on the site. The Section 106 discussion all focused on the Dodge Main plant, since it was the thing that had been determined eligible (maybe placed on, I don’t recall) the National Register, but Dodge Main clearly wasn’t the real point. The real point was the neighborhood, the community, Poletown. The people, that is, not the rather marginal “elite” represented by hypothetical engineering historians who might value Dodge Main.

Coincidentally, there was a proposal to repair and expand a ski facility on the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain in New Mexico controlled by the U.S. Forest Service – and a single mountain, despite its plural name. The Peaks comprised one of the four corners of the Navajo World, and to the Hopi and Zuni are the home of powerful Katsina – spirit beings who control the universe. But just as HUD and Detroit could pretend that the only thing “historic” involved in their proposed demolition of Poletown was Dodge Main, the Forest Service pretended that there was nothing historic to  consider about the San Francisco Peaks, because its archaeologists couldn’t find anything there that impressed them.

In both cases, the question of what got attended to, what got considered  “historic” or “cultural” turned on eligibility for the National Register. Whose views had to be considered in deciding what was eligible? In both the Poletown and San Francisco Peaks cases, the “voice of the people” – that is, the views of the people most affected by the action, were pretty systematically ignored. Both Poletown and the San Francisco Peaks were regarded by the relevant agencies (HUD and the Forest Service, respectively) as not eligible for the NRHP, so effects on them could be disregarded under Section 106.

Pat and I decided we couldn’t let this sort of thing continue.

The timing was tricky. Ronald Reagan was in the White House; his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, had his flunkies leaning on the Park Service and Advisory Council to keep them and those pesky environmental and historic preservation laws from “obstructing development[2].” The general attitude of the historic preservation bureaucracy when confronted with a challenge in those days (and these) was summed up in a widely quoted comment by ACHP General Counsel John Fowler: “Pass for now; the risk is too great.”[3]

But there was, maybe, an angle. However false it may have been, there was Reagan’s self-perception as a populist, a man of the people. His recently-installed Chair of the ACHP, Cynthia Grassby-Baker, made similar noises, as did her Vice-Chair, Dr. Robert Johns. Several Reagan appointees to the ACHP were quite solidly populist in their leanings, and reasonable people besides. There should, Pat and I thought, be a basis for appealing to them to favor taking care of places that ordinary people, ordinary communities, cared about.

So with the blessing of Chairman Grassby-Baker and Executive Director Garvey, Pat and I got to work drafting ACHP guidelines to all federal agencies about how to consider the effects of their actions on…

Well, what to call them? What simple term could embrace both Poletown and the San Francisco Peaks? And how could we link that term to the National Register, and hence to the requirements of Section 106, without freaking out the Park Service bureaucrats, who were every bit as risk-averse as Mr. Pass-for-now?

I don’t remember how we came up with the term “traditional cultural property,” except that it seemed like the minimum number of words we could use to capture the notions of being – well, traditional, cultural, and a “property,” the last word being the one favored in Park Service guidance and regulation to refer to all the sorts of places (districts, sites, buildings, structures, objects) that might be eligible for the Register[4]. However we fastened upon the name, and it stuck – now often referred to in acronym as “TCP.”

What the guidelines said was nothing earth-shattering. We just talked about how it was important to avoid ethnocentrism – a narrow focus on how one’s own ethnic group views things – when deciding whether a place valued by a different sort of group might be eligible for the Register. We talked about how to apply each of the criteria for Register eligibility – laid out in Park Service regulations – to TCPs, and gave examples. We talked about how to study TCPs respectfully, and we gave a lot of examples – including Mt. Tonaachaw.

Once a government document is drafted, it has to be reviewed by others, to catch errors or problems, and resolve disagreements, before it’s finalized. Since the TCP guidelines were at this point an ACHP initiative, I circulated our draft to federal agencies, tribes, and various organizations for comment. We got a fair number of comments, reworked the text as needed, and then with Bob Garvey’s and the Chairman’s blessing I put it before the full ACHP for review and (we hoped) approval to be published.

And the ACHP members did approve it – with one pivotal exception. Dale Lanzone, a Park Service executive sitting for Secretary Watt, asked that the Council not approve the document for publication. Considering the power of the Secretary’s office, the Council members and leadership were duly swayed and tabled it.

As I recall, Dale was pretty mealy-mouthed in the ACHP open meeting about why Interior didn’t want the guidelines published, but he was unequivocal about the Secretary’s opposition, so everything stalled and I went home to name still another tree after Dale and take my axe to it[5].

Within days, however, Pat and I were in Dale’s office, at his invitation[6], and he made it clear that he had no issue with the substance of what we’d put together. He just didn’t want it issued by the ACHP because really, it was mostly about National Register eligibility, wasn’t it? So really, the National Register should publish it, as one of its Bulletins.


I recall having an argument with Pat about whether we should agree to Dale’s proposition, but I don’t remember which of us took which side. By this time Livy, your grandma and I had been married about ten years, we’d lived through your dad’s earliest years, and we often could complete one another’s sentences. But one of us said it was absurd for Dale to waltz in at the eleventh hour, after all the work was done, and decide that Interior should take credit for the document. It was probably I who took that position, though that’s not how I remember it.

The other of us – probably your grandma though again I remember it otherwise – pointed out that the Park Service had much more political clout than the ACHP, so publishing as a National Register Bulletin would give the guidelines greater authority. Besides, Dale was right; the thing was mostly about Register eligibility. And while even with the support of Jerry Rogers and Larry Aten (not guaranteed, in that political climate) Pat and I would have been hard put to get the guidelines accepted by the Register staff, Dale could push them through with the weight of Secretary Watt’s authority behind him[7].

And besides – though I recall having to walk Chairman Cynthia back from fighting it out with Interior over the matter – we really had no choice. Politically, all the eggs were in Dale’s basket.

So we went to work tinkering with the document – it didn’t take much – and the result was National Register Bulletin 38: Guidelines for the Identification and Documentation of Traditional Cultural Properties, first published in 1990[8].

A lot of ink has been spilled about Bull38; it’s been cited in a fair amount of litigation, and it’s been helpful, I think, to quite a few tribes and other indigenous groups trying to preserve their special places[9]. It’s helped environmental and historic preservation consultants prevail upon their clients to pay attention to TCPs and consult with those who value them. In the words of Penny Rucks, an ethnographic consultant in Nevada, “It made it possible to slow the boat and sometimes welcome others on board[10].”

Your grandma often said that Bull38 was the most important thing she and I produced together – your father excepted, of course. I think that’s probably true. There’s been an effort in Mister Trump’s Interior Department to make it go away, but I anticipate that this will fail. In the end, all Bull38 says is what Chitaro William, and Camillo Noket, and Katin, and Thomas Jefferson said, and revolutions around the world are illustrating once again in 2020 – that the government has to listen to the voice of the people.

[1] The conch is shown on the cover of my boring textbook, “Cultural Resource Laws and Practice”

[2] My association of the flunkies’ names with the trees I chopped down in our back yard on Windsor Street seemingly had no effect on the flunkies, but it motivated me.

[3] Thanks for then-ACHP Senior Architect, the late John Cullinane for making it widely quoted.

[4] NPS now prefers “Places,” and that’s fine with me as it was with Pat.

[5] I think this was about the third I’d axed in Dale’s name. I later worked for him at the General Services Administration, and we got along famously. That’s Washington.

[6] I think he had invited us as the ACHP meeting was breaking up, and he made reassuring noises. That didn’t stop me from chopping down his tree.

[7] Jerry Rogers, in a comment on a draft of this book, says: “A lot of serendipity was involved in this.  I had been looking for several years for a way to get that Administration to accept the concept of “Ethnographic Landscapes” as described by Robert Melnick, and Bulletin 38 provided a way.” It’s getting way too deep in the weeds, but I dislike “ethnographic landscapes” because they’re envisioned by professionals, top-down, and what Pat and I were after was bottom-up, recognizing that people’s values counted, regardless of how professionals construed them.

[9] Non-indigenous communities have made much less use of it, which I – recalling Poletown – think is very sad.

[10] E-mail to me, 7/4/2020

Saturday, November 21, 2020



Belatedly (on 15th November 2020), I’ve become aware of the word “heritagization.” I’m told it was invented by archaeologist Kevin Walsh in a 1992 book entitled Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Post Modern World.

I want to object, in the strongest terms I can, to its employment.

I learned the word “heritage” as a noun, and I believe it should remain so. One’s heritage is what one receives from one’s forebears – be it tangible, intangible, or both. Heritage is mostly a matter of psychic connection, and it can be deeply personal. I honor the heritage of my Tennessee ancestors who fought on the wrong side of the American Civil War, the heritage of my Alsatian ancestors who came to America in the 19th century to make new lives, the heritage of my Scottish ancestors driven out of the highlands. I honor the heritage of other people – notably the Native American and Pacific indigenous peoples with whom I’ve long worked, and the indigenous peoples of Asia, Australia and Africa about whom I’ve learned mostly from reading. I honor the views of my mostly Anglo-American friends who regard wild horses and other animals as parts of their heritage, and of my African-American friends who struggle with a heritage of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrate a heritage of music and testimony. All these things and many others are represented by the noun “heritage.”

I do not understand “heritage” as a verb. How does one “heritage” something? Surely it must be possible, or “heritagization” would have no conceivable meaning. Can I “heritage,” say, my ancestral association with indigenous people in Appalachia, which may exist but which DNA extraction has yet to demonstrate? Maybe I can, but to what end? And what would doing so entail?

In fact, it seems apparent from the writings of Walsh and others that mere citizens cannot heritage anything. Heritagization seems to be the exclusive province of heritage authorities – governments, museums, professionals of various stripes. The notion of heritagization seems to have arisen in connection with the study of how “authentic” collections of museum objects are. Is a given object or collection of objects clearly enough associated with SuchandSo cultural group or activity or process to be blessed with the title “authentic” by appropriate authorities? From here it has been picked up by some people outside museums but nonetheless involved in keeping the physical aspects of “heritage” from harm – mostly academics in historic preservation and archaeology, it seems – to apply to the subjects of their practice. It is in this context, particularly, that I feel called upon to raise red flags.

Does government “heritagize” a place when UNESCO construes it eligible for the World Heritage List, or when a national government places it on some state-specific list of special stuff? Do we change its intrinsic character? No, surely not. We simply recognize (verb) that X place(s) – Great Zimbabwe or Notre Dame Cathedral or the Adena Earthworks (nouns) are understood (verb) to be parts of our – or someone’s – heritage (noun). We do not make them so; we stipulate our understanding that they are so.

I think this is an important distinction. We do not create “heritage;” we recognize it. Ergo, we can’t “heritage” anything.

I suppose Walsh might reply that while “we” do not heritage – “we” meaning mere citizens like myself, heritage authorities do heritage. Only they have the authority to do so. As my Australian colleague Denise Murphy dryly commented when I mentioned the matter on Facebook (15th November 2020): “It sounds more than a tad patronizing to me.”

To me, too.

You may say, “oh, that’s just postmodern wordsmuthery; they always write like that.” I’m sure that’s true – I’m all too familiar with what passes for postmodern discourse. But I keep hoping that postmodernists will come to understand that words have meaning. And if postmodernists mean what they say about attending to non-colonial, non-settler views of the world, about being alive to multivocality, they ought to be careful about such meanings. When we use words that privilege powerful entities – heritage authorities, for instance – we unprivilege (is that a word?) those who are not such entities – in this case, all those who are not heritage authorities.

Look, I have a heritage – of Scottish drovers, of Alsatian peasants, of Confederate fools – and I don’t need some heritage authority to rule on whether it exists. My friends and clients have heritages as Lummi, Potawatomi, Mewuk, Freedmen, western riders and Choon Chuuk; they don’t need their heritages vetted either. You heritage authorities simply have no business telling us what our heritage is. We will tell you, and we’ll bloody well expect you to respect our points of view. Especially if you’re in a position of authority to influence what happens to the leavings of our heritage.

You are, of course, under no obligation to preserve those leavings; you may, in the weighing and balancing of values that government must carry out and industry all too often does carry out, you are free in the end to let our heritage be damned. But you are not free to assume that our heritages don’t exist unless you, in your magnificence, decide that they exist. You cannot “heritage” anything. Heritage is not a verb.


According to Facebook postings, the signs were posted around Tottenville, New York around the middle of April 2020: “End the Lockdown Rally,” they announced. “No mask needed. Bring your children. Non-essential workers. If you’re sick still come, it’s your right!” The rally was scheduled for Sunday, April 19th on the town’s Conference House lawn. The signs ended by urging readers to “Keep America Great,” and were signed “#MAGA #ENDTHESHUTDOWNNYC.”

The same sources report that at the appointed hour, no one showed up on the Conference House lawn except police officers looking to interview anyone who DID show up[1]. This leads me to wonder whether the posters were parts of a juvenile spoof – perhaps even one perpetrated by people of my own liberal persuasion.

But what particularly struck me about the posters was the phrase: “it’s your right.” 

·       Your right to come out in the midst of a pandemic, ignoring the best advice of health care professionals world-wide.

·       Your right to endanger yourself and to make yourself a burden on the health care system.

·       Your right, potentially, to infect others, cause others to die in agony or suffer life-long complications.

It’s your right!”

I’ve long wondered about the fixation we citizens of the United States seem to have with “rights.”

It’s almost a reflex with us. Some of us propose that health care is a “right.” Many assert a “right” to own and use guns. A “right” to water; a “right” to clean air; a “right” to an abortion; a “right” to use our property as we wish. And when rights come into conflict, as inevitably they do, we seldom ask dispassionately: “Why do you think you have that right, and what does your having it mean in practical terms?” Instead we fight over whether the right exists and which rights should take priority. These fights seem seldom to be resolved. Even the rights of ethnic and social minorities, seemingly nailed down by the 14th amendment to the constitution, remains a subject of contention, and the right of women to vote, theoretically resolved by the 19th amendment, has been slow to enhance women’s political influence.

I posted an inquiry on Facebook, asking if, in the experience of my correspondents, citizens of other countries are similarly rights-obsessed. The responses were generally in the negative, with a few understandable exceptions – Hong Kong, for example, where recent history has made people especially sensitive about rights-infringement. Most correspondents shared my impression that rights-fixation is largely a symptom of residence in these United States of America – whose residents I’ll call USers[2] to distinguish us from citizens of Mexico and Canada.

I hasten to certify that I am a USer born and bred, with a birth certificate to prove it, 77 years a resident of the United States with only a few years spent elsewhere. I am engaging here in self-examination as much as I am examination of my fellow-citizens.

What is a “Right?”

The relevant definition of “right” in Merriam-Webster online is “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” We have a “right” then, if we are entitled to something, or to act somehow. “Right” and “entitlement” are synonyms.

Why Are We Entitled?

So, why do we think we have “rights?” Why do we think ourselves entitled to things, conditions, states of existence?

I suppose we can trace the notion back at least to the 13th century Magna Carta, but my impression is that explicit rights-based intellectual arguments mostly began to be expressed during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. The United States of America was another product of the Enlightenment, and the notion of “rights” is very explicit in this country’s foundational documents. The second paragraph of the 1776 Declaration of Independence begins with the words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….

Capitalized in the original. And in 1789, the first ten amendments to the then shiny new United States constitution were referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” as they still are.

So our possession of rights has been fundamental to the thinking of USers since the nation’s beginnings.

But what does it mean to have a “right?”

The Right to Life

Take the first of the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: we have the right to life. Is this true?

Do I have a right to life? I don’t see why I do, or how I could, at least as a prospective matter. I am glad to be alive; it is a privilege to be alive; I enjoy being alive, but was I, in principle before becoming alive – in some pre-living or incorporeal state – entitled to be this way? I don’t see why, or even how.

Or did I acquire this right after becoming alive? Being alive, do I have the right to keep myself so as long and as well as I can? This makes more sense to me, but it’s not without complications. Am I entitled to stay alive if I’m a burden to society? If it costs a great deal to keep me alive, and encumbers my family and friends? Do I have the right to stay alive at 77, when I no longer make much contribution to society?

Inuit people, reportedly, used to put their very elderly out on ice floes to freeze – a relatively pleasant way to go, I’m told – and the elders are said to have been OK with this. Were the elders surrendering a fundamental right, or were they just being responsible members of society?

And of course, there’s the big question of just when “life” begins. I was conceived, according to my mother, in early 1942 atop a cedar chest she and my father had received as a wedding gift. My wife and I tried to replicate the feat when we inherited the chest, and concluded that my parents had been truly devoted procreators. In any event, did I acquire my right to life atop that chest, as soon as my father’s sperm found its way into my mother’s ovum? Or was it at some later point in my development? If the latter, when?

I realize that these are fraught questions; my point is just that they are not easily answered – unless you do so on the basis of faith, which seems inconsistent with Enlightenment thinking. 

Do I, perhaps, have the right to keep myself alive when I’m somehow endangered? This certainly seems plausible, but I wonder if it’s exactly a matter of “rights.” It’s instinctive for me to step out of the way of a speeding automobile, or duck when a mass murderer starts shooting, but is this exactly a “right?” If it’s instinctual, can it be an entitlement? This seems to me an exercise in semantics, and it leads me in circles.

The Right to Liberty

So let’s try liberty. Do I have the right to be free, to not be enslaved? Freedom, I think, is a very desirable state; like life, it’s one I enjoy and do not want to give up. But is it my right? Am I entitled to it? If so, why, and how does this entitlement come to be? I don’t have an answer to that; it seems easier to assert than to support with evidence.

And what does “liberty” exactly amount to? I saw a posting on Facebook today about a guy who wandered all over a grocery store, unmasked and happily picking stuff up and putting it down, perhaps spreading COVID-19 virus in all directions, and loudly proclaimed to the disapproving folks around him that he had the right to do this because in the US we have freedom. Freedom and liberty are pretty much synonymous; was this fellow at liberty to risk the health, even the lives, of those around him simply because – well, because he’s free? Where would this notion take us – and civil society?

The Right to a Pursuit of Happiness

My right to pursue happiness seems to me even more laden with ambiguity. Being a pretty glum sort of guy, I’m not even sure what “happiness” involves, and I’m not sure I’d feel better informed if I were a cock-eyed optimist. There’s evidence that many USers equate happiness with acquiring goods – getting a big glitzy house, a fancy car, a yacht, a trophy spouse. Can/should they do this as a matter of “right?” If so, why?

What about the consequences of that right’s exercise? It surely does have consequences, by affecting others. Is the trophy spouse happy? How about the servants in the big house? The crew of the yacht? Perhaps more important are the environmental impacts of happiness pursuit. Construction of the glitzy house expends Earth’s resources, uses up land, kills trees and bushes and worms who may not have been happy to be sacrificed. Construction and operation of the yacht depletes resources too, and contributes to pollution of the ocean.

In the unlikely event I were able to build a glitzy house, buy a yacht, or shack up with a trophy spouse, would this be something to which I have a right? I don’t see why.

But of course the right, as articulated in the Declaration, is not to happiness itself, but to its pursuit. Do I have the right to pursue a glitzy house, a yacht, a trophy spouse? I can easily enough say “yes,” but I’m not sure what it achieves.

The Right to Guns

One right that’s pretty clearly articulated in the United States constitution is the right to own a weapon. The Second Amendment says that:

…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed

Pretty straightforward, but it’s complicated by its prefatory language, which relates this “right” to the need to maintain “a well-regulated militia,” and by the great post-constitution expansion in the range of weaponry arguably definable as “arms.” These complications have intrigued courts for generations, and show little sign of being resolved in the near future.

Setting aside the militia argument, do I have the right to bear any kind of arms? I don’t know when or how it was decided, but it seems to be widely understood that I am not entitled to a nuclear weapon, but what about a really big non-nuclear bomb? Or a smaller one? Or a Claymore Mine like those my pacifist daughter was taught to arm and fire during her brief career in the Army National Guard? Or a machine gun? Or a semi-automatic weapon? To what do I not have a right, and why do I not?

Rights and Responsibilities

Without belaboring the argument, it seems to me that assertions of “rights” lead us into quicksands of ambiguity – or perhaps onto pinnacles of opinion, from which we shout toward other pinnacles, stamping our feet and waving our arms. Arguments based on rights are almost guarantied to be irresoluble.

I wonder what would happen if we USers dialed back our preoccupation with rights and instead paid more attention to their flip-side – to responsibilities.

Focusing on responsibilities relieves us of our hangup with “what’s mine,” and causes us to focus on the conditions of others. It shifts our attention from “how can I get as much as I can for me and mine” – which is surely at the core of “rights”-based arguments – to “what should I do to take care of others?”

Consider the “right to life.” What if it were rephrased as a responsibility to respect life? I for one have learned to respect – or at least try to respect – all living creatures, whether animal or vegetable, and for that matter even mineral. This doesn’t mean that I don’t mow them, trim them, cut them down, eat them or otherwise exploit them, but it does mean I try to do so with respect. Many if not all indigenous groups that I know of or have read about typically offer prayers of thanks to plants and animals before taking them for food; some flint-knappers offer prayers to stones before they begin working them into tools and weapons. These prayers, I think, come down to an acknowledgement that we are all in this existence together, that we are interdependent and reliant on one another.

Exercising responsibility for the lives of others means, I think, trying to put oneself in the other’s shoes – or hooves or feet or flippers – and to impinge on those lives as little as possible while maintaining our own.

Of course, the “right to life” is fundamental to the “debate,” if it can be called that, over abortion. Does thinking about abortion from the standpoint of responsibility help us at all with this horribly divisive issue? Probably not much, but maybe a little.

After her adventure on the cedar chest, my mother told me many years later, she made vigorous attempts to abort me. I was – to say the least – an inconvenient embryo; the Depression was still underway, the U.S. had just been attacked and entered World War II, my father had answered the call and left an executive position in the automobile industry to become a Naval officer. So my mother jumped off chairs and otherwise did what she could to flush me out of her system, but I resisted. Perhaps I was defending my right to life, though as an adult I did not begrudge my mother her priorities.

Did my mother have a responsibility toward me as a fetus? Yes, I’d say so, and so did my father. But does that mean that she should not have tried to abort me? I’d say, not necessarily, any more than my responsibility toward other life forms means I should never consume the flesh of a chicken or a stalk of celery. We acknowledge our responsibilities, we try to exercise them, and we accept our faults when our exercises fall short. In my parents’ day the options for birth control were very limited; today, I’d say we have the responsibility to employ the methods that are available today to prevent inconvenient, unwanted pregnancies. When one happens, we have the responsibility to balance the interests of the fetus with the interests of the parents and everyone else – including our collective interest in population control – and make a rational decision. Are we violating the rights of a fetus if we abort it? Sure we are, just as we’re violating the rights of a chicken that we butcher or a tree that we cut; we ought to be sorry for this, grateful for the life sacrificed. We ought to offer appropriate prayers; but we ought to make the decision that reflects our best judgment as to the welfare of all concerned.

What about the “right to liberty?” What if we called instead for respecting the liberties, the freedom of others? Granted, the exercise of those liberties might often conflict with our own, and with those of other people. Balances would need to be struck, but perhaps, I think, we might strike them more easily if our starting point was respect for others’ liberties than if we began with the intent of protecting – let alone asserting – our own.

Take the liberty-loving guy in the grocery store. If he were exercising responsibility toward others, would he have behaved as he did? It’s hard for me to think so.

Similarly with the right to pursue happiness. Suppose you find happiness with a warm gun. I may be appalled by this, but if I’m looking at you through the prism of responsibility, I’m asking myself how your happiness can be maintained without damaging others. This may lead us into the same old arguments, but they’ll have a different focus – not do you or do you not have the right to own an AK73 that can fire 7000 rounds per second, but how can you be made happy without infringing on the happiness of others (e.g. by killing their kids)? This may be no more a resoluble question than that of who has rights to what kinds of weaponry, but at least our disagreements might be more civilized.

One of my non-USer Facebook correspondents noted that others – in contrast with USers – have “something called ‘for the common good.’” Of course, most USers would insist that we share this concept, but how often do we act in accordance with it? How often do we even think about it?


In summary, I’m simply wondering if there might be some advantage in thinking less about our rights, and more about our responsibilities – to ask ourselves “what are my responsibilities” whenever we’re tempted to trumpet a right. I am not saying we should be compliant sheeple, giving way to those who – I do not doubt – would be happy to exploit us to advance their narrow interests. But I wonder whether we defeat our own purpose when we take on this struggle in defense of “rights” rather than in recognition of responsibilities.

[2] Thank you, John Allison.