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Monday, November 14, 2016

CRM and the Rise of the T-Rump

No, I’m not going to accuse cultural resource management, that quaint and probably soon-to-vanish professional practice, of causing or even much facilitating the successes of Donald Trump and his merry band. I think, though, that before this dismal moment passes and everybody moves on to other fields of endeavor, we ought to think about whether and how CRM practice has reflected the broad social phenomena that made Trump’s victories (thus far) possible.

Many commentators are commenting – rather too late – that Trump’s rise was not wholly a matter of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and selfishness, though obviously all those played their parts, and will continue to. Trump also tapped into a strong and not-unjustified feeling in what’s left of the U.S. middle class that the nation’s elites are scornful of the concerns, beliefs, values and fears of “the common people.” Those who voted for him will doubtless soon find out that the T-Rump is even more scornful, but he looked different, he looked like he’d shake things up, kick some ass, and a lot of people – about a quarter of those eligible to vote, apparently, and a strategically situated almost half of those who actually voted – thought that some elite ass needed kicking.

A small collection of those asses, I think, comprise those of CRM practitioners, both in government and in the “industry.”

CRM has become a very elitist enterprise – maybe always has been. This will doubtless be disputed by the rough-tough archaeologists in its ranks, but I think it’s obvious. Although the laws under which we work were certainly enacted in the expectation that they would be good for the people who vote and pay taxes, CRM practitioners, on the whole, are concerned only with finding, documenting, and maybe occasionally preserving buildings, sites, districts, structures and objects that meet esoteric criteria promulgated by a small coterie of professionals in the National Park Service. To many if not most practitioners, how local people feel about those places is irrelevant; what matters is whether a professional thinks they meet the criteria. Similarly, it doesn’t much matter how regular people feel about a proposed project’s; what matters is what an agency official and a State Historic Preservation Officer decide about whether and how the criteria of adverse effect apply.

So you think your farm, or your neighborhood, is culturally important and worth preserving? Well, maybe OK, but only if you can persuade the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) that it is. Value your view down the street or across the valley? Sorry, it’s not part of what the SHPO or the National Park Service thinks makes the street or valley eligible for the National Register, so we can’t deal with it.

It cuts both ways, of course. Not much interested in preserving 20th century tract houses or blocks and blocks of warehouses? Sorry, they’re eligible for the National Register so we really need to preserve them – or at least go through a lot of tedious processes before taking them down. Don’t want to preserve those inefficient, ugly old windows? Sorry, they’re part of the historic fabric. Think it was maybe a mistake to build that brutalist addition on the old courthouse? Too bad, it’s on the Register now, so we gotta keep it.

And if you’re culturally invested in something that’s not a building, site, district, structure or object, you’re utterly out of luck. Value your multi-generation cattle-ranching lifestyle? Tough; your damn cows are tearing up landscapes that need to be made safe for hikers from the city, and sad to say, your lifestyle just isn’t eligible for the National Register. Want to protect free-ranging burros or wild carp? Sorry, they’re not “places,” so we can’t deal with them.

Of course, we elite federal and state officials and pricy consultants will “consult” with the unwashed masses, but only about stuff that fits into our world-view, according to our systems. And we have come to understand “consultation” not to mean dialogue or discussion, but simply “informing,” “educating,” “listening” and getting “input” – all of which can then be ignored.

All this is, as some wise pundits have lately pointed out, exactly the kind of behavior that makes people become sick of the authorities and prepared to toss the bums out – regardless of who or what replaces them.


If we survive the rampage of the T-Rump (I doubt if we will, perhaps at all), I hope we can take some lessons and apply them to all our endeavors, including those that involve us with “cultural resources.” We need to recognize that everybody’s got culture, whose “resources” are only sometimes the kinds of things that CRM professionals appreciate, but all of which deserve consideration. And that professional values don’t by default trump (sic) those of other people. And that the “consultation” we say we do isn’t consultation at all if it’s not dialogue, aimed at achieving some kind of meeting of the minds. 

All minds.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr. King, I admire your work in general and your critical stance toward CRM and Section 106 and bureaucracy, not to mention your expertise and commitment to fixing things that are broken. I'm startled when I fin may working for the Agencies in archaeo who don't know of your work or your arguments, and I encourage people to read your stuff.

But I do not share your willingness to trust 'the locals' to always do the right thing about their resources, nor do I share your blanket mistrust of the gov't's imposition of rules and regulations that might contradict the thoughts and feelings of those locals. And I'm sure you exaggerate to make a point and to stir argument . . . which I will be happy to supply.

Take Manzanar, for example. If locals had their way, Manzanar would today be what it was after it was abandoned and the LA Department of Water and Power razed it and locals took to shooting at the cemetery monument, pillaging the dumps and cutting trees for firewood, and after the winds and the sands and the floods begin to bury what was left under silt and tamarisk and tumbleweed.

Instead, due to the effort of non-locals, e.g. the Japanese-American community, some of whom were unwilling guests at Manzanar, the place is a site of conscience, and an effective reminder of the fruits of demagoguery and the baser instincts of a frightened and alienated populace. Many 'locals' would still love to eradicate this blot on patriotism, this barricade to non-native elk that are so easy to hunt among the apple trees. They would like the water to be restored to the reservoir, because it was a nice place to party and swim, but beyond that, the whole re-creation of the concentration camp is anathema.

This is a good, but not the only, example of what would be lost if there weren't some form of guidance and higher authority than merely acceding to the whims of locals. And that authority might not withstand the latest whim, the election of DT . . . but Heritage can't be entrusted only to the Bundies, the pothunters and the VFW, among others.

Anonymous said...

It's not all bad. Trump will have access to a new type of bomb, which destroys all intelligent life, but leaves archeologists and archeo-bureaucrats intact.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put Tom, I have been waiting for your Trump rant.

As an ex-historic preservation bureaucrat, who began my career in the dirt, I can see that it may indeed be time to clean up the house a bit. While we like to think of ourselves as working for the greater good, we have become a bit of an elite group (apparently according to ACRA, CRM is a billion dollar "industry"). When people started using and misusing terms like "archaeological clearance" or "SHPO clearance", we were setting ourselves up as the judge and jury, of the "things" of prehistory/history. I worry most that we lost a lot of folks, who really thought this stuff was cool and important, but fear the bureaucrats messing with their lands and projects. We need to recover those folks, as well as the folks who don't think the archaeologists and historians know how to protect the things most important to them. MKeller