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.