Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Parks, the Public Sphere, and Preservation

I had a thought during a discussion last week on the contentious issue of mountain top removal coal mining (MTR) when someone mentioned that the Romantic views of sweeping mountain vistas that were the backdrop for an anti-MTR film looked like something out of a National Park Service site video. "Ha," I thought, "true enough." But it also got me thinking about the symbolism of the National Parks, specifically the seal and patch I have emblazoned on a sizable percentage of my clothing: an arrowhead inverted with a buffalo grazing in the foreground in front of a majestic redwood and a mountain rising in the background.

Does the NPS identify itself with things lost or vanishing, Indians, indigenous plant and animal species, and geological formations, all of which have found themselves the target of modernization? Is the NPS to be the curators of America's zoo-of-the-past when we have finally rid ourselves of these beautiful inconveniences? Does the government preservation of space only encourage the exploitation of places not designated sacred, beautiful, or otherwise special?

And here's where I think Jurgen Habermas' idea of the public sphere, a space outside formal politics where citizens can communicatively debate issues concerning the body politic, is so vitally important to a new role for the NPS and for Americans generally. I attended the National Council on Public History conference this weekend where Dr. James Brewer Stewart's keynote address, “Abolishing Slavery in Lincoln’s Time and Ours: The Legacies of American Slavery and the Challenges of Human Trafficking,” envisioned a new -- but at the same time very old -- role for historic sites. Speaking specifically about those that dealt with slavery in the past, Dr. Stewart encouraged sites to use their roots in historical slavery as a platform to launch discussion about modern day human trafficking, to smash the concept that slavery ended in 1865 (a concept that Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement cast into doubt anyway) by showing that ending only American slavery did not end the phenomenon worldwide. He encouraged, too, a dialogue between the public and interpreters about how the issues of the past continue to affect our world today.
As public land, why should a National Park site not be the site of public sphere debate among concerned citizens?It seems to me that NPS sites have always been tied to public debate. To whit: Chickamauga or any other Civil War battlefield was the site of a debate over the meanings of citizenship, freedom, equality, race, class, gender, and a host of other issues when the armies met there in 1863. Perhaps 34,000 casualties was not Habermas' ideal of communicative action, but it nevertheless is an extreme example of debate over vital issues outside of formal politics. Later, in the 1890s and onward, the battlefield became a site of commemoration and (white) North-South reconciliation. Themes of shared sacrifice and valor were played up, while the "emancipatory" legacy of the war was largely redacted. The monuments on the field attest to this revisioning of the war as an unfortunate but glorious national Iliad. This understanding continued through the 1960s commemoration of the war's 100th anniversary, which employed Confederate memory as a banner to rally anti-Civil Rights support in the white South. With the 150th anniversary of the war approaching, the NPS has a chance to use its Civil War sites in a new way, as a public free space to encourage civil dialogue (Incidentally, this is the reason I was at the conference, participating in a panel of public historians discussing themes and strategies for the CW 150th). There will be resistance from many, saying that entering "politics" could bias the site. But by recognizing and discussing the fact that these places have -- in one way or the other -- always been spaces for social-political debate, how is employing that space for the same purpose today any different? That legacy of debate, being a bandbox for the playing out of the politics of memory, is the very reason these spaces have become places invested with cultural meaning.

In my opinion, the parks-as-free-space model of use will have to take hold if we are to positively preserve Civil War battlefields. As the country moves farther away from the Civil War being a "felt history," as the Civil War becomes a shrinking part of America's historical consciousness, and as general public interest in history declines, continuing the tradition of civic dialogue in these spaces will demonstrate to a new generation of Americans the continuing lessons that can be drawn from these places, these memories. It will increase public awareness of these sites as important, as relevant, as vital to our national identity. By demonstrating that relevance and usefulness we can create a new set of "stakeholders," people emotionally invested in the continued preservation and appropriate use of these places, and thereby -- hopefully -- preserve their lessons for another generation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Patrick. Many thanks to you and your pards for it. (Hi, Lee.)

Just to extend one aspect of this post in one direction a bit: in West Virginia MTR imperils not only scenic resources but also historical resources by impacting Blair Mountain, the largest battlefield of that state’s coal war of 1920-21, and also by threatening roughly half of the sites of its coal war of 1912-13 (along Cabin Creek in a different county). The 1920-21 conflict is often described as the most extensive insurrection in the US since the Civil War, in terms of numbers of armed participants.

The necessary precursor to hosting in-park debate and discourse, which I agree is laudable and vital, is the act of preserving landmarks or other historical resources to give us things that inspire debate in the first place. Even the planners and advocates of historical national parks that were established under the consensus view of history or other “older” philosophies of history did a great service for future generations and future needs, including for your vision of contestation and spirited discourse, by simply saving, however unknowingly, the physical catalysts of future debates from the many variations on MTR that have ravaged landscapes in the past, albeit less dramatically and horrifically than in West Virginia today.