“This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you and me”, sang Lady Gaga during halftime of the 2017 Superbowl held in Houston, Texas on 5 February 2017, only one week after President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning the entry into the US of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries that are assumed to be a security threat for the United States.
“This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you and me” is a song first written and recorded during the 1940s by folk singer Woody Guthrie. Originally a protest song, the version that subsequently became widely known did not contain the critical verses. Adopted by Lady Gaga in 2017, the song was taken to be her expression of solidarity with those discriminated against by Trump and was seen as a veiled protest against the new President´s order.
“This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you and me” is a commitment to tolerance that at the same time reasserts some problematic distinctions. The difference between ‘you and me’, in the context of Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, becomes an ‘us and them’ which in turn is linked to the ownership of land (‘your land’, ‘my land’) and to a story about the past (‘this land was made…’)
For the past couple of centuries it was often not particularly controversial when exclusive cultural identities were coupled with territories and histories, although the notorious land claims of the Nazis on behalf of their Germanic ancestors led directly to World War II. Ever since the emergence of Romantic Nationalism in late 18th century Europe, nations, territories, cultures, and histories appeared to be naturally linked to each other.
A convenient depiction of different human cultures as they are associated with different parts of the world and their histories. Source: http://diysolarpanelsv.com/world-studies-clipart.html)
Today, however, global processes of migration are profoundly challenging the perception of nations united by territory, culture and history anywhere in the world. All contemporary societies are increasingly subject to processes of globalisation (related to the economy, the environment, communication, popular culture, etc). Even heritage has come to flourish in international frameworks such as UNESCO’s World Heritage Programme.
The very meaning of national territory is renegotiated as some borders are opened or overcome, e.g. among the Schengen countries inside the EU and inside the British Commonwealth, whereas others are closed and reinforced, for example the border between the US and Mexico and the southern sea border of the EU in the Mediterranean. As Ashworth, Graham and Tunbridge argued a decade ago in their account of Pluralising Pasts, heritage, identity and place can be negotiated in many different ways in multicultural societies.
Concurrently, global processes of displacement force large groups of people to escape from war and misery, becoming refugees, or having to move away to make a living. Citizens in many states now represent a variety of cultures and a diversity of languages, religions, customs and traditions. These trends are illustrated by recent figures from Europe showing that the percentage of foreign-born immigrants in most European states is rising and now lies between 10 and 20% (in other world regions equivalent figures of immigrants are much higher already). The fastest growing immigrant populations in European states are from Algeria (France), Cuba (Spain), India (UK), Syria (Sweden), Angola (Portugal), and Romania (Italy, Denmark).
The problem is not of course where people are coming from. As I discussed some years ago in relation to indigenous and immigrant archaeologies, the problem is what we think is my (our) land as opposed to your (their) land, and who (and what) we think ‘this land was made for’, i.e. who belongs where. Populist national movements are gaining ground throughout European countries and in the US, by capitalising on fears that the national culture and heritage in ‘our’ country is threatened and that immigration needs to be much more restricted to combat that threat. Modern nations once stood for liberty and human rights but in contemporary nationalism ethnos dominates over demos, selective privilege over equal rights. Heritage and history are very much implicated in this development because they make cultural differences a seemingly natural outcome of the past, which ultimately governs who belongs where.
The preference of a majority of voters in the UK for Brexit, i.e. to leave the European Union, was in parts the outcome of a British identity crisis connected to the old logic of heritage, with territory and collective identity being linked to the past. Brexit will reinstate privileges based on who people’s ancestors were, not on what they do or believe in themselves.
The underlying thinking is called culturalism, as defined by Eriksen and Stjernfelt :
“Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections — even if at the same time they violate individual rights.”
Culturalism is common among the political right in the ideal of ethnopluralism promoting different cultures to co-exist in different territories. But it is interesting that culturalism is also found among the left in their ambitions to practice peaceful multiculturalism and protect cultural minorities within each society.
Internationally, both the EU and UN are based on collaborating nation states and thus characterised by inherent culturalism linked to their sovereign member states. Whereas both organisations promote shared values and a shared European resp. global heritage, they also consider a culturalist focus on the distinct heritage of each member state as an important tool for promoting cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue across borders. For example, one main objective of the European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018 is “to promote cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.”
But do heritage and history necessarily have to be linked to an essentialising and highly problematic notion of culturalism at all? Do the past, distinct cultures and sovereign territories form a natural union that is manifested in heritage? Unfortunately, this is the impression one can get after reading a recent cultural heritage law in the country where I live – Sweden. Although the divisive potential and threat to social cohesion of exclusive cultural identities between different groups are noted, the proposed solution is making a distinct Swedish cultural heritage more accessible to all, not in rethinking the very notion of what cultural heritage in Sweden may mean. Anders Högberg argued recently for an urgent need to renegotiate heritage and citizenship beyond essentialism. But how can we think of a heritage that is inherently inclusive rather than exclusive? Can we sever the knot that binds heritage so tightly to cultural identity and territory?
I am effectively asking here about the alternatives to the cultural heritage we know. What other heritage could there be, what other stories of the past could be told that do not reaffirm exclusive identities and distinct cultures linked to ownership of bits of land? These questions are part of me rethinking a number of principles that are widely taken for granted (see also my critique of conservation)
I would like to propose the following alternatives to cultural heritage as we know it:
- Hybrid heritage as a standard rather than exceptional heritage can promote the normality of cultural mixtures of various influences. Rewriting history as processes of hybridisation challenges the assertion that cultures were originally distinct and are somehow pure and exclusive by nature. The image shows hybrid heritage linked to food in York, UK.
Hybrid heritage in York, UK (photo: Holtorf)
- Ironic heritage can encourage shared and unifying laughter among diverse audiences. Heritage does not have to be deadly serious. This image was taken on the West coast of Denmark where remains of the Atlantic Wall built during the German occupation were embellished with a graffiti stating the result of the 1992 European soccer championship final: Denmark 2, Germany 0.
Ironic heritage in Denmark (photo: Holtorf)
- Individuals’ heritage can help us to identify with personal histories of individuals living in specific historic situations, thus promoting empathy for each human being. This image is from the Tenement Museum in New York, exhibiting the personal experiences of migrants arriving in America during the 19th and 20th centuries and at the same time making links to the lives of migrants arriving today.
Individuals’ heritage at the Tenement Museum, New York, US (source: Busy Is Reading)
- Heritage processes can engage us in practices that may be more important than the past they deal with. Jointly researching, interpreting, sharing, managing and using heritage is worthwhile not only for the shared engagement with the past and associated values, which it brings about, but also for the collaborative spirit in which such work should be conducted and the skills that are being learned by all participants.
Heritage processes near Telford, UK (source: Paul Belford)
- Future Heritage is the heritage we construct to achieve shared ambitions for the future rather than preserve memories of the past. The Tsunami Boats left on rooftops in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the disaster from 2004, represent a future past (and heritage) that marks not only the tragedy but celebrates at the same time the shared determination of the community of survivors to re-construct the town and people’s lives for the future.
Future Heritage in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (Picture courtesy of James Clark)
All these ways of working with heritage are alternatives to a cultural heritage that cements distinctions about ‘us and them’, where the past is linked to distinct cultural identities and distinct territories.
So don’t tell me again that “This land is your land, this land is my land” and thus evoking an outdated mode of combining exclusive identities with notions of distinct histories and territorial ownership. Heritage could still play an important role in future societies but only if it can help to transgress such notions of ownership, distinction, and exclusive privilege. This is the most profound challenge of heritage to the immigration policies of Donald J. Trump.