The always-readable Knoxville historian Jack Neely weighs in on the disappearing Farragut monument, and considers the wider implications. His assessment is that we East Tennesseans have been pretty lousy stewards of our historic resources, and I heartily agree with him.
“Laws of probability suggest that every privately owned historic site will eventually end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t care much about history,” he writes. “Independent-minded property owners have an advantage over preservationists: one property owner can cancel generations of care. Without some permanent enforceable protections in place, a community will erase its own history.” Of course, “permanent enforceable protections” will mean curbs on doing what we darn well please, which is anathema to a great many people.
I’ve been a conservative for quite a long time, and historic preservation is one of those areas where I often find myself in disagreement with fellow members of my political persuasion. Look, I’m all for a robust conception of property rights. The notion that a man can be told what to do or what not to do with what he owns gets my blood boiling; if you can’t do what you want with your property, one wonders if it’s really your property. But I also believe there is such a thing as responsibility to the common good, and protection of historic resources is very much a part of that common good. Few people ask for the onerous responsibility of stewardship over these resources, but a responsibility is never abrogated just because it isn’t desired.
We conservatives are a rather schizophrenic lot. We cheer when our leaders pose for photo-ops at museums and historic sites to spout platitudes about our heritage, and then we cheer just as loudly when they make decisions that deprive those museums and sites of the resources they need to maintain and share the heritage they invoke. We preach about looking back to our predecessors who sacrificed to secure the freedoms we enjoy, and then we exercise these freedoms by erasing all trace of those predecessors whenever it serves our immediate self-interest.
Oh, we absolutely love to invoke the past, so long as it doesn’t cost us anything.