I want to be very honest here: I did not plan on liking Our Unprotected Heritage. In fact, I did not want to like it. Taken one level further, I wanted very badly to dislike the book. After reading it, I cannot say that I liked it, but I also cannot say that I disliked it. I believe the specific word to describe my feelings is “ambivalent.” In short, I don’t think King produced a book that said, or did, anything. Following are my thoughts.
First off, please note that I seek in my own life to resolve emotion, heritage, belief, knowledge and existence. That may be a tall order, but I believe that it can be done. What it almost inevitably leads me to is hypocrisy in my own life, and judgment and criticism of others. Such criticism leads me to the realization that, while another has created something, my criticism of it may well emanate from my own insecurity and inability to create. It’s all a vicious cycle. I express this only to clarify that while I am being critical in the following, I recognize that it may come from a position of insecurity. Basically, I believe that my criticism of King’s work might be accused of the very flaws of which I accuse him.
Let me begin with the cover and title of the book. I have expressed before that I react very harshly against things that smack of vogue, uneducated responses to any issue. While I do not mean to call King uneducated, because he has so much more knowledge on the subject than do I, I mean to make a judgment about the audience that I feel will likely pick up this book. This audience, I believe, have chosen their battle, they have become ever more entrenched in a system that seeks its own preservation to the ignorance (the culture, not the people within it) of the greater operation of the world. They are systems that are built upon process with little concern for a well-drawn philosophy. Though the philosophy exists, it is debated quite separately from the processes. It all becomes somewhat of a religion, the religion or preservation. Even the early preservation systems in our great nation were societies—clubs, or groups that met on a regular basis to discuss the conversion of the masses to their high-calling. The difficulty I have with this is the same struggle I have with a great part of the Christian world–or any other religion–it seems to me to be an uninformed following that reassures itself that its premises are right, moral, ethical and should be followed. I guess I am just jealous that I am not monetizing this faith. The point being that I feel that those who will read this book are those who want to reinforce their own perspectives an practices.
The cover, the title, by using terms like “whitewashing” and “destruction of our cultural…”—and even “Unprotected”—set the reader up for toking on preservationist pot. It immediately causes any person who believes himself to be informed to call up schemas of father communal property to save him from evil corporatism. And from word one in the book, the reader is not disappointed, for “Darkside Development Corporation” is at it again to raze every shred of evidence from the past. I knew right there exactly where the book was headed: these evil corporate Satans desire that nothing should be remembered and it is up to intelligent people to balance the scales. So with the help of some haphazard government intervention in the late sixties preservationists are at leading the charge to attack the developers and save that ramshackle shack that you grew up in. What I appreciated was that the line item preservationist mantra was not what King wrote.
Though King began the work with what might be considered standard preservationist arguments about heritage and environment, he did depart in that he chose the path of criticism of the very system that is usually touted as the salvation, or at least a primary tool of preservationists. To a degree I appreciated Ira Beckerman’s assessment in the Afterword. What I liked was that Ira indicated that there is a fundamental problem with the preservation systems at the cultural-philosophical level, rather than a problem immediately with the preservation systems. My appreciation for that assessment comes from the belief that there should be a strong philosophical underpinning to any process. And it was on that same level that I felt King’s argument failed. I struggled through the book to understand whether King thinks that the preservation systems (NHPA and NEPA in particular) should be used and revised, or abandoned altogether. I think that this feeling came from the fact that King himself is a little conflicted. While he seemed to praise the original construction and intent of the preservation systems, he was very critical of the processes that those systems use. He even identified himself as being a “fan of good process.” This conflict—that basically made the book unique—created a frustration for me as a reader when King would attempt to support the preservation systems and immediately u-turn and criticize them.
On a similar thread to his seeming two-faced presentation of the systems was the frustrating fact that even though he broached the subject of philosophy of preservation practice, there was little to no real discussion of its actual necessity. King’s argument, like so much within the preservation world, assumed that preservation is necessary and good, without explaining exactly why. Because of this, I would like to circle back to my prior argument of self-preserving groups—they usually attempt to keep followers busy with process and shield them from critical analysis of philosophy: “What you do is good and it has value because you are doing it.” There was a slight exception in the case of Our Unprotected Heritage and that came from King’s acknowledgement that preservation is not always the “good” thing when considering the human environment.
My last criticism of King’s book comes from the fact that it often read like a conspiracy theory. It was as if the Government and Corporations were/are working very closely together to destroy the natural environment of its people, at any cost. He talked about the blind “rubber stamping” of projects that maybe shouldn’t have gone forward without more criticism or more environmental assessments. But would follow up with things like, “It doesn’t take much imagination to guess” why they had not done those. One of the primary lessons that I have learned from academia is that conspiracy theorists are loonies that speculate about things that they don’t know and they can be spotted by their conspicuous use of phrases like “It doesn’t take much imagination.” (Maybe, but you do admit that it does take imagination). The point being that an academic worth his weight should be expected to stick to what is known and what can be proven. Journalistic speculation leads to innocent 17 year old high school track runners being plastered on the front of the New York Post as bombing suspects. There is room for interpretation, just don’t make yourself sound like a boob.
In the end, I didn’t really feel that King offered anything new. I felt the high points of the work were balanced by the lows, the valid arguments were offset by silly speculation, and his focus on process reform at the expense of philosophy equated to a wash. It was like I had read nothing. I couldn’t strongly like it or dislike it. It was not really new information, or even new interpretation. Ultimately, I am completely ambivalent toward it. From a critical standpoint it was like a chartreuse panel on a neon quilt, not off enough to make it stand out, not alike enough to make it blend in. Maybe that is a good thing. I really don’t know.
What I can say is that I am looking forward to discussion on the subject.