The Politics of Place

While I was still in undergrad and spending a summer in Connecticut, I caught wind of some proposed legislation that would divert funds from cultural resources. I believe the intent was to push that money toward defense or security (this would have been the summer of 2002). I can’t quite recall, at this point. But for all that I don’t remember about the impetus, the letter that I wrote to the sponsoring representative sticks with me. Not because it was the first time I engaged democracy (it wasn’t) but because it was the first time I’d been forced to consider that architectural history and historic preservation were inherently political.

I asserted, at the time, that diverting funds from cultural resources in the name of patriotism was inherently flawed: what IS your country beyond the people and sentiments that separate it from any other country? It’s a void. A potential space. An empty canvas that could take on any of a million+ forms of expression.Without space and history, there is no there there. What we celebrate when we celebrate patriotism always comes back to ideals. Ideals belong to people. People shape spaces and create documents and it is those spaces and documents that teach us about our history and give us something to be patriotic about. Historians and others who curate, protect, and interpret those leavings are gatekeepers of patriotism.

This is not a foreign concept to conquering parties, or rising religious majorities. It’s the reason the Basillica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva stands on the site of three prior pagan temples, including one dedicated to Isis, and why, just a stone’s throw away, the Pantheon was converted from Roman temple to Christian Church; it’s why Mohammed appropriated and repurposed a pagan shrine in Mecca, making the Kaaba a revered site of pilgrimage; it’s why the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan; and it’s why ISIL/Daesh has committed to the destruction of Palmyra, to cite just a few examples.

Places have memory, and memory provides a tether to the past and to a shared heritage. That tether, in turn, lends power to those connected by it. Destroying, appropriating, and repurposing sites of cultural significance is a direct action against what may very well be the only thing linking otherwise disparate people. If you disconnect people, or make them feel dissociated from both one another and their shared past, it becomes much easier to conquer them for the simple reason that “them” becomes less tangibly defined. Symbolically, appropriation and rededication assert a new dominant paradigm in a very direct and visible way: “What was here is gone or changed; the hegemony associated with what is gone is replaced. We deny you physical remembrance.”

Places also, obviously, politicize their people. We’re seeing that very clearly in Trump’s selectively applied Executive Order banning immigrants (and, so far, even lawfully vetted residents) by virtue of their place of origin. Somalia-born Mo Farrah is now questionably legal in his home state of Oregon. Why? Because of a place he left when he was 8.

Whether geopolitical or cultural, Place is political. Therefore, places are political.

When we discuss banning people because of place, and the dominant religions associated therewith, we are engaging in selective politicization. We prioritize the “otherness” conferred by the place over the shared humanity of Place. We choose to see only (a flawed and insulting interpretation of) Islam, instead of the incredible cultural achievements that Islam has given to the world. Sana’a. Aleppo. Bosra. Samarra. To say nothing of the cultural achievements that predate Islam in the places of Islam. Instead of looking at these monuments to humanity and ascribing that humanity to the people–people who are descended from those that inhabited these places for thousands of years–we see only a conveniently-created and superimposed ideology.

This upsets me as a human and a historian.

As a human, I recognize the humanitarian crisis that this presents. As a historian, it rankles because of its selective inaccuracy. But I can do my small part to refute that incomplete vision by presenting information on the cultural legacies of the middle east. And it is toward that end that I will dedicate February March to the architectural and urban marvels of the Places of Islam.

I will make it as difficult as I can, in whatever meager way I can, for people to exclude the shared humanity of Place.

One Comment on “The Politics of Place

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