Patrick Paglen discusses how privilege is rooted in our love for the legacies bequeathed to us from our ancestors.
Over the summer, I have been thinking about what it means to inherit something. It’s certainly a lot more than your parents or grandparents saying to you “I’m done with this, so you can have it” before handing you some trinket or property. Firstly, you do not need to inherit a physical thing of monetary value; you can inherit something intangible that provides social status, such as a vocation, job, or other responsibility; you can inherit a legacy or cultural tradition; and even those tangible things bequeathed to younger generations carry meaning beyond their price tag. The inheritance might have needed several generations worth of work to bear fruit and would take generations to maintain. Thus heritage provides not only stability for the future, but an awareness of belonging and being responsible for something beyond your immediate sense of geography and history. Heritage is as spiritual a practice as it is familial and economic. With this in mind, we understand the great pride we have in our legacies, heritage, and traditions.
But how do we react when confronted with disturbing aspects of our tradition? Consider this thought experiment:
Imagine that you inherit some wealth and some property from your father, who in turn inherited it from his father. You were born on this land and raised there. Your parents raised you with much love and made sure you had an upstanding education. In every aspect you saw in your parents and grandparents, they treated you fairly and justly, forgiving even your greatest errors of judgment as a child or young adult.
Using your inheritance money, you successfully invest in several projects and are able to modify your family property to suit your current needs. What has been provided to you by the love of your family over all three generations has become uniquely yours. You are proud of the legacy given to you and you have become a part of, and you are proud of your own unique achievements, and you have secured a stable foundation for your own children.
Then one day strangers come to your home, who claim that your property once belonged to them. They claim that their great grandparents were tortured and killed, and their grandparents driven away from here by force. They say that their ancestors had a contract with someone who then betrayed them, and took the property for themselves. They claim that this theft left them destitute, but that this property is still justly theirs. They provide overwhelming evidence that what they claim is true, and that it was your family that did them injustice. You are now confronted doubly: first with the contrast between evidence of your grandfather being a thief and bandit and your experience of his genuine love and kindness to you, and secondly that everything given to you was never justly yours. How do you react to this situation?
We have already witnessed some of our reactions over the summer. We can simply deny it as a history professor at Cal State Sacramento University did and, when his Native American student provided historical evidence to challenge his denial, used his position of power to shut her down. We can. We can also, when confronted with enforced attempts to right injustice perpetuated by our traditions, play victim and fight the reform as if it were an oppressor. George Takei just recently observed that both Kim Davis and George Wallace have taken this route, defying Supreme Court rulings and denying dignity to others (one refusing marriage licenses, the other refusing a child entry into school) for the traditions they’ve always known. We can also simply refuse to take action, either with forcible dismissal (with such refrains as “All Lives Matter!” as discussed in this Reddit post by GeekAesthete) or with a weak and inactive guilt. All these reactions lead to the implicit or explicit acceptance of and decision to continue a legacy that legitimizes treachery, murder, theft, and torture. This legitimization enables the most violent of us to murder the innocent while they pray, as what happened on June 17, which was then followed by a string of church burnings.
I believe all these poor reactions come from our natural love for our legacy, which are both part of us and greater than who we are in very immediate and tangible ways. To confront the evil in them would seem to betray those who gave us our heritage, who we are, where we belong, and therefore forsaking its rewards. So the act of challenging our heritage comes at great risk.
There is precedence, though, for the radical rejection of heritage: St Francis of Assisi famously returned everything his father gave him, including the clothes he wore at the time, publicly, in the town square, and stood there naked in front of the whole town, including the bishop, denying his familial legacy in favor of a heavenly one. Such an enthusiastic embrace of poverty is logically untenable for most of us, though; we are too entwined with our history that rejecting it could literally mean death for us and our family, and history itself can often complicate a reparations process.
So how can we be just, if we cannot reject our heritage? The first thing we must do, before any action, is remember that we are inheritors, and therefore owners, of our legacies, traditions, and property, not the other way around. What we inherit has been provided to us to do with as we see fit, and we can dictate the course of its future. If this means dissolving the family business, (making sure Native Americans have power to contest an objectionable oil pipeline), or moving Pancake Tuesdays to Thursdays, so be it. Once we acknowledge our responsibility to our heritage are that of masters, not servants, we can take boldly acknowledge the sins our legacies perpetuate and who is hurt by them. Once we understand our power over our inheritance, and know its troubling ways, we can change it to suit the needs of justice, and bring the tools our ancestors to the service of those they once oppressed.