Sexing It Up
Further to my recommendation of David Greenberg's excellent Slate two-parter (one, two), upon reading this section of the second installment I found myself wondering whether it has any applicability regarding the VDH piece that I took issue with earlier.
The British-based historian David Lowenthal (technically a "geographer") has written about the differences between history and what the British call "heritage": the commemorations of the past found in museums, folklore, pop culture, and the like. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, tour a battlefield, or enjoy presidential trivia, we're not trying to probe the problems of the past—to think hard about whether the Constitution betrayed or affirmed the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, or about the origins of the Civil War. We're looking to reaffirm our national or ethnic identity, to venerate our ancestors, to inspire wonder, or to instill patriotism or a sense of group solidarity. This is what people are looking to do when they read books by David McCullough.
Thus in some sense it is unfair, or at least beside the point, to attack heritage for not being history—like attacking Star Wars for not being 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although we need critics who will expose the perils of the historical blockbuster trend and show us more substantial ways to think about the past, we should also recognize the two modes have different functions, different aims. There ought to be a place in society for both heritage and history, provided that we retain a keen sense of the difference.
I've long felt, as I've already noted, that there are two VDHs; VDH the classicist and ancient military historian and... the other one. Is it that what I'm seeing is a split between history and heritage advocacy?