Wednesday Word of the Week, April 27

27 Apr

This week’s word is: HERITAGE

something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor – Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Growing up in New England, I’ve been surrounded by a rich sense of heritage all my life. I have not truly taken the time to think about what that means for me or how it my differ for people who live in other parts of the country. Over the past week, I have spent a great number of hours with my Granddad, my mother’s father. I currently live with Granddad and Mom and we exist near one another every day; last week however, Mom was out of town and I made a point of asking Granddad questions and learning more about this man who has always been a part of my life.

Some day I may try to make sense of our conversations as a longer essay or oral history. What struck me and inspired this post, however, is how easy it is to make assumptions about one’s heritage and how easy it is to verify – or, perhaps more importantly, refute – those assumptions.

The 21st Century American Conservative movement presents itself as respectful of our national heritage. The very co-opting of the phrase “Tea Party” indicates a desire to connect with the perceived values of the Founding Fathers, whomever we might identify as that somewhat nebulous group. Simply assuming that what we are doing is what Benjamin Franklin might have done, however is a very poor method of governance and policy setting.

Moreover, the Tea Party tends to over-simplify and misrepresent certain aspects of the early days of our nation. For example, the Boston Tea Party was not about the evils of taxation; it was about unfair taxation imposed on people with no input or control. Our current fiscal situation may arise from voter apathy but it is not the result of a system over which we have no control. Conservatives also frequently point to the “traditional values” of the founders of our nation, conflating heritage with TRADITION

a very old custom, belief, or story; a specific practice of long standing – Macmillan Dictionary Online

When I hear the Tea Party speak, I have an uneasy sense that they hearken back to days that may not have even existed, and do so out of a sense of tradition. It is certainly not true, however, that a practice is valid simply because it is old or standardized. If this were so, women would be property, slavery would be permitted, education would be classist, and voting would be tied to properly. (Strange, this does sound like the Tea Party agenda, doesn’t it?)

Conservatives tend to practice a sort of selective tradition, such as selecting certain biblical passages to emphasize (especially around sexuality) and ignoring others (like the pesky food rules). Tea Party members will point to the use of the word “God” in documents from the founding of the country as evidence of the Christian intent of the country; they make no effort to understand either the religious diversity (and disagreement) of the time or the traditional use of that language, often without specific meaning.

Granddad is fairly conservative. He is an 86-year-old, fourth-generation Vermont farmer who has always lived in a small town and focused on local issues and traditions. When we were talking about his views of the world, however, I was impressed by his insight, humility, and sense of HISTORY

the whole of time before the present, and all things that happened in that time – Macmillan Dictionary Online

History is valuable; we can learn from it and benefit from the experiences of those who have lived through more of it. But it is behind us and we must look forward. Something Granddad said really struck me and inspired this post:

“I understand the ways things have always been done and I appreciate those ways. It wouldn’t do me a lick of good, though, just to keep doing things that way because my granddad did. Times change, and much of it is to the good. Keeping with old ways just because they’re old is foolishness. Worse than that, if you don’t learn from your forbearers, you tarnish your history with a sorry lack of respect.”


a feeling that something is important and deserves serious attention – Macmillan Dictionary Online

That’s what heritage, tradition, and history should boil down to. A sense of pride in what has gone well, a respect for things that work well and make sense, and a willingness to learn and grow from the mistakes of others. Blind adherence to the way things “always have been” is not a sense of heritage, it is

an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear – Macmillan Dictionary Online


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