Friday, May 21, 2010

United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad: Eastern Europe Only Need Apply

In 1985 the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad was established "[b]ecause the fabric of a society is strengthened by visible reminders of the historical roots of the society," and that "it is in the national interest of the United States to encourage the preservation and protection of the cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings associated with the foreign heritage of United States citizens."  The essence of the program therefore was to preserve cultural landmarks which capture the spirit, identity, and meaning of the heritages of current Americans.  Unlike other "Greater [Insert Country Name]" movements, the commission did not seek to expand the sphere of Americanism but instead preserve the background of various groups that joined the melting pot of American society.

However, the commission does not seek to preserve the heritage of most Americans or even a noticeable minority of Americans.  Both its establishment act and actions have limited the commission to caring about the heritage of a small minority of Americans.  First, the mission statement limits the commission's interest to sites "located abroad which are associated with the foreign heritage of United States citizens from eastern and central Europe."  Using the not quite solid numbers of heritage from the United States Census, this limits the commission's interest to only the heritage of twenty-two percent of Americans.  Second, the commission has been actively focusing on Jewish sites compared to other sites or activities.  Out of twenty-two programs, listed on the commission's website, which reflect major efforts by the commission, twenty of them are Jewish compared to two percent of the United States' population.  One program deals Greek Catholic wooden churches (Greek Catholics probably number less than one-tenth of one percent in the United States) while the other program is a scholarship program for Bulgarians to write about American heritage in Eastern and Central Europe. 

Granted, the commission is limited in what it can do besides create lists of sites it wants preserved and lobby both the American State Department and foreign governments to protect said sites; however, it would be much better if the commission could expand its focus.  I realize that other places of major American heritage like Ireland or the United Kingdom already have the resources to preserve heritage sites but what about Vietnamese, Indian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or African heritage sites that are threatened either from neglect due to lack of resources?  Or what about American heritage sites belonging to minorities in oppressive ethno-majority countries like China, India, or almost all Middle Eastern countries?

The commission has almost no budget and an incredibly small bureaucratic footprint.  An expansion of the program's scope would only increase notice and the effect of the program on other areas where Americans claim overseas heritage at little cost.  One great thing Americans pride ourselves on is an acceptance of people from all over the world and integration of them and their heritage into America's heritage ("everyone is Irish on Saint Patrick's Day" and Oktoberfest is celebrated in areas that are not ethnic German).  As such, efforts to preserve America's heritage should not be limited to only a part of one continent.  The current effort to preserve overseas heritage simply does not reflect America and Americans' identity and values.

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