Monday, 9 March 2015

We're all as bad as ISIS, only more elitist, apparently

ISIS’s destruction of antiquities at the Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud has generated a lot of discussion and disgust, all of it well deserved. But much of what has been said fails to adequately contextualize these attacks in two ways. First, in the history of the modern colonial museum. Second, in much longer history of local attitudes toward the distant past — a history which is not reducible to one set of beliefs or practices called "iconoclasm," much less reducible to one set of textual precepts as some commentators have suggested. Because of this, the discussion has been bogged down in facile denunciations of ISIS barbarism that have their roots in ugly colonial binaries...

...It is fair to say that most elites in the West (and elsewhere) tend to think of historical artifacts in terms of the sacred.
Writes Elliott Colla (associate professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University).

Sorry I missed the context there, prof. There was I, thinking that we could all get behind the idea that smashing up irreplaceable archaeological sites from the cradle of civilisation for no explicable reason other than sheer intolerant bigotry and spite was a bad thing. I see now that I was a victim of culturally insensitive elitist idolatry and general wrongthought. We really shouldn't indulge in 'facile denuncialtions' of one group of iconoclasts when everybody's doing it:
Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS’s ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren’t we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn’t we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies? Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some? 
Sarcasm aside, I suppose the prof deserves a tiny bit of credit for acknowledging that the disgust is 'well deserved.' But this attempt to 'adequately contextualise' the destruction is just bizarre.

Firstly, the "elitism" idea. To read Prof Colla, you'd think that nobody cares about this stuff, except for an out-of-touch bunch of pointy-heads and the sort of people whose only contact with the underprivileged is occasionally stepping over the homeless on their way to the opera. It's apparently irrelevant to ordinary people who 'fail to appreciate' the value of 'exclusive and exclusionary' elite pursuits like culture and history. Perhaps Professor Colla's next essay will explain why his own speciality, the academic study of Arabic and Islamic culture and history, is somehow less 'elitist and exclusionary' than the study of other cultures and histories.

Isn't it just a tiny bit patronising to assume that the only people who might have any interest in history and culture are an elite? Or that cultural and historical awareness is necessarily the hallmark of an elite sensibility - there wasn't, after all, much evidence of either from that impeccably-privileged member of the elite, George W Bush, back when he was mouthing off about 'This crusade, this war on terrorism'?

Colla, remember, has just dismissed preserving the cultural heritage of billions of ordinary people across the planet who can do such basic things as reading and writing, or using written numbers, or the wheel, or a sixty-second minute and a sixty-minute hour as an elite concern, built on 'anti-democratic methods of coercion to build official state cultures based on object veneration.'

For a man who's mighty quick to call others 'facile', the simple-minded idea of  archaeology as mere 'object veneration', just another form of idolatry, is a bit, well, facile. Sometimes there's veneration, but there are plenty of other reasons - such as actually understanding what happened in the past. After the Second World War, the victorious Allies chose to preserve Auschwitz, not as an object of veneration but as an exhibit from the crime scene of a crime against humanity.

Sure, there's often way too much emphasis on elite vanity projects like Versailles, but it seems arrogant and simplistic to dismiss the whole discipline of preserving and understanding the past on this basis. What about the history of engineering (from Roman aqueducts to the Eiffel Tower)? Social history, from the Viking streets of York, through the plague pits of the Middle Ages to the Colliery village at Beamish? What of the communities of artisans who worked on Europe's cathedral projects? Evidence that challenges our assumptions about gender roles and uncovers histories that elites have tried, sometimes literally, to bury in obscurity?

Archaeology and preservation may sometimes have a whiff of veneration about it, but it's a cretinous over-simplification to dismiss the whole multi-faceted enterprise as a mere reiteration of the millennia-old pre-scientific habit of superstitious object worship (which is, from a secular perspective, no more superstitious than its opposite, reviling objects as vectors of spiritual contamination).

Far from being a mere re-run of timeless graven image worship, the scientific study of the past is part of a specifically modern, empirical mind-set, different in kind from idolatry. In the past, all cultures, including our own, treated the monuments of the past in a cavalier fashion, re-using the stone from stone circles and ancient towns as building material, without a thought for preservation. It's only in comparatively recent times that we've 'venerated' - a better word would be 'valued' the old and superseded and its context for what it can teach us about the past.

As for this whole thing about the Americans and anti-Saddam Iraqis pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein and other regime monuments in the wake of the Iraq war, this is a jaw-droppingly idiotic comparison. Whatever you think of the US-led invasion,* it's a huge stretch to equate smashing up statues of a newly-toppled dictator with the wanton destruction of historical artifacts dating back thousands of years. Saddam Hussein's crimes were fresh and raw when his statues were being pulled down, so isn't hard to understand the desire to smash everything he stood for.

Ashurnasirpal II was probably a complete bastard, too, but that was the best part of three thousand years ago, so smashing his stuff up was hardly the act of reasonable people, provoked beyond endurance, in the heat of the moment.

By omission, American forces have probably been responsible for some of the destruction of Iraq's (and humanity's) heritage, but a blundering accident isn't the same as a deliberate act of targeted vandalism.

And finally, about those 'facile denunciations of ISIS barbarism that have their roots in ugly colonial binaries.' How, exactly, does the deplorable context of colonial powers looting antiquities and making racist assumptions about other cultures' level of civilisation make the denunciation of current vandalism 'facile'? If somebody robbed your house last week, does that provide a context that makes it more understandable for somebody else to vandalise it this week?

These are Iraqi antiquities, in Iraq. The group that's doing the smashing consider themselves to be members of a spiritual elite with zero tolerance or respect for the varied indigenous cultures and history of the region they are trying to rule and an estimated two thirds of them come from abroad.

There are certainly some 'ugly colonial binaries' going on here, but they're between the colonists trying to impose a mindless, ahistorical religious empire on a subject population and the despised "kuffirs" whose history they're trying to obliterate.

*I happen to think that the outcome (a country divided fragmented between a probably-even-worse-than-Saddam Islamic State, Iranian Revolutionary Guard-backed militias and a de facto Kurdish state) is not what the US intervention was hoping to achieve and constitutes pretty good evidence that the invasion failed even in its own terms. Other views are available.