There is small good news around, but one hint of it came recently, with word that many of the artefacts smashed by the IS in Mosul were in fact replicas, of pieces being held elsewhere. That doesn’t make up for the destruction of the city of Nimrud (if that has occurred), or more to come, but it may somewhat take the edge off what one can only feel as a haunting experience. Because admit it, you are haunted by the destruction of these ancient sites and cities. Far more so than you are by the IS’s killings of religious minorities, gay men, ‘spies’ etc. You hate yourself for it perhaps, but there it is. Cities that survived four thousand years, centres for both the Indo-European and Semitic mega-cultures, the world that surrounds all of us, gone in an afternoon. This new wave of destruction has all sorts of reasons, and all sorts of possible conclusions, few of them good. But it is also being taken as another unique example of the IS’s barbarity. Distinctive of method it may be, but the issues of culture and destruction are far more complex than are apparent.
To the end of exploring that, take as an example a recent article by Chris Berg on The Drum, where he uses the broader term of totalitarianism to describe the IS, and identifying them with Nazism and Stalinism. Why? Because in attacking antiquities that are the common heritage of humanity (actually of the Indo-European and Semitic branches, but let that pass), the IS are attacking ‘ideas’, and especially the idea — or meta-idea — of an open-society. The piece is vastly better than Hartcher’s, as you’d bloody hope, but it takes part in the same circularity, identifying all destruction of the past as the preserve of such totalitarian governments. They are marked off from others by their determination to obliterate the past, and any alternative to their ideas.
One could add the Chinese cultural revolution to the list. But Berg doesn’t. Why? Well, it may be that this would remind us of something inconvenient: as much as the Red Guards destroyed artefacts and ancient buildings (before the totalitarian Zhou En-Lai introduced heritage protection), the ruthless destruction of China’s ancient cities has been much faster under the state capitalism that succeeded it, and in which the state has been no more than facilitator of capital. Same in Russia. Stalin and successors pulled down a few churches and cathedrals, but they kept and restored a few too, and much more besides. It’s under Putin that pre-twentieth century Moscow has been eviscerated, by corporations eager to build bland glass towers as close to the Kremlin as possible. Want more? How about the US? In Boston, many of the key sites of the beginning of the American Revolution vanished when a third of the old city centre was torn out for expressways, convention centres and soulless hotels — a process repeated across many of the great nineteenth century cities of the US.
What destroyed these common heritages? Capital using the power of law and the state to carve up something belonging to everyone, the established city of generations, with memory and history, and turn it into a series of abstract vacant plots. That is capital in its totalitarian mode, described so eloquently by Berg as something which annihilates difference to impose a single vision of how life should be. In Iraq that logic was extended from US culture to the occupation, with the National Museum of Iraq simply disdained as of no interest, and thus allowed to be stripped (not as badly as we had feared, but badly enough) in the chaos of war. US neoconservative culture simply couldn’t ‘see’ the museum, because its understanding of the meaning of the past (as different to us, rather than simply revealing what we hold in common) was reduced to zero by its own assumptions. Indeed, the only places in the West where destruction has been resisted has been where capitalism has been resisted — such as Rome, and Paris, where business was forced (and willing) to build its skyscrapers at a new city outside, called La Defense. In Sydney, it was the Communist BLF and Trotskyist groups that saved the city, where the shadowy corps that Berg produces ideology for via the IPA would have planed the place flat.
Why is capitalism so totalitarian with regard to the complex material web of other peoples’ lives? The answer of course is that destruction is at its root — and at the root of the classical liberal beliefs that Berg espouses in his simple division between liberal moderns and totalitarians. You’d have to be a poor classical liberal indeed to not know that your movement was born of analytic philosophy, which was born of English protestantism. And English protestanism was born of that ISIS figure avante la letter, Henry VIII — enthusiastic beheader, who put monasteries and the whole system of medieval learning to destruction, ploughed it under in many cases.
From Henry VIII came more open circulation of books and ideas based on physical destruction of the church’s power — and from such circulation came puritanism, the idea of the individual and the primacy of empirical evidence Part and parcel of all of that was destruction — largely of the Catholic heritage of England, which is why its churches are so bare, unlike their icon-stuffed counterparts. So too was the American revolution — and its crucial demand on the English that it should be allowed to advance westward and destroy Native American societies so that the ground could be planed flat and farms put in.
The echoes of that are everywhere, and they show the shared roots of a fundamentalist movement like the IS, and fundamentalist missions of evangelical Christianity and evangelical liberalism, the greatest being the invasion of Iraq. That sort of lethal destructiveness does not see itself because it celebrates the pluralism, within a narrow range, that it sometimes brings. But that is always preceded by a series of events that don’t look so different to what the IS is doing.
That’s the strange and disturbing thing about the ruthless acts of the IS. If a group were merely destroying cities without killing people, the public judgement would be that they were arseholes, but not radically evil in the way we think of them now. Yet deeper down, the horror of heritage destruction might still strike us as nihilistic in a way that is of a piece with executions. Indeed here, I’m harder line than Berg, who argues that the destruction of ancient sites like Nimrud doesn’t matter as much as the killing of people — which is humane, but is also an example of liberalism’s fatal inability to understand that meaning comes from shared life, extending into the past, rather than being contracted by present individuals as a ‘free’ act. Ultimately such a conception always ends in a nihilism — and thus the indifference to the destruction of a museum (founded by Gertrude Bell, the Western ‘creator’ of Iraq) that it would have been easy to protect. Indeed, I think such artefacts matter as much or more as people (up to a point), callous as that sounds, because without our heritage and a commitment to it, there is no ground to life, to meaning. The mega-destructiveness of the IS with regard to the central heritage of the Indo-European and Semitic cultures which populate two thirds of the world does give a greater cause for lethal force should a way be found to do so — dropping gas for example, in these largely unpopulated areas (in that respect I also disagree with m’colleague Jeff Sparrow, in his piece whose excellence is only mitigated by its descent into quaker-pacifist babble in the conclusion). Should other sites be threatened in the wave of ISIS and related movements in the future — the Pyramids for example — we will face some very ugly choices.
Who knows? Maybe when the sandstorms of war clear, we may find that much of this was propaganda. But that seems unlikely. And we might have to think very hard about what we owe to all humanity in the protection of a very, very limited amount of irreplaceable material. And that involves asking not only what we would be willing to do, but also willing to have done to us. Asking what should the world do about the destruction of the cities of the plain is also to ask what should be done about our wanton endangerment of the Great Barrier Reef? To what sort of acts are we ethically called in such cases — in ways that make clear that the pliant liberalism of legality’ is an excuse not a justification?