In New York, people always ask me if I’m Italian. Sometimes, I get annoyed having to constantly deny being Italian. “Are you sure you’re not Italian?” they ask me all the time, is if I might not be telling the truth. Are you kidding me? I’d love to be Italian. I’m sensual. I like food. I like art. I appreciate beauty. Did you see that movie a few years ago, La Grande Bellezza? I would make such a wonderful Italian! I’d make a better Italian than most actual Italians! I used to be a trompe l’oeil muralist, for god’s sake! I never had the chance to learn fresco technique, but I always wanted to. There’s no market for it. That’s the problem. I have dreams of the murals I could paint, but it’s not like I can go get myself a country house or an unfinished Paladian villa the way I can go get myself some canvas.
With good reason, I believe, the vast majority of people I admire from history are dead white men, and many of them are dead white Italian men. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but the first time I went to Venice, as the water bus from the train station approached St. Mark’s Square, I began to choke up because I had never seen any place so beautiful. When I went to Florence, it was more like a pilgrimage than a vacation. To dismiss the accomplishments of someone like Brunelleschi simply because he was “white” is a level of ignorance I cannot even begin to grasp.
William Faulkner once said, “the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” He said it in a particular context. Still, there is something a bit cold-blooded about the notion that a work of art is worth more than a human life, and when quoted and taken out of context that is the way it is used. As fundamentalist Islam spreads, its followers have been destroying ancient works of art. At the same time, many people have been dying and suffering. Despite my feelings about art, I haven’t spoken out much about this destruction because it feels immoral to be more concerned about inanimate objects than about living, breathing human beings.
The first shock for me was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001. Although horrified, at the time, I was too ignorant of fundamentalist Islam to realize the full meaning of the action. It seemed like an isolated instance of lunacy. As time has progressed, it has become obvious that this cultural destruction is an integral part of fundamentalist Islam. Over the past few years, I had almost become inured to reports of destruction. Islamic shrines in Timbuktu. Statues of Buddha in the Swat Valley. The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. When I read about the destruction of Palmyra, I felt physically sick. Still, with people dying, I felt guilty for caring about old stones.
In general, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been far more respectful of the country’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage, although it has tried to destroy some things like dance. Still, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut when I read that the Italian government covered up nude statues for a visit by Iran’s president. Matteo Renzi doesn’t deserve to be Italian!
My betters at Vox think I’m silly to be concerned about this, and, yes, silly is the word they use. Giorgia Meloni, the head of the centre-Right political party Fratelli d’Italia, wrote, “The level of cultural subjection by Renzi and the Left has surpassed the limits of decency.” Forcing the subject into the right-left framework confuses far more than it reveals. Max Fischer at Vox illuminates only the narrowness of his perspective. I have dealt with this subject before, usually defending art and culture against the puritanical Christians on the religious right in the United States. Yet again, my most deeply held values are being betrayed by the left and I’m confronted with the difficult truth that my politics do not exist along the right-left axis.
To be fair, I should note that Iran did not request the covering of the statues and it has spoken out against the destruction of cultural artifacts in the Middle East. However, the incident did make me think about what is to especially pernicious about the destruction of culture. A few months ago, I came across a discussion of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarians, it said, merely want obedience, while totalitarians want “obedience and conversion.”
Totalitarians… are the people who have a plan, who think they see the future more clearly than you or who are convinced they grasp reality in a way that you do not. They don’t serve themselves… they serve History, or The People, or The Idea, or some other ideological totem that justifies their actions.
They want obedience, of course. But even more, they want their rule, and their belief system, to be accepted and self-sustaining. And the only way to achieve that is to create a new society of people who share those beliefs, even if it means bludgeoning every last citizen into enlightenment. That’s what makes totalitarians different and more dangerous: they are “totalistic” in the sense that they demand a complete reorientation of the individual to the State and its ideological ends. Every person who harbors a secret objection, or even so much as a doubt, is a danger to the future of the whole project, and so the regime compels its subjects not only to obey but to believe.
This was written by a conservative in the U.S., which explains the emphasis of the state, but the same can be said of other organizations, including religion. Describing George Orwell’s novel 1984, he says:
If torturing the daylights out of people until they denounce even their loved ones is what it takes, so be it. That’s why the ending of the novel is so terrifying: after the two rebellious lovers of the story are broken and made to turn on each other, the wrecks left by the State are left to sit before the Leader’s face on a screen with only one emotion still alive in the husks of their bodies: they finally, truly love Big Brother.
In a box adjacent to an article on the destruction of Palmyra which appeared in the New York Times, it said, “…the Islamic State destroyed many archaeological sites, looting them for profit and damaging some for propaganda.” That is a naive view of the purpose of the destruction. The aim is to detach people from their history, from their ancestors, from their culture, even from their families, as we saw when an ISIS member murdered his mother, to detach individuals from the normal bonds of human existence.