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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Our Opinion

Cosmopolitan Theft

Property is theft, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declared in 1840. And although Karl Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy seven years later (a year before The Communist Manifesto) to refute the French socialist’s thinking on most other matters, he not only immediately accepted but never subsequently contested Proudhon’s singular definition of ownership. Which is why the rest is ideological history.

And which is why the left—especially its intellectual/academic contingent—has always had a problem with the notion of property (although, predictably enough, not with the reality of acquiring, and holding on to it, personally). On February 9, an article appeared in The New York Review of Books with the title, “Whose Culture Is It?” It was actually a revised version of a chapter from a new book by the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy (there is more than a little irony in that particular appointment) at Princeton University, Kwame Anthony Appiah, entitled Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which is itself part of a new series published by W. W. Norton called “Issues of Our Time,” edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities (the irony runs thicker and thicker), chair of African and African American Studies, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, at Harvard University. We have gone to such lengths to specify the genealogy of this essay in order to make clear that its author is not some marginal, or eccentric, theorist of madcap schemes, but an important academic operating within an even more significant intellectual and social context. Indeed, British-born, African-raised, American-settled Appiah is, without argument, one of the most notable “public intellectuals” in the West today and has been described, quite seriously, as “our postmodern Socrates.”

In “Whose Culture Is It?” (which in his book, interestingly enough, has the more emphatic, and combative, title of “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?”) Prof. Appiah discusses the trafficking of cultural treasures and the issue of “cultural patrimony.” Recent actions by several governments, he points out, have strongly challenged the acquisition policies, and even the origins of numerous collections, of many important museums. “Our great museums,” he comments, “once seen as redoubts of cultural appreciation, are now suspected strongrooms of plunder and pillage.” According to Prof. Appiah, however, the continual international legal challenges to many museums in the United States and Europe in regard to the origins of a plethora of archeological artifacts currently in their collections, and the intensity of recent demands for repatriation, are highly problematic, since, he argues, these objects do not “belong” to a particular group or nation, but are, rather, of “value to all human beings” and, consequently, the cultural patrimony of all humanity.

Prof. Appiah’s brazen reasoning is the most recent iteration of the intellectual left’s moral bankruptcy. So much for our postmodern Socrates. The supercilious dismissal of nationality when it comes to cultural heritage, and the support of a “cosmopolitan” perspective in dealing with questions of ownership, is nothing new, however. Stanford law professor John Henry Merryman articulated this concept years ago, and has been the leading proponent of this approach to issues of cultural patrimony for a long time—although, not being a postmodernist, he calls his position “internationalist,” as opposed to “cosmopolitan.” As the legal challenges to trafficking in stolen artifacts takes center-stage, and as many countries’ insistence on repatriation intensify, the contention that culture belongs to “all humanity”—in opposition to the “cultural nationalists,” to use Prof. Merryman’s preposterous (and insulting and, worst of all, pathetically inaccurate) term—is increasingly becoming the slogan of the globalized (read: “market-friendly”) professoriat. Here, again, Mr. Appiah:

It may be a fine gesture to return things to the descendants of their makers—or to offer it to them for sale [!]—but it certainly isn’t a duty. You might also show your respect for the culture it came from by holding on to it because you value it yourself. Furthermore, because cultural property has a value for all of us, we should make sure that those to whom it is returned are in a position to act as responsible trustees.

Cecil Rhodes (or Philippe de Montebello) could not have put it better. It’s no accident that the white man’s burden rears its ugly colonial head in that last sentence; what is genuinely astounding is that Prof. Appiah is, of course, not only African himself but the son of the eminent Ghanaian intellectual and diplomat, Joe Appiah. The intercourse of postmodernism and old-fashioned colonialism breeds strange offspring, indeed.

Leave it to postmodernism and/or “cosmopolitan/internationalism” to rip the entire issue out of its context. Prof. Appiah argues that the “cosmopolitan” perspective endows cultural artifacts with an “esthetic significance” that effectively (and, legally speaking, conveniently) strips any sense of “property” from them. If cultural artifacts are, however, removed (arbitrarily) from their context as someone’s specific property—and thus literally deracinated—it is easy to argue that they belong to all “humanity.” The problem is, it reminds us of the old saw about leftists: they love humanity, it’s just people they can’t stand.

To frame the question in another way, how does one precisely, anthropologically—i.e., within an explicit, detailed, cultural ambience and structure—define “humanity” if not as the concrete, material expression of even more concrete and material human beings? What is amazing about the postmodernist left is that it’s thrown out the Darwinian baby along with the Marxian bathwater. There is no process—or, more exactly, infinite processes by infinite groups of men and women—of cultural articulation left here. There is only a vague, airy-fairy “humanity”—one for all and all for one—producing its “cosmopolitan” culture divorced from any and all historical, ecological, social, and generally anthropological reality. And we wonder why the antiquities dealers in London, New York, and Paris are even more shameless now than they were a century ago about their contemptible trade. With intellectual cover like this, they now even have the audacity to say that they’re “protecting” their stolen loot from its original, “irresponsible” owners.

Fortunately, most “ordinary” people, far from the increasingly bizarre moral universe of Western universities, know that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s not an aardvark. Cultural artifacts are now, and have always been, nothing more than property. As such, they are governed by property laws and, therefore, belong to their place of origin. They have actually been treated as property for a very long time—above all by the very collectors and institutions (galleries, auction houses, and, especially, museums) that now claim for them precisely that “cosmopolitan” quality that disguises their stolen provenance. In truth, the very market in cultural artifacts, and the resulting trafficking, is inescapably based upon the definition of the objects as nothing more or less than property. It is only now, when the legal challenges present an imminent threat to this vast, illicit system of trafficking and cultural violence, that their removal from property law (and relations) has become the cri de coeur of the “cosmopolitans.”

(Is it coincidental, by the way, that this transparently self-serving notion of the “patrimony of humankind” has also entered the debate in another, seemingly unrelated, area: that of natural resources—oil and natural gas, specifically—and commodities? As commodity-rich countries seek to protect their reserves and to assume, or attempt to assume, greater control of their national wealth, and as the notion of nationalization returns to the global debate after so many years of suppression, the more a newly discovered “internationalist” perspective—that is, the claim that resources constitute the ecological heritage of all mankind—drowns out all other arguments.) has written about these issues before (see “Trouble in River City,” December 18, 2002, and “Safety Last,” December 27, 2005). We have also said that we do not support emptying the “great” (how did they get that way?) museums of the West, although we must also confess that, the more we think about it, the more such an eventuality strikes us as cultural—genuinely multicultural, in fact—promise rather than threat. The time has long passed, however, for worrying about a possible “run” on the collections of the West’s major museums. The issue now is stark: combating criminal activities and the perpetrators—many of them archeologists, academics, museum directors, university administrators, and, above all, fabulously wealthy collectors—who, following Balzac’s dictum, built up their great collections through greater or smaller crimes.

Profs. Appiah and Gates are both black. Prof. Appiah, in fact, as we mentioned earlier, was born in London of an extraordinary African father (and an equally extraordinary European mother). One would think that they would be the first to contest the right of European and North American colonialists and imperialists to loot and plunder the rest of the world, and especially the civilizations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. (We are also sorely tempted to ask Prof. Gates what he thinks W. E. B. Du Bois’s response would have been to the pillaging of African culture by white institutions.) Last month, The New York Times published an incredible story by its correspondent, Marc Lacey, datelined Kakwakwani, Kenya. We quote a small segment from it below:

Out behind Kache Kalume Mwakiru’s homestead, not far from a mango tree, is a patch of dirt that figures into an international struggle over pilfered cultural artifacts.
“This is where they were,” said Ms. Mwakiru, 86, pointing out where her husband erected two traditional wooden statues, known as vigango by the local Mijikenda people, around 1983. About two years after the statues went up to honor her husband’s deceased brothers, someone took them away in the night. Eventually they made their way to two American museums.
Ill fortune has befallen the family ever since, Ms. Mwakiru said. She cites her husband’s death two years after the theft, the failure of the family’s crops and assorted illnesses she and others have suffered. Such are the powers associated with vigango, which are put up to appease the spirits but have also become popular among Western collectors of African art…. (“The Case of the Stolen Statues: Solving a Kenyan Mystery,” April 16, 2006)

According to the Times, American anthropologist Monica L. Udvardy has played a critical role in tracking down the stolen vigango of the Mijikenda people. She found that 294 of them had ended up at 19 American museums. She also located Mr. Mwakiru’s missing statues, at the Illinois State Museum and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, which had the largest collection, a total of 99 vigango. The Illinois State Museum agreed to return Mr. Mwakiru’s property, but, the Times reported, the Hampton University Museum “is still studying the matter.” Its curator was quoted as saying that, “We’re looking into it.”

Undoubtedly. What is clear here from this incredible tale of the systematic violation of a people’s culture and even of their spiritual peace is that the market in cultural artifacts is, in fact, just like the oil market or, more relevantly in this case, the slave market or any other market that has despoiled the societies of men and women since the dawn of time. The market in cultural artifacts—and the museum curators and academics who are not only increasingly enmeshed in it, but without whom it could no longer function—respect nothing. Neither the dead nor the living. Neither societal custom nor religious belief. Neither human relationships nor social bonds. It is a market that is more and more populated by morally crippled human beings whose only purpose is self-aggrandizement. They are, quite literally, the cultural equivalent of slavetraders.

Finally, we end as we began: with Proudhon. The great anarchist’s belief that property is theft has been notoriously misrepresented through the centuries. Proudhon made a distinction between property and what he called “possession,” which is every human being’s right. The property to which he was opposed was that which was used to oppress others, and to alienate the product of their labor—like the property of Yale University, say, being used to steal the property (the artifacts of Machu Picchu) of indigenous Peruvian peasants. Every “laborer retains a natural right of property in the thing which he has produced,” Proudhon wrote. Furthermore, property is “a triumph of Liberty” that “shows no reverence for princes, rebels against society and is, in short, anarchist.” We couldn’t agree more. Which is why we continue to defend everyone’s “natural right” everywhere to the cultural property they have produced.

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