Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Debunking the ACCP Debunking of a Side-Issue

Tinfoil hat stuff from US antiquities trade
Kate FitzGibbon has written a text published on the American 'Committee for Cultural Policy' website (December 6, 2015). It is called 'debunking the ISIS antiquities funding myth' which is revealing. Obviously she stands on the position that the milieu which she represents needs no more "unnecessary bureaucracy" which would restrain the flow of certain types of material onto the currently no-questions-asked market. It is to this single point that her argument is addressed.

Predictably, she starts off with Ben Taub’s New Yorker article, which muddles the Abu Sayyaf stash with the entire stocks of ISIL's the Diwan al-Rikaz and then builds its conclusions on that. Her failure to pick that point up leads her to conclude that the young journalist's efforts "blows apart the State Department, Department of Justice, and Antiquities Coalition claims that ISIS is raking in tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of antiquities".

The problem is that like most of the supporters of the no-questions-asked market, Ms Fitz Gibbon  allows herself to be deflected into a discussion of "the ludicrously exaggerated numbers claimed by [US] federal agencies".  She quotes other commentators (Derek Fincham and Neil Brodie ) whose remarks support her thesis [I've corrected her broken link to the former]. But this is the typical antiquities-market-apologists' Straw Man tactic. They go after some easily attacked (or difficult to prove) detail and then say that it represents the whole crux of the argument. But it is not. The fundamental point is whether sites are being looted in a certain territory (yes), whether those artefacts are being monetised by sale to dealers and collectors (I'd say that is what is happening) and then whether we have a moral obligation to do what we can to stop that without risking lives (again I say yes, who disagrees?).

Ms Fitz Gibbon drops into a Tompa-like tinfoil helmet conspiracy theory. It's apparently a black-and-white dichotomy for her. Ignoring all the other published analyses, ISIL is to her mind financed by either oil or antiquities. The "phony story" (unproven allegation already being quoted as fact) of an ISIL- benefiting antiquities trade is, she says, promoted because "US officials concerned about diplomatic and military relationships in the region" cannot even mention that "much ISIS funding is coming from illegal oil that ISIS sells from captured infrastructure". The regime lies to its citizens and victimising dealers serves to "distract attention from ISIS’ illegal oil". Wow, did you know that? Illegal oil, eh? Ah, so that must be why ISIL expanded their territories into all those oilfields? Gosh, having Ms Fitz Gibbon explain it to us makes it all so clear now.... The problem for her conspiracy-thesis is that the US administration has been talking all along about multiple funding sources for militant groups including oil and last month they bombed a whole load of oil trucks in Syria and did not keep it a secret. Maybe now she's uncovered the secret, Ms Fitz Gibbon will go for the five million dollar reward to help stop... what? (Check it out).

But the conspiracy goes deeper and there could not be a text on antiquities collecting written by people on that side of the fence without playing the victim:
"[it] is expedient for anti-art trade activists to associate art dealers and collectors - and even museums - with the horrors of ISIS’ terrorist activities".
Cap fits lady, wear it. If your carefree clients ("even museums") buy stuff from those who finance them, they can't escape being seen as sharing the responsibility. Surely it is up to them to have the proper documentation of what they buy to show their hands are clean. How many have?

We see once again the sleight-of-hand argument, she deliberately applies the label "anti-art-trade activism" to calling for best practice (or for goodness sake since it can't get much worse even "better" practice). What? When has a Christmas campaign to stop DUI offences (drink-driving in plain English) been seen as any kind of an "anti-motorist activism"? Surely cleaning up the antiquities market is as much benefit to collectors in general as getting selfish drunken idiots off the roads is to other road users? Her basic ("debunking") argument seems to be that if the sums involved are not as big as some people have claimed, it's actually not really worth fretting about. Is that what she is saying? What have Ms Fitz Gibbon and her Committee got against cleaning up the antiquities market?

She obviously does not like the idea of the US setting up some kind of permanent mechanism for regulating antiquities coming from present and future conflict areas. H.R. 1493/S.1887 (the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act) is a symptom of the US - which has not even a Ministry of Culture - at last being on the way to developing something that may be called a cultural property policy. Ms Fitz Gibbon (see the name of her Committee) sees it as an expression of what she calls "a Big Lie" by "archaeological hardliners" intent on imposing "a new and unnecessary bureaucracy". Unnecessary? The US currently has problems exercising control over certain Native American artefacts when they appear in foreign auction houses. It seems pretty obvious to us all that the country needs the kind of proper regulation in line with that of other countries and international norms concerning the movement of such items across US borders (both ways). Yes Ms Fitz Gibbon, a proper cultural policy in the US could indeed if necessary:
"place blanket import restrictions on art (sic) from any country where there was civil unrest without input from all stakeholders".
Why actually would some US "stakeholders" consider it desirable and maybe even in some way necessary to make their profits  from conflict - and potentially blood - antiquities? (For it is dealers and rich collectors  you are worried about isn't it? Go on, admit it.)

In any case, observation over a decade or more of the "input" of the kind of stakeholders represented by dealers' interest groups like the ACCG, ADCAEA, ACCP and all the rest shows clearly that they solely consist of attempts to deny there is a problem (like here), deflect any discussion onto side issues (of which this 'debunking' is also a prime example) and generally disrupt (like the ACCG cut-and-paste fax-bombing campaigns). Then we have the conspiracy theories, playing the victim and all the rest of the immature antics (see above).  All of this is to prosecute a policy of "leave the antiquities trade /collecting alone" and nothing else. In the light of the urgent threats we face today, that is the kind of cognitively- hollow "input" the heritage debate well can do without. 

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