Sunday 19 October 2014

Heritage Preservationists and Democracy

A measure of the degree that artefact collectors across the sea are unconcerned about the effects of the no-questions-asked market for antiquities may be had from the text one of them has produced. Take a look at what John Hooker, 'Soft core terrorists and bottom-feeders' (Past Times and Present Tensions Thursday, 16 October 2014) writes. He considers it some kind of revelation that - as opposed to the narrow object-centric vie of the collector - those involved in the broader discussion of the damaging looting of archaeological sites as a source of collectable items are concerned with site preservation. He alleges that neither the preservationists "or their unthinking followers" (sic) are concerned with "the preservation of objects":
This means nothing to any of the[m] [...]  Always, it is the destruction of sites that is mostly criticized.
("Always/mostly"?) Yep, the collector has got it at last. The artefacts are important, but the sites they came from are more so. This is because they obviously provide far more information than the decontextualised objects alone. In the same way as those that admire toilet seats made of rare tropical hardwoods ("but just look at the pattern of those growth rings") would probably be puzzled by the fact that anyone would want to be concerned with the preservation of forests - the forests they came from through illegal and destructive logging. They'd no doubt argue analogously to the collectors, why can the conservationists not be happy the rare woods have been "saved' to be admired in the consumer's home?

Actually, I'd stand by the position that what is "unthinking" here is the person which puts the personal interests of a few in having trophy items to brag about (see Mr Hooker's own discussion of items in his own personal 'connoisseur' collection throughout his blog as a prime example of that) above attempts to effect better preservation of a vanishing and finite resource. Labelling those concerned about conservation as merely "unthinking" and easily led is simply insulting. It is those collectors who refuse to think through the consequences of their actions (and in particular  the no-questions-asked market which Mr Hooker is not averse to patronising) who are far more deserving of such a label.

But when it comes to labels, Mr Hooker goes further. In fact rather too far. Right at the bottom of his post, Hooker himself suggests that "we": "really should be doing much more to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels for political as well as environmental reasons", but then incongruously then has a go at those concerned about doing something about collection-driven exploitation of the historical environment. He does so using a very dubious name-calling approach (though one typical for the antiquity-collecting milieu):  
They are at it again. As soon as there is any armed-conflict, revolution, or terrorist activity anywhere in the world, the nationalist "cultural-property" terrorists and bottom-feeders, smelling flowers and hearing bird-song are all too eager to jump on the same band-wagon. "Illicit Trade Funds Terrorists" says the New York Times headline. The hard core terrorists kill and destroy property, while the soft core terrorists ride on their backs. They are working in unison. The real purpose of terrorism is to create dissent, hatred against certain groups or just general fear among the population. [...] This round revolves around ISIS whose iconoclasm seems somewhat at odds with the claims that they are profiting by removing artifacts from the danger zone into western collections where they will be preserved.
Can you imagine anything more moronic than collectors like these? First of all, let us note the slanted definition of the (already poorly-defined) concept of "terrorism" utilised by Mr Hooker to make the accusation. As a label the word "terrorism" is not very effective as an analytical tool. Hooker seems to apply it in the broad brush schematic manner of thinking prevalent in the North American continent. Without going into detail, I think anyway that unqualified and used alone, it is not an effective way to analyse what has been happening in Iraq and Syria.

That aside (for the moment maybe), I agree that there is some coarse (and US -sponsored) anti-ISIL propaganda going on, with selective reporting and alarmist highlighting of certain events at the expense of others (and I am among those questioning the degree they are involved in the looting which it is clear reached catastrophe scale before the group existed). That however does not for a moment make everyone (indeed, anyone) involved in awakening public awareness about heritage issues a "soft core terrorist". What tosh.

I presume Hooker means us to understand that those he labels as  "soft-core (nationalist "cultural-property" [his scare quotes]) terrorists and bottom-feeders" have as their purpose to "create dissent, hatred against certain groups or just general fear among the population". This definition falls flat when we consider that the tools of these alleged "terrorists' are words. Just words. Well, yes, words are used to create debate (and dissent from the fluffy bunny propaganda picture promoted by the supporters of collecting). Yes, let rhetoric and reasoned argument combat rhetoric and whatever arguments the collectors and artefact hunters apply.  But that is not "terrorism" Mr Hooker, it is the normal (but sometimes messy) public debate which underlies democracy. Don't complain about the everyday democratic process when it affects you and call it "terrorism". That just totally debases the term and renders it even more meaningless than it already is. I would say the purpose of the preservationists among us is to create concern (rather than "fear") among the population, and if the latter  come to "hate" no-questions-asking collectors and unreflexive and unconcerned artefact hunters as a result, well, that's their look-out.  But that is public opinion, not "terrorism". Neither is it "inciting hate" to point out that there are many cases and observations that may be made which suggest that many, perhaps most, collectors are far from the ideals which their own propaganda represents them as upholding and representing. It is not "inciting hate" to point out that the pro-collecting propaganda machine is presenting a totally false picture.

Collectors can organize themselves to fight those who raise concerns. They do so by forming groups (such as DIG, NCMD, ACCG, PNG, IAPN, ANA, ADCAEA) or they can carry out the fight as best they can as individuals (for example Tompa, Howland, Stout, Baines, Warre and all the rest of the anti-archaeological hate bloggers). The problem is that, instead of reasoned argument and presentation of a coherent and verifiable alternative view, most of these groups and individuals attempt to fight their corner using smear tactics and unverifiable claims cocooning a core of vehement denial of the existence of any issues at all worth discussion. I do not see why they do not get on with the job of producing the reasoned arguments based on case studies and observable facts which support their own positions. The demands of democratic decision making about the heritage require nothing else from them. Simply ignoring the issues and concerns and trying to discourage discussion by name calling is not going to make the problem go away.

Vignette: Trophy hardwood toilet seats or forests? Your choice.

UPDATE 20th Oct. 2014
It will be observed that true to form, John Hooker responds to this post merely by name calling and derision ("If Paul Barford did not exist we would have to invent him" - whatever that is supposed to mean). If Mr Hooker is afraid that what he calls "jargon" (a North American misuse of the term) then let him present his arguments in language which is as objective and neutral as he considers mine is loaded. "Nationalist "cultural-property" terrorists and bottom-feeders, smelling flowers and hearing bird-song are all too eager to jump on the same band-wagon" is self-evidently not that language.

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