13 November 2011

When the gloves come off, does this mean WAR?

As we say in the United States, ‘them’s fightin’ words’! True, they are. Perhaps, they deliver more bang than bite. But they emerge from the deepest recesses of my fractured soul, enraged at the inability of our leaders, our representatives, our specialists, our experts, all of them, no exceptions made, to come up with solutions that make it possible for the victims of the Holocaust and the Second World War and the Third Reich and the Axis powers in Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and Asia, writ large, to find some measure of justice in the aftermath of global genocidal and ethnocidal conflict, to recover what was ripped from the bosom of so many as the extensions of their souls and likes. After all, it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If this is true, the loss of cultural assets feels like the forcible removal of light from the eyes of the victims to benefit those who feel anointed to possess what is not rightfully theirs. At a larger scale, one can argue that the rights of individuals are trumped by the arrogance of groups and the States that lend succor to their racial and expansionist ambitions by which they impose their ideological and political will through force of law and arms. In short, the victims of cultural plunder—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, e tutti quanti….—are united in theory and principle under a single banner. Unfortunately, the trauma of loss through confiscation, requisition, outright theft, incarceration, and exploitation, was not sufficient to bring the victims under one flag, regardless of origin, race, ethnicity, creed, and belief.

The cynics tell us that this is what makes us human, that division is a prelude to conquest. Divide and conquer has always been the motto of those who wage war against their own people and those of other nations. Divided, we were at the end of the Second World War, made to rely on our communal groups, political parties, and national governments, to “do the right thing” for us all. By the way, the “we” and the “us” are used symbolically since my parents had not even met at V-E Day while I was an errant molecule in search of a home. The “we” and the “us” reverberate across generations, starting with the unmarked graveyards and mass burial pits of the former Soviet Union, the ash piles of Birkenau, the burial mounds of Katyn, the massacred villages of Northern Italy, Yugoslavia, and the thousands of unnamed places of death and destruction that pockmark the map of a warring planet.

Divided…. Why should we be divided in the first place? That is my question to all of you who read these pages. What is the benefit of arguing from one’s narrow communitarian interest? Better, more effective representation? Some of you might feel that there is nothing else that can be done and we should simply move on. That is definitely an option. But, if moving on is an option, then we should shutter down these pages and no longer discuss restitution as a basic human right of the victims of cultural plunder. As some cocky military leaders have repeatedly stated on the battlefields of history, surrender is not an option.

Not surrendering is an acknowledgment of a will to fight, to struggle, to advocate, to press, for something as vague and ambiguous as “justice.” Is it to be justice for all ? Or will it be justice for me? How about justice for you? Or is it really justice for them? Should justice be meted out in equal measures or in proportionate measures? Justice that is proportionate to the crime? How much is too much? How much is too little? What does it take to sate a broken soul and allow it to “move on”, to “find closure”?

Reality is altogether different. As history shows us repeatedly, the scars of trauma induced by all forms of violence are transmitted from one generation to the next. The degree to which the successive generations absorb and internalize the legacies of abuse and cruelty wrought upon their parents and grand-parents can determine whether or not they will act to avenge them or “act out” these inherited scars—to wit: most internal civil conflicts can be linked to the absence of meaningful settlements between members of divided communities. This is as old as history. But does it have to continue to be that way?

Looking ahead at the advent of 2012, how do we ensure that the crime of cultural plunder is appropriately punished and its victims fairly treated, across the board, regardless of who they are and where they live and what they represent? Yes, indeed, regardless of social class, status, rank, socio-economic standing, color-blind, community-blind, religion-blind, idea-blind. Blind to division and schism, solutions that are for all, not for the few, or the select.

I must tell you that nothing will be accomplished without an explicit recognition that cultural thefts cut across all boundaries, because the end result is the same—the rape of culture, way beyond that of “Europa” as Lynn Nicholas has postulated. We have to recognize that cultural theft violates the basic rights of all human beings living in a social and cultural matrix. Once we can recognize this basic fact, we can actually get to the next level. Cultural crime is a universal crime against all peoples, it is a crime which drives deep stakes into the specificity of what makes us who we are, which targets our identity as members of specific groups. Depending on the severity of the crime, it can result in an outright attempt at genocide or ethnocide. To acknowledge and accept the specificities of these crimes as bounded by cultural, social, and oftentimes religious matrices, is vital to our ability to move forward if we are to unite under one flag and fight for what is legitimately ours, that is the right to culture, our cultural rights, our right to own and display cultural assets without the fear of taking, without fear of forcible removals, because of who we are and what we are and where we live and for whom we vote or do not vote and what we speak or pray to, especially during times of internal or external conflicts.

The next level consists in agreeing that cultural plunder is a crime against humanity, perpetrated against individuals and the groups to which they belong.

Once we reach this particular point, the big question emerges: what is to be done?

What next? In all cases, national governments will endorse but not enforce the explicit righting of cultural crimes against individual citizens, arguing that these are the facts of life, and their citizens should settle for what they can. Moreover, statutes of limitations, problems associated with current possession of stolen cultural assets which are condoned as inalienable aspects of life in a civilized society—to the current possessor go the spoils!—will prevent or forestall any possible semblance of justice.

Hence, the only conceivable strategy to address the crime of cultural plunder is the international community of nations and groups that have a vested interest in righting the wrongs wrought against their cultural rights and to press for restitution of ill-gotten cultural assets.

I will leave you with this thought. As the strategy for global redress unfurls, you will hear more in these pages. Stay tuned as 2012 might become a very interesting year. After all, we have not much to lose and everything to gain.