Every Vestige of Western Culture is a Vestige of Barbarism

On April 15, for reasons not yet fully clarified by the French authorities, a large proportion of Notre Dame Cathedral was consumed by fire.

The incident itself is regrettable, for, as prevailing common sense rightly points out, any material loss of human culture, regardless of national appropriation, is also an irreparable loss of the historical archive and collective memory of our species in its passage through life on this planet.

In American society in general, and in Mexican society in particular, graphic images of the Cathedral in flames saturated news for most of the day and night, while most of the discussion around the tragic event on the one hand focussed on what impact the absence of the Cathedral would have for future generations of men and women, and on the other hand, people debated its consequences for French national identity, as for centuries the cathedral had become an enduring symbol of it, and what could possibly take its place.

This tragedy, as with any other similar loss throughout world history, however takes on several other dimensions when we view it in the context of the colonisation of the world by Western powers and their restructing of the collective history of human civilisation as a whole. While humanity—especially people in the Western countries—are feelign a deep sense of loss because of the partial burning down of the Notre Dame Cathedral, they do not have the same feelings of loss when other societies, civilisations and cultures, especially those that they had colonised in the past, suffer the destruction of their archaelogical sites or historical monuments.

In the world today, there are about one thousand and fifty-two sites designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as World Heritage sites. Of this number, Italy has fifty-two sites, Spain forty-seven, Germany forty-four, France forty-three and the United Kingdom thirty-one. The five big economic powers of Europe thus have, between them, two hundred and seventeen declared World Heritage sites. This number is obviously much less, less than twenty percent, of the total number of World Heritage sites that constitute what the UNESCO calls the historical-cultural memory of human society—which are more than a thousand. Some non-European states in fact have more or around the same number of heritage sites as these European powers—China has fifty-one; India has thirty-seven, and Mexico has thirty-five sites.

These numbers, however, hide an important fact. It is that the five principal colonialist powers privately own (they call it national ownership, even though at the same time they argue that these belong to the whole species) the greatest number of monuments, archives, artifacts, etc., from the greatest civilisations of the world in ancient times—a symbol of the fact that these colonialist powers had looted the world in the past, while justifying this loot with arguments ranging from Christianisation to modernisation as they considered any society that did not have their values and institutions as backward. The only societies (like India and China) that still boast of having some vestiges from past civilisations are those societies where colonisation during its five centuries of global plunder failed to destroy everything.

We need to insist on the recognition of the destruction of the world cultural heritage by the Western colonialist powers, and their appropriation of it. Western cultural development, as symbolised by the Cathedral of Notre Dame, hides the fact that this supposedly superior civilisation of the West destroyed, totally or partially, many other forms of collective life. To express it in the beautiful words of Walter Benjamin’s classic formulation made in the middle of the twentieth century amid the catastrophe of the Second World War, “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”

It is enough, for example, to look at any hall of the main European museums of archaeology and ethnography to understand this. This is where the colonial West shows the world the greatness of its destruction of other cultures, boasting it to the world in showcases and displays, and visitors from societies that were previously their colonies visit these museums and admire the magnitude of plunder and devastation of their own countries. In the Weltmuseum Wien (Museum of Ethnology of Vienna), for instance, approximately two hundred thousand objects belonging to non-European cultures are preserved and exhibited, among which is the emblematic Moctezuma plume, substituted in the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico with a replica. There are plenty of examples.

Hidden in these museum artifacts is an entire history of barbarism committed by the West against populations that it colonised. But it is a history that continues into the present, a barbarism that is being practised by the West even today. At the moment, bloodthirsty wars are taking place all over the world, in which the European powers actively participate, either directly by deploying their armies or indirectly through financing local terrorist groups, trafficking arms for friends and enemies alike, vetoing peaceful resolutions in the United Nations and justifying, with impunity, the ongoing armed conflicts in the name of what they claim as their values of universal rights of man (or, in a more modern and politically correct sense, human rights).

Palmyra, the ancient city of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, all in Syria; Timbuktu, in Mali; the Bamiyan Valley, north of the city of Kabul, in Afghanistan; Hatra, in Iraq; or the old city of Sana’a, in Yemen—all cities in which the memory of the first civilisations on earth are preserved, many of which are in fact biblical cities—are contemporary examples of the destruction caused by Western geopolitical interests (including the United States). This only goes to show the scant importance given by both Western States and many people around the world to the devastation of sites that are not included in the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but which contain innumerable artifacts and symbols in which the memory of countless communities, societies, cultures and civilisations are embedded and which survived the pillage and destruction of colonial expansion between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.

The fact that humanity (at least populations within the Western geocultural space) feels so mortified by the loss of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, while it has an infinite number of times ignored—whether by conscious decision or simple ignorance—the annihilation of the history of humanity in other places, does not mean that we should not grieve over the tragedy of the destruction in France. It is indeed a sad occurrence, there is no doubt about it. The problem arises when Eurocentrism and humanitarian hypocrisy appropriate, in a very narrow way, the discourse on the importance of preserving the vestiges of our history.

(Ricardo Orozco is executive advisor of the Mexican centre for International policy analysis)

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