Waiting for the barbarians

The December 2015 issue of the New Criterion carries the magazine’s annual special section on art. The last of the essays in the special section is James Panero’s “The vengeance of the Vandals.” It’s an essay that smartly draws interesting historical connections, explains the barbaric vandalism of the Islamists, and makes sound policy recommendations. I can’t recall another essay quite like it. Here is James’s conclusion:

It would be untrue to say our cultural community has had no response to ISIS aggression. New York’s Metropolitan Museum has hosted hand-wringing discussions concerning the destruction. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave ISIS a stern-faced lecture from the Temple of Dendur. The U.S. State Department has staffed up a social media department to troll ISIS recruitment with hashtag campaigns. UNESCO has proposed labeling cultural destruction a war crime, while American museums have offered safe harbor to collections in war zones as temporary loans.

Yet these technocratic and bureaucratic solutions do little to counteract the underlying Islamist impulse that wages war outside of any international convention and looks to vandalize the symbols of civilization wherever they are found. Islamist strategy, now played out through the unchecked rise of ISIS, has put cultural institutions the world over at their greatest risk since the Second World War, when Kenneth Clark’s “Picture of the Month” initiative allowed Londoners to still see a single masterpiece in the National Gallery at the height of the Blitz.

Then as now, the only answer to such a threat is the enemy’s unconditional surrender and their de-jihadification by whatever means necessary. In the meantime their prosecution must be even more relentless and multifaceted than their own initiatives, including the deployment of a media campaign that refills the vacuum left by the secret machinations of the current U.S. Administration. The civilized world must now wage a public war over the preservation of symbols, a fight that will involve the advancement of ideals in virtual territory and the destruction of online networks as equally well as boots on the ground. If only Osama bin Laden had been stopped at the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Whole thing highly recommended.


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