Saturday, May 01, 2010

Weapon of Mass Cultural Destruction

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina pummeled parts of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, I was part of a panel discussion hosted by the New York City bar association to talk about whether New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward should be redeveloped. Like it was yesterday, I can remember my temperature rising as one of my fellow-panelists suggested that for the sake of restoring the ecology of the area, the Lower Ninth Ward should not be rebuilt. I squarely disagreed with him.

New Orleans is a place of unique American history, and this is not just because of the music or food or the French influence, although these things are indeed remarkable. New Orleans is also historically significant because it was an important port in the Atlantic slave trade, while at the same time free blacks, many of whom were educated and owned property, were permitted to live in society, unrestricted, with whites and enslaved people. Nowhere else in the antebellum South was this sort of co-mingling tolerated. This societal richness provided the setting that facilitated the development of New Orleans' famous lavish culture of food, music, and joie de vivre. This is not just history of the region and not just black history. It is American history. The inadequate levee system that led to the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward was not just an assault on the people who were immediately impacted, and it was not just an assault on New Orleans. It was an assault on our American history and culture. Many people, particularly my fellow environmentalists, may disagree with me on this point, but I believe the Lower Ninth Ward should be restored and protected with an effective levee system. Rebuilding is the right thing to do in the interest as all of us who have taken proud ownership of New Orleans and its special role in our nation's history.

I feel the similarly about the way the war in Iraq led to the permanent destruction of cultural artifacts in that region. The archeological artifacts found in the ancient Mesopotamia region lying between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, partially in Iraq, are a part of world history. Our world cultural resources took another hit this week when the Turkish government approved the controversial Ilisu hydroelectric dam
on the upper reaches of Tigris River, inundating the ancient town of Hasankeyf near the Turkish-Iraqi border and destroying more than 200 Muslim and Christian archeological sites, only 20 percent of which have been surveyed. We all should be outraged.

For weeks leading up to the final decision to approve this project, the second largest dam in Turkey, Kurds and human rights activists in Europe staged protests to bring attention to this proposed dam, in no small part due to the fact that Kurdish communities in Turkey would be disproportionately impacted by the flooding. In total, as many as 78,000 people may be displaced.

Adding insult to injury, the Turkish government, which approved the dam in spite of an astounding 20 years of sustained opposition, has committed to building a new town for the displaced residents and a cultural theme park for tourists. The region identified for the new town, near the towns of Batman and Diyarbakir, is a region where there has been a good deal of recent unrest between Kurds and security forces. I can understand the many reasons why people find this alternative unsuitable.

Of course, water politics is a tricky business under the best of circumstances. Just look at southern California where about half of its water comes from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away. The rights to Colorado River water are, indeed, controversial and worth a lot of money if you think about southern California's notorious droughts and the risks they pose to a highly profitable regional economy. Disputes of water rights can, no doubt, be as volatile as disputes over oil. The Ilisu dam is expected to play a key role in supplying water to the entire Middle East, including parts of Israel.

Even in the hypothetical absence of the issue of unique archeological treasures, should the Kurdish people of Turkey, people without a national identity, be expected to sacrifice their homes on demand? Is it just for Turkey (and for that matter business entities in Britain, Switzerland, and Austria who will be doing the actual construction, financial, and engineering work) to make money off the backs of this Kurdish community? I certainly wouldn't want to see this happen to my hometown.

I am not sure of the answers. Admittedly, it is a complex issue, and as an outsider, an American living in Germany, I'm certainly not the most competent person to come up with the best answers.

I will, however, take this moment to quote my favorite t-shirt. It was sold as a part of a 90's era campaign to retain affirmative action at California's public colleges and universities, a battle that was, sadly, lost long ago. It is quoted from a letter written by the American author James Baldwin to civil rights activist Angela Davis who was in jail at the time. Baldwin wrote with great insight, "If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."

What did Baldwin mean by this? He meant that if an injustice happens to one person, it can happen to anyone. It is happening to us all. We're in this together.