People Are More Important Than Paintings

Over the weekend President Trump tweeted that if Iran retaliates against Americans for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani we would hit back against 52 targeted Iranian sites, including some “important to . . . the Iranian culture”—and the mainstream media and blue-check Twitter lost their minds about supposed implied war crimes and barbarism.

“Targeting cultural sites is a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites” intoned the AP story that appeared in the New York Times, which went on to quote sympathetically no fewer than three high-ranking Iranian officials praising culture and comparing Trump to ISIS, Hitler, and Genghis Khan.

The tone was comically pro-Iranian. “Some of the most iconic cultural sites have come to embody the nation’s defiance in the face of the United States. For example, the iconic Azadi Tower, . . . with its famed white marble arch is where hundreds of thousands gather in Tehran each year and chant slogans against the U.S. to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution.”

Ah yes, Ayatollah Khomeini, that great figure of cultural enlightenment!

My point here is not to focus on the silliness of this or any other overwrought attack on Trump’s tweet, however. Nor is it to explore the legality under international law of hypothetical attacks on unidentified targets: for example, what exactly constitutes a “cultural site”? That isn’t my focus because I want to ask what I see as a more fundamental question, which is why any such attack should be deemed a war crime.

Trump made this point himself in defending his tweet in a session with reporters aboard Air Force One Sunday evening: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.” This gave even conservatives like Rod Dreher the vapors.

But, other than the fact that it alas may “work that way,” can someone please tell me what is wrong with this quote, which essentially says that human beings are more important than art?

Let me put it a little differently than Trump did, by posing another question. Are those who are condemning his position as both barbaric and unprecedented suggesting that we did not target German cultural landmarks during World War II—or, worse, that we should not have targeted them but rather should have killed more civilians instead?

Now don’t get me wrong: In contrast with, say, progressive icon Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States quotes Nazi apologist David Irving in condemning the American firebombing of Dresden, I have absolutely no problem with the killing of German civilians in World War II, even in cases where hindsight may see it as “unnecessary.” But I do have a problem with a mindset that is less offended by the killing of German, or Iranian, or any, civilians than by the destruction of cultural artifacts.

There is a now dominant form of upper-crust and effete liberalism that embodies this mindset and sees paintings as more important than people. I would submit that: a) this worldview is not, as its adherents think, “enlightened;” rather, it is the true barbarism; and, b) it is emblematic of why tens of millions of “deplorable” people the world over who once saw the Left as their champion have abandoned the movement.

War, which should always be a last resort but must be fought unreservedly when justifiably resorted to, is inherently barbarous: innocent children die horrible agonizing deaths; works of art are destroyed. But to view the latter as more vile than the former, or even in the same moral universe, is barbarism itself. And because the children who die the horrific deaths tend to be poorer, and those who mourn the artworks tend to be richer, it is an elevation of the fancies of the rich over the lives of the poor that is breathtaking in its bigotry and cruelty.

Of course one has to weigh the moral and strategic costs and benefits of hitting any potential military target. Attacking certain cultural sites, particularly those that are religious rather than artistic, could backfire by enraging the local population.

By the same token, though, it could hasten victory by dispiriting the enemy. Clearly it’s a case-by-case decision and often it would be ill-advised. But by what moral calculus do we declare one class of targets sacrosanct while allowing destruction of others that might entail much greater loss of life? And how has this come to be the “progressive” position?

Cultural sites can be religious as well as artistic. So am I engaging in simplistic hyperbole by referring to “paintings”? I don’t think so, because my focus here is not so much on policy as on the pearl-clutching reaction to Trump’s tweet and what it says about the modern Left and, more broadly, the modern intelligentsia. And with a few exceptions like Dreher, I don’t think the great majority of pundits who took to the fainting couch when they heard “Trump . . . attack . . . culture” were thinking of religious shrines.

Thirty years ago, when I was starting to question my adherence to the Left, I asked my liberal friends if they agreed with an anti-death penalty quote from Barney Frank. Should have been easy, right? Except what he said was that though he still opposed capital punishment because of the risk of taking an innocent life, “I’ve never read about one of these guys who I will miss.” They couldn’t bring themselves to agree! Rather they all got very pained looks on their faces and said things like “Oh, Barney . . . ”

Similarly now, I don’t think that most liberal intellectuals (and quite a few conservative ones) can bring themselves to agree that people are more important than paintings. Until they do they will rightly continue to be rejected by the people for whom they claim to speak.

About Dennis Saffran

Dennis Saffran is a Queens, N.Y.-based appellate attorney and political and policy writer whose work has appeared in City Journal, The Federalist, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @dennisjsaffran.

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