sábado, 6 de octubre de 2007

Sloppy arguments about serious topics: a reply to Mamis and Mocatta

In their recent article in the Yale Daily News titled “University, not Peru, is best place for cultural treasures” Noah Mamis and Frederick Mocatta present a dangerously rushed conclusion on what is a complicated and far from obvious issue. I say ‘dangerously’ here in all seriousness, since taking stances on the basis of sloppy arguments can all too easily lead to an unacceptable simplification of certain complicated, objective situations. This danger can be paradigmatically illustrated in Mamis and Mocatta’s answer to the question “On what basis should we decide who should be entitled to possess the cultural treasures of the world?” This question should, of course, lead us into further questions about how to decide on matters of ownership, of a cultural treasure’s value, of the relationship between cultural works and the state in which they were made, and so forth. But, luckily for us, Mamis and Mocatta have already done all of the hard work. They have condensed the results of these controversies in little over a page of writing, and published their one-liner conclusion in the public’s service: Yale should be entitled to Peru’s cultural treasures. No, that was not a misprint. And it’s actually worse than that; if one extrapolates the explicit arguments the authors offer (which I will do below) we shockingly arrive at the conclusion that most of the world would be better off sending their cultural relics to Yale or other similar institutions.
In relinquishing most of its South American Collection, the authors claim, Yale acted in a cowardly fashion, showing they couldn’t stand up to their ethical responsibility to the realm of global culture and scholarship. An institution such as Yale, “…burdened with the duty to ensure that such objects are available in the best condition to the widest possible audience, for all time.” must thus obey a sacred ethical duty: to appropriate and never relinquish cultural treasures to their countries of origin for other, comparatively unimportant reasons. This confusing claim is backed up by the authors through four equally confusing premises:

(1) Institutions/organizations which are better fit to maintain cultural treasures in good physical condition should be entitled to the possession of those treasures.
(2) In the case of cultural treasures which are of wide interest to the world, institutions/organizations should be primarily concerned with exposing them to the widest possible audience of interest, and to scholars in particular.
(3) Yale is an institution that has proved capable of maintaining numerous cultural treasures in good condition throughout their history, while also making them available to wide audiences and scholars.
(4) Peru’s institutions have proven themselves unsuccessful in the maintenance of their own cultural treasures and in making them available to wide audiences and scholars.

If one were somehow persuaded into accepting the bulk of these claims it would be easy to see why Mamis and Mocatta feel this dreaded burden and cowardice have befallen in Yale’s history. In relinquishing their Andean collection Yale failed in their duties “…to academia at large and to the general public, domestic and foreign, not to mention those by whom it was bequeathed to us.” But if one were to think things over for just a little longer, things might start seeming less obvious all of a sudden. We might wonder about why exactly premises (1)-(4) are so easy to assume for Mamis and Mocatta, and what evidence they offer to justify their claims. Unsurprisingly, rereading their one-page article didn’t help for much either; only one of the premises above is intuitive (at best), while the other three remain plainly unjustified.

But let us start with what’s intuitive. It seems easy enough to accept Yale’s financial and technical resources are likely to make it effective in keeping cultural treasures in excellent condition. Premise (3) then, at the very least, seems to have an intuitive appeal, and so can be accepted for now without much danger. Things start to go raunchy, however, when we consider premises (1), (2) and (4).
To proceed systematically, I will first deal with (1) and (2), since in these the fate and relevancy of (3) and (4) ultimately supervene, whether they are true or not. Premise (1) tells us that the entitlement to possession of cultural treasures ought to be decided on the basis of the capacity of keeping them in the best physical condition possible. Here the trouble begins. For although one can easily agree in that the physical condition of the treasures is indeed quite important, it is much harder to accept that it is the only or most important criterion to be considered. But the claim is not only extremely controversial prima facie, but its plausibility rests upon having satisfactory answers to many other, smaller questions.

For example, we must first ask on what grounds we can attempt to determine a cultural treasure’s worth. Also, does a cultural treasure have greater importance for its country of origin than for other countries? And which criteria should we follow to compare the eligibility of a state or institution in claiming rights to the entitlement of these treasures? These questions unsurprisingly were already necessary at the start of this controversy, and we haven’t advanced an inch further. That the authors don’t ever attempt to pronounce themselves on these ‘minor’ circumventing issues only works to make impossible any leniency from the reader.
The obvious counter-argument to premise (1) naturally follows: it seems plausible to suggest that cultural treasures should be entitled, above all, to their country of origin. This can be easily substantiated by appeal to the obvious fact that cultural treasures are largely constitutive and valuable to their country’s culture, identity and history. If a culture’s treasures are thus not mere curiosities for the tourist or scholar, but essential to their indigenous people, the preservation of the work could be taken as comparatively secondary. How can anyone say, then, that Yale’s fittingness to keep cultural treasures in good condition entitles it to Peru’s cultural treasures more than to Peruvians themselves? Mamis and Mocatta’s answer:

“Andeans of old who made them have about as much in common culturally with those of us in America as they have with the Peru of our day. There is no political continuity between post-Bolivar Peru and the lands of the Incan Empire.”
Since what the authors call ‘post-Bolivar Peruvians’ presumably no longer culturally resemble those whom produced the Andean treasures, Peru can no longer claim a privileged cultural connection to these works. At the very least, whatever connection remains couldn’t entitle them to a privileged right for their possession, and certainly not over the principle of preservation of the treasures safeguarded by premise (1). Therefore, any rights to entitlement to the treasures on the basis of cultural heritage don’t apply for modern Peru.

This is a scandalous argument, and it exemplifies the danger I spoke about earlier. It is reprehensible to voice uneducated opinions about other people’s beliefs, let alone the beliefs of entire cultural traditions or countries. But to claim that Peruvians today have no cultural, social or political continuity with their pre-republican tradition without presenting any sort of evidence is simply absurd. That the Peruvian republic bears little to no resemblance to old Andean and Incan political organizations, and that we live under radically different socio-political conditions is perfectly true, but trivial. To insinuate that this triviality somehow suffices to conclude that Peruvians today bear almost no resemblance to their cultural ancestors and that they are an almost ‘entirely different culture’ is an unacceptable line of reasoning.
But this is not mere preoccupation about making sense. Making such gross generalizations out of the blue is a plainly irresponsible act when dealing with issues of cultural sensibility, which rest on an evaluation of an entire country and its traditions. Seeing that the great majority of Peru’s population remains composed mostly by those enrooted in Andean heritage, and that today’s traditions are in many ways the results of deep historical transformations undergone by its people, one has to basically guess in which sense the cultural asymmetry between modern Peru and pre-republican Peru is to be corroborated. To say these cultural periods are different is trivially true; to say they are ‘almost completely unrelated’ is nonsense. When we additionally remember that the centralized history of Peruvian politics has been the history of the exclusion of Andean populations from their proper integration into the legal sector of society, then things all of a sudden stop appearing easily quantifiable.
Peru’s population has, no doubt, been transformed in many ways throughout its history. But to claim that the Peruvian national treasures now stand to their people as they do to anyone else in the planet with interest in them is to assume far too much with far too little. For these reasons, premise (1) is unacceptable. Not only do the authors fail to substantiate their claim that Peru is not entitled to their cultural treasures, but they fail to offer a single reason for accepting the privilege of institutions which can keep the work in the best condition possible over other criteria.

This leads us into considering premise (2), the sacred mandate for those institutions privileged enough to have the means to preserve cultural treasures. Exposing them to tourists and academics in prime condition is, in the jargon of Mamis and Mocatta, a burden and a responsibility. But again this is quite mysteriously so. No one would deny that the world’s cultural treasures are of paramount interest to numerous academics, tourists and people outside the countries of origin of the works themselves. Neither would anyone sanely deny that these works should be kept in the best condition possible. But to assume that any person interested in a cultural treasure has an equal right to access to the treasure as any other is an attempt of perverse democratization. We cannot assume right away that the interests that academics, tourists and the rest of the planet have rest on similar concerns, or that they are of equal significance and thus should be weighed homogonously.

That the cultural treasures should primarily be available to the majority of people interested assumes both that institutions such as Yale can harbour more interested folks in the treasures than their countries of origin, and that being capable of drawing more people interested people is both necessary and sufficient to lay claim for ownership. To illustrate how these claims lead to extremely unappealing consequences let us imagine the following scenario:

Imagine if all of a sudden Chinese people started developing extraordinary interest in the Statue of Liberty. Imagine furthermore that their numbers skyrocketed to the point where there were more interested people, scholars and fanatics of the Statue of Liberty in China than in the U.S itself. These Chinese also happen to possess the technology and means to keep the Statue in a far better condition that it stands in New York currently. Imagine that these Chinese claim that the old American culture of the times where the statue was made was entirely different to present day cosmopolitan, post-modern America. Finally, imagine that because of these reasons someone in China suggested that the U.S should relinquish their treasures to the Chinese, for the sake of scholarship, preservation and greater interest. Since you’re presumably entirely different from the Americans of the old days, your appeals to historical nostalgia and cultural entitlement are shrugged off, as well as your unrest.
In any case, Mamis and Mocatta’s dreadful case for (1) helps very little to justify the claim that Peruvian treasures do not have a privileged place in their culture, and to their people. The authors consequently feel distressed as other governments such as “Greece, Egypt, Italy and others… have frequently made similar demands” and “…will only be emboldened by Yale’s concession”. Perhaps they should feel distress at their own relinquishing of facts and rigor in arguing about these delicate topics.

We are thus finally lead to (4); which claims that Peru is not only unfit culturally, but institutionally to keep their treasures in the shape that premise (1) should guarantee is above all important. Once again, there is a remarkable lack of facts and evidence for their justification. But more strangely even is how we are somehow expected to be reassured by the following information about Peru’s government:

“ A tradition of endemic corruption, political instability, occasional restraints on academic freedoms and the results of a nearly 30-year anarcho-Communist insurgency that has left 70,000 Peruvians dead make it eminently clear that Peru is a flawed home for these treasures. The most recent terrorist attack in Peru, this June, left six people dead and dozens injured in the market of an obscure town near the shores of Lake Titicaca."

How a past history of terrorism is solid evidence for Peru’s incapacity to take care of their national treasures today is beyond me. The history of left-winged subversive groups which the authors allude to, and which was mainly prominent during the late 80’s and early 90’s, has been effectively dissipated since then and is now far from a generalized problem. Needless to say, how these issues are directly connected to the ownership of cultural treasures is discussed nowhere. To appeal to the atrocities of past terrorist acts as a suitable indicator in this topic in such a relaxed, light-minded way is a disgraceful display of ignorance, and to suggest that it somehow proves Peru’s inability and ineligibility to bear rights to their national treasures is insulting. And yet this is exactly what the authors do, as they claim that “…This is a home-grown, determined and concerted terrorist effort that shows a failure on the part of the Peruvian government to create a stable and inclusive political environment”.

It remains nonetheless very obscure how these historical antecedents are of any use here, especially since they claim to be proving something entirely different. That economic indicators show steady economic growth has been taking place in Peru for several years now should discourage anyone to think that past tragedies by past governments must translate into perpetual tragedy and punishable inefficiency. To further suggest that the years of sustained terrorism and economical problems suffice to disown a country from its cultural treasures is an argumentative excess. Not content with that, premise (4) tells us that Peru also has not made their treasures available to scholars and wide audiences, a claim which comes and goes entirely unsubstantiated. As for the ‘disaster befallen’ on Machu Picchu, they claim Peru fails to:

“… adequately preserve, maintain and display the country’s own collection of some of the finest cultural relics in the world, let alone to ensure that the collection remains accessible to scholars. Foremost as an example of this is surely the disaster that has befallen the great Machu Picchu…it faces severe threats from unregulated urban development in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. Furthermore, the government has taken few steps to protect the site from the dangers of the burgeoning tourist industry, from the risks posed by earthquakes, or from the contractors and businesses that swarm the ancient ruins. “
An entire new set of fallacies, unjustified premises and falsities are in order. To point just one out, even if a country’s political or economical conditions allow for a greater deterioration of their cultural treasures this would still not prove they should be elsewhere. Questions about the relevance of these treasures to their people, as those mentioned above, are complicated and cannot be disavowed without further, serious reflection. This is also a particularly unfriendly example, since one couldn’t reasonable suggest that Machu Picchu would be better off by moving it someplace else. To suggest that the irregular development of the rural town of Aguas Calientes proves the Peruvian government is inefficient in this regard supervenes on an additional premise: that a country’s first priority should be to develop those areas nearby national cultural treasures, for the sake of their preservation.

But this is an entirely insulting suggestion for a government which struggles in numerous ways to integrate an entire population, and which has been historically fragmented by the social and economic exclusion of the majority outside the capital. To blame the government for not making the development of Aguas Calientes a priority is to tacitly suggest that if you can’t make your cultural treasures the priority of your governmental agenda then you better relinquish them. Cultural treasures are dealt with as instruments or tools for the idle curiosity of some tourist or academic, and are disavowed from their place in a culture’s history and worldview. Following that logic, we would soon conclude that most cultural treasures in third world countries should be preferably given away and locked within the confines of American campuses. Maybe if we built a big-enough museum at Yale we could figure a way to take Machu Picchu there too, for the sake of the scholars and the tourists!

But perhaps there is another pesky, trivial truth in the authors’ words. Perhaps the Peruvian government should take better care of their treasures. And maybe they should make sure they are protected from natural and human disasters. I suspect nobody would disagree with that much. Yet passing judgment on the government’s agenda with such ease is no solution whatsoever to the problem and clearly no reason to suppose the country must be deprived of their rights to its past. The unregulated urban development of many provinces and the numerous problems affecting Peru, as well as many third-world economies, shouldn’t lead us into thinking we can or should deprive them from their national treasures, at least not on the basis of what Mamis and Mocatta are saying.

To conclude: that Yale could keep these works in better shape ends up as entirely secondary and unimportant claim if the other premises in the argument fail. But since the authors do not (and, I suspect, cannot) justify their claims with anything that might leave us satisfied, there is no option but to discard the entire argument as gibberish. That it is dangerous to lightly take stances on matters which concern the lives of millions is clear. That Mamis and Mocatta do just that in presenting their terribly argued, laughably unjustified opinions should dissuade anyone from taking them seriously. So they conclude:

“At the very least, the Peruvian government should now pay Yale a century of rent and maintenance costs. “

Perhaps the sarcasm just fled over my head.

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