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Reading Hazony by the Elgin Marbles

June 10, 2019

Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2018. 285 pp.

Liberal internationalism, we so often hear, is in retreat. Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony’s new book caused a minor stir last fall by arguing that this might, if done properly, be a good thing.

Hazony’s vision for positive nationalism has more in common with Woodrow Wilson than Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, or Donald Trump: an international order consisting of independent sovereign states which derive their legitimacy from national self-determination and the maintenance of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within their borders. They interact with each other via diplomacy, trade, and the exchange of ideas without intervening in each others’ internal affairs.

His argument depends on maintaining a dichotomy between Nationalism and Empire. Nationalism is particular, it is limited to a specific territory or people, and does not seek to impose itself on others. Empire, by contrast, has universal aspirations. Empire has a vision of a single moral order which it seeks to impose on the world.

Hazony traces the origins of the former category to ancient Israel, with the idea later coming into full flower in Protestant Europe after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In the latter category he lumps groups as diverse as the Roman Catholic church, Communism, the United States after World War II, the European Union, and Nazi Germany — grouped together only by their desire to impose a single moral vision on the rest of the world.

Plenty of other reviews have given these arguments substantial criticism: that setting forth guidelines for how states are to be organized is prescriptive and therefore imperialist, or that Hazony gives no reason why people can’t choose to band together to form international organizations just as they can choose to form nations. Furthermore, Hazony never addresses the blurred group boundaries which result from identity being a polyvalent, layered category.

I read Hazony’s book last fall, as I visited the British Museum every day to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation. Each day I walked by hundreds of amazing artifacts gathered from all over the world, acquired during the heyday of an Empire with universal aspirations. And so as I read Hazony by the Elgin Marbles, I want to focus on one aspect of his argument: his discussion of how the nation-state is constructed.

A great weakness of most political theories of the state, from John Locke to Robert Nozick and John Rawls, is that their theories have no relation whatsoever to how states actually formed. Hazony attempts to address this by arguing that no state has ever been formed in the real world from a social contract based on the consent of the governed. In the real world, “mutual loyalties bind human beings into families, tribes, and nations, and each of us receives a certain religious and cultural inheritance as a consequence of being born into such collectives” (p. 31). Unless we live in a young country where we personally voted in favor of our nation’s current constitution, none of us have consented to the state we live in.

What does tie people together, according to Hazony, is blood: We feel great attachment to our parents and our siblings, even though we never consented to be related to any of them. A family begins with an act of consent (a marriage) but is tied together by family relations. Families grow and become clans, whose members are tied by bonds of shared ancestry even if they do not know each other. Heads of clans united to form tribes whose members number in the thousands. Heads of tribes can agree to unite to form a nation. (Families can also adopt new members, which is how Hazony seeks to head off accusations that his model is racist) (p. 66-70, 79-80, 87).

Hazony recognizes that there can be no such thing as a homogenous nation-state, but argues that having a dominant majority culture is the only way to ensure that citizens feel sufficient loyalty to each other to create social trust (p. 102-108, 137-138, 165-177). Minorities can be adopted into the state (the ideal model which Hazony has in mind for this is the ‘covenant of blood’ between the Druze minority and Jewish majority in his native Israel), but they must reconcile to being a minority in a state whose identity is defined by the dominant culture (p. 127-128).

Hazony argues that the so-called neutral state, which governs a territory without extending explicit favoritism to a particular culture or religion (such as the United States or France), is an illusion which only masks the cultural dominance of specific groups within that state. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence only serve as focal points for national unity because the WASPs who wrote them passed down a tradition to their children that these documents were to be revered, and they in turn passed down the same tradition to their own WASP children, in much the same way that a religious community venerates a sacred text (p. 156-166).

Hazony’s views have some interesting implications for the debate over cultural property. Currently two primary models dominate the debate about “who owns the past?”:

1) Ownership rooted in the control of territory by the state. The state’s control of land (maintained through its monopoly on force) means it can pass laws governing that land, including laws declaring artifacts to be the property of the state to be managed for the benefit of all the state’s citizens. This is the current legal regime in much of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Yet many artifacts were exported prior to the creation of the modern states which control the territory where they were found, and those countries still ask for artifacts found in what is now their territory to be repatriated. In addition to the Elgin Marbles (exported from the Ottoman Empire in 1812, ten years before Greek independence) other recent high-profile restitution requests include Iraq asking for the return of an Assyrian relief sold at auction in New York (exported from the Ottoman Empire in 1859, 73 years before Iraq became a state) and Egypt’s repeated attempts to regain the Rosetta Stone (taken from French-occupied Mamluk Egypt in 1799, six years before Muhammad Ali Pasha established the modern Egyptian state and 36 years before Egypt’s first laws limiting the export of antiquities).

2) Ownership is rooted in identity and culture, with specific groups having a right to their own heritage as defined by cultural and blood ties. This model has achieved some legal recognition in the United States with the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and in Israel, which has a longstanding policy of rescue acquisitions for Jewish artifacts.

A kiosk in the Athens airport, May 2017.

Greece, Iraq, and Egypt are claiming a cultural right to artifacts exported before their countries were formed, rather than a legal right. Returning the Elgin Marbles might not be legally required, they say, but it is the moral thing to do, because they belong to Greeks.

However, the only type of state which can affirm this is one rooted in Hazony’s model. Greece can claim the Elgin Marbles as part of its cultural heritage because the modern state of Greece is 91.6% ethnic Greek, 99% of the population speaks the Greek language, 90% are members of the Greek Orthodox church, and they claim the Elgin Marbles as a physical manifestation of the shared traditions which give them a cultural identity. If Greece were a more diverse country, then such a claim could only be advanced by the portion of the population which considers themselves to be Greek. The Elgin Marbles would become the cultural heritage of part of the population who would have rights to it, but not of others – an arrangement granted legal recognition in the United States under NAGPRA but uncommon in the Mediterranean world.

Assyrian relief found at Nimrud in 1859 on the auction block at Christie’s in New York City on October 27, 2018. Photo by Amy Gansell.

But the opposite – arguing that all states have a right to everything found within their present-day borders – causes other difficulties. At panel discussion I attended at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October of 2016 about threats to minority communities in the Middle East, one panelist stopped heritage discourse in its tracks by asking if it was acceptable for a state to kill or expel its minorities and then claim a right to their cultural heritage. This is not just an extreme hypothetical, as the long debate over the Iraqi Jewish Archive has made clear.

During the sale of the aforementioned Assyrian relief last October, the Assyrian American Association of Southern California produced a short video which was widely distributed on Facebook and Twitter, asking the anonymous buyer to consider what this ancient artifact means to the modern Assyrian people:

“Perhaps you can see now that this was never meant to be owned,” intones the video. “I hope that someday it finds its way home.” Where exactly “home” is, the video does not say. The majority of modern Assyrians have left Iraq and now form a diaspora scattered around the globe. The relief’s decontextualization from its place of discovery is held up as an emblem of the struggle of the Assyrian diaspora to maintain their identity.

While the Iraqi government attempted to file a claim because the relief was found in what is now Iraq, members of the Assyrian diaspora asserted a cultural right to the artifact based on its status as a symbol within their own cultural context.

And therein lies a problem which will increasingly become a challenge for cultural heritage in the 21st century: If a nation-state can claim a right to artifacts based on its dominant cultural identity, cultural identities without states can make the same claim. And since cultural identity is polyvalent and layered to the point where one person can usually claim several identities, deciding who should own what could begin a process resulting in either the reification of identity into easy to define groups, or a reduction of identity categories to the level of the individual.

The former entrenches division, the latter makes every individual a potential rightful owner of their own personal cultural heritage.

Article © Christopher Jones 2019.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2019 1:38 PM

    Unfortunately Hazony is crippled by the neocon disease of imagining that national borders can or ever have been impermeable, with no territory left over where the monopoly of the use of force is in conflict between two competing nationalisms. His kind of romantic nationalism has caused far more conflict than toleration– and in most cases is utterly impossible to separate from his imagined binary of nationalism vs. empire.

  2. dorrie permalink
    January 6, 2020 8:07 AM

    What if the cultural group claiming the artifact want to destroy it? What if the group doesn’t have the security or means to preserve it?

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