Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Can we learn from the Brits, please?

If we really want to run an empire, we can't trash and loot the antiquities. Lord Curzon
knew this:

Curzon insisted—as he had when he restored, exquisitely, the heavily damaged Taj Mahal and the town of Fatehpur Sikri—that the conservation of ancient and religious monuments was a sacred duty of whichever imperial power happened to be granted their temporary custody. “If there be any one who says to me there is no duty devolving upon a Christian government to preserve the monuments of a pagan art, or the sanctuaries of an alien faith, I cannot pause to argue with such a man.” Because Curzon understood the power of tradition as a living thing, which gave an ancient community identity, faith, and hope, he had, as a young writer, warned against the rush to cozen traditional societies into dye-stamp modernity. In our own haste to make the world more like us we could do worse than heed his caution:

We must remember that the ways of Orientals are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts. Often when we think them backward and stupid, they think us meddlesome and absurd. The loom of time moves slowly with them, and they care not for high pressure and the roaring of the wheels. Our system may be good for us; but it is neither equally, not altogether good for them. Satan found it better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven; and the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans.

Then again, "Oriental" and "Asiatic" are no longer terms of art in the imperial trade, and we're not about being an empire. Are we?