Don't Mess With the Tchotchkes!

At latest count, the number of the 170,000 missing priceless artifacts from Baghdad's antiquities museum (search) is down to 33.

With each passing day since the entire security and liberation effort in Iraq was called into question because of missing tchotchkes, more and more of what turned out to be only 30 missing pieces have been resurfacing and bringing to a close an incident that led to the protest resignations of two presidential cultural advisers and the indignation of people to whom knickknacks have more value than human life.

If you ask such folks whether all those missing artifacts are worth a single life otherwise spent in bondage and indignity, not to speak of millions of lives, they'd have to think long and hard before answering. Recall the universal outrage in March of 2001, when the Taliban (search) destroyed the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan (search), an incident which to this day causes cultural elitists to shake their lowered heads in mournful disapproval. Nothing--not Sept. 11 nor the forced burqa-zation of Islamic womanhood--has been so unsettling or horrifying to the "arties" as the dynamiting of those artworks. 

After all, this is the same sort who in the early 90s, upon hearing that my family and I were Soviet refuseniks (search), would burst out, "Wow, you had the Hermitage (search)!" and would go on to relate their own, post-Perestroika (search), experience of its splendor. This is the same sort as the Denver antiquarian book dealer who informed my friend that he was holding Bush personally responsible for the destruction of the Iraqi archives and for the museum thefts, adding that he could have lived with a great many more Iraqi deaths if only these items had been saved.

The truth, however, is that this man would hate Bush regardless, for he is of the variety that bristles at men like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld because they are not ones to spend hours in museums or theaters. Note the following passage, written with a straight face, from a recent article by a Matt Taibbi in the new New York Press (search), titled "I, Rumsfeld": "The charm of Rumsfeld is something that is really hard to figure....Can you picture Rumsfeld...looking at a painting? Reading aloud from 'Where the Sidewalk Ends?' These things are impossible to imagine."

It is a familiar criticism, reserved for the Bushes, Rumsfelds and Reagans of the world. But it gets funnier every time. Would these critics really feel any safer if they knew the president or the nation's defense secretary spent time contemplating abstract art or was able to wax poetic about poetry? If I wanted art connoisseurs for leaders, I would support men like French Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin (search), who actually did just publish an 800-page book of poetry, or the late Pierre Trudeau (search), whose former aides rhapsodized about having "created something every day" when working for him--both men who have plenty of space between their ears to fill with culture.

I am reminded of the flak Bush got during his presidential campaign and the initial months of his presidency over his limited world travel experience. My view on travel has always been that less is more. Bush doesn't need to go to another country to know that it's better here, or to understand why everyone there is breaking down the door to get here. He doesn't need to visit these places; he just needs to fix them.

What is this compulsion to "see the world," anyway? My cousin went to Turkey a few years ago--the most socially tolerant Muslim country. She practically ran back to America. Naturally, she insisted she had no regrets, saying, "I'm glad I went; I'd just never want to go back." My cousin was particularly disturbed at the treatment of women in Turkey. This is the same cousin who in college was reading a book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (search).

Life is more a journey in discovery of self than of people, places and things. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we can comprehend the world around us. Men like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld understand this intrinsically. Comfortable in their skins, these men don't have to escape their own company and go running around the globe or museum in search of experiences to feel more complete. They are not sponges craving to absorb, as literary and connoisseur types pride themselves in being. This non-dependence is galling and inscrutable to the dependent.

Tchotchke fixation, like world travel, is overemphasized by people with limited internal lives and inactive minds. But in light of the recent case of the missing knickknacks, at least now we know what it would take to get the enlightened classes aboard our anti-terrorism efforts.  In fact, if there is one thing that makes the war on terror even remotely justifiable to them, it is this kind of disrespect for the symbols of other cultures that looms under Islamic rule.

So far terrorists have bombed only symbols of capitalism and American military might, and killed only people. But should they ever make the mistake of bombing The Guggenheim (search), they'll be crossing the line.

Julia Gorin is the author of the newly released The Buddy Chronicles, available through

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