In the midst of our recent, deadly skirmishes with Iran, President Trump at one point threatened to bomb 52 sites that were “important to Iran and the Iranian culture.” Commentators quickly pointed out that doing so would violate the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as well as the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. (For just a sampling of those responses, see here, here, here, here, and here.) For my own part, I was struck by the President’s understanding of “culture” and his willingness to destroy it.
The term “culture” is used in different ways, with the oldest and most venerable having to do with tending to crops and animals. We hardly ever think of it this way, but the words “agriculture” and “horticulture” incorporate this understanding of the term. In the present, we might speak of somebody tending to a “germ culture” in the laboratory.
A more common use of the term “culture” denotes artistic performances such as ballet, opera, and theater or specific works of art, literature, and music. Those who treasure these performances or works are sometimes said to be “cultured,” and these people often take themselves to be the custodians of “high culture.”
Most importantly for purposes at hand, “culture” might be understood as a way of life. Anthropologists in particular study the beliefs and values, the practices and rituals of a given people, say the Samoans or the Lakota Sioux. A people’s way of life is the foundation for how a people understands itself in the world.
Where does President Trump come out on these matters? He is not much inclined to nurture or care for things, especially personal and international relations, and the Iranian sites he threatened to bomb did not strike him as works of art. Without much reflection, the President seems to have adopted a crudely anthropological understanding of “culture” and sees the destruction of the 52 sites as harmful to an “important” part of being Iranian.
The literal inhumanity of such a plan should be underscored. The august Tomb of Cyrus near Persepolis, for example, preserves the bones of a venerated ancestor who ruled over the entire Middle East. The legendary Pink Mosque in Shiraz has stained glass windows that magically cast worshippers in a colored light. These sites and others illuminate Iranian history, demonstrate Iranian creativity, and count as crucial parts of the Iranian heritage. These sites enhance the quality of existence for Iranians as human beings.
If President Trump’s dark, vengeful fantasies ever became reality, the President would be harming and undermining the Iranian way of life. He would be destroying what anthropologists see as a “culture.” If the President actually did what he said he might do, he would be guilty of committing “cultural genocide.”