It took seconds to happen. A thud, a puff, a cloud of dust. A statue crumbled, its fragments threw up a choking plume of debris.
The men — all men — roared with delight. An ancient statue, enormous, beautifully wrought, lay in pieces on the ground. It was Afghanistan. Pre-9/11. One of the many battles won in the Islamists’ war on the past. The defenceless masterpieces of a lost culture, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, were reduced to rubble.
These images in stone, according to some religious scholars, are “idolatry”. That’s fair enough if that’s what you believe, but nobody is in danger of converting to Buddhism by looking at an old statue. But anything or anyone that stands in the way of totalitarianism — religiously inspired or otherwise — is plain wrong, and must be corrected, even if correction is destruction. These men are juiced on the certainty of what they believe. Certainties are grifts. Certainties are the means by which powerful men steal from everybody else.
I scanned around the internet yesterday, seeing the throngs of people at Kabul airport, desperately fleeing the statue-smashers as they rolled into town on their flatbed trucks with newly-acquired American machine guns.
Then an ad popped up. There’s a young woman walking into school, speaking to camera. She’s Western, hip and well-heeled in big puffy sneakers with a huge “AIR” written on them. She tells us she’s about to go into a history lesson to talk about dynasties. An ancient-looking bust of a man wavers in and out of focus. But she’s not going to talk about “ancient Greeks and Romans”, because “that’s just the patriarchy.”
Instead, she does her presentation on “the greatest dynasty ever”. Which is of course the US women’s basketball team, who had just won another gold medal. In the zero-sum hyperbole of the script, that’s the thing that is important, according to Nike’s ad agency. Not “history”, and certainly not ancient Greek or Roman history.
It’s the “just” in “that’s just the patriarchy” that gets you. The verbal hand swipe, the flippant dismissal of centuries of culture. Culture that, for better or worse, shaped the society we in the West inhabit now, no matter what our ethnic heritage is. It was like the puff of smoke before the rubble.