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Your tax dollars at work

Snake charmers of the world, unite!
The follies of a UNESCO-shaped global culture

Robert Fulford
National Post

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Now this is worth saving! Dancers welcome UNESCO General-Director Koichiro Matsuura to Bolivia in March. They laughed when UNESCO announced a whole new category of cultural anxiety, the grave danger faced by humanity's "intangible cultural heritage." Ancient dances of obscure tribes, almost forgotten rituals and nearly extinct musical instruments must be saved (UNESCO said) by government intervention, naturally under UNESCO guidance.

This sounded hopelessly vague to everyone not employed in the world of professional culture-protection. But nobody at UNESCO laughed. Nobody there ever laughs. Policy comes out of the feverishly ambitious minds of a few dozen solemn owls in Paris who spend their time looking for ways the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization can extend its bureaucratic empire of taste.

Decades ago, Maclean's magazine ran a skeptical article about UNESCO, suggesting it might be no more than a trivial, wasteful boondoggle, designed to provide employment for an expanding army of well-educated civil servants. How cruel of Maclean's, I thought at the time. And how wrong and ignorant I was. Since then, extensive reading on this subject has reversed my opinion. UNESCO probably does no major harm, except addle the brains of those who take it seriously. But it's a typical UN agency in the sense that it lives in a costly world of endless meetings at which pompous committees urge, advocate, classify, deplore -- and accomplish not much.

When the heavy thinkers in UNESCO arrived at the idea of "intangible cultural heritage" (ICH) and sold it to their member nations a few years ago, they must have known they had a big winner, maybe the most lucrative gimmick in the history of cultural politics.

UNESCO expands according to how much money it can winkle out of the various nations of the world when taxpayers are looking the other way. From that standpoint, ICH shows more promise than anything else in UNESCO history. It has a unique quality. It expands infinitely. No country on Earth will ever run out of dying traditions. Local departments of culture were quick to see the job opportunities and support the UNESCO idea.

It is amazing how much work an apparently innocent notion can generate. At a meeting in New Delhi last month, cultural bureaucrats from 22 countries devoted themselves to writing definitions of intangible cultural heritage. Obviously, some ICH elements (a dance troupe here, a gang of storytellers there) remain in working order, while others show signs of strain. How to tell the difference? Then there are traditions "in need of urgent safeguarding" and still more imperilled elements that require "extremely urgent safeguarding." It was agreed that these matters needed further discussion and everyone went home to write a report.

Today the situation is especially urgent because of globalization, "uniformization" and the cruel indifference of the young, many of whom aren't interested in learning traditional styles of dance, narrative, etc. that are revered by their elders and therefore also by UNESCO.

But ICH experts, given enough time, will, in theory, identify all of the planet's cultural bric-a-brac -- every admirable proverb, ritual, dance, unpublished poem. Happily, a job that size can last an eternity. Just about anything expressive falls within ICH. UNESCO papers cite ancient woodcrafting on Madagascar, oral traditions of the Aka Pygmies in Central Africa, the Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao in the Philippines and what UNESCO calls "the Indigenous Festivity Dedicated to the Dead in Mexico." Certain physical spaces count too, places where societies express themselves. UNESCO mentions the Jemaa el-Fna Square in Marrakech. People go there to do cultural things, such as singing, storytelling and snake-charming.

UNESCO treats all of these with equal respect. After all, who could argue that pygmy oral tradition matters more than Madagascar woodcraft? In essays of profound silliness, UNESCO press agents describe each tradition as valuable and in need of help, presumably financial help. Reading those words makes me wonder if Julian Huxley, a not entirely foolish man, would regret his role as UNESCO's founding director-general. UNESCO reports might have prompted a satiric response from Julian's brother, Aldous. In a book like Brave New World, ICH management could become the way government programs the minds of the masses.

Naturally, ICH brings out the hypocrisy inherent in UN enterprises. China provides the obvious case. Having done all it could to obliterate Tibetan culture, China might be expected to hide its head in shame whenever someone mentions cultural survival. Instead, China follows traditional UN morality, the unwritten rule by which despotic governments routinely get appointed to committees for the protection of freedom.

An enthusiastic backer of UNESCO, China now sits on the inter-governmental committee to safeguard ICH. Next month in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, China will hold a multinational ICH conference and open a park designed for ICH protection. Performances will demonstrate threatened aspects of China's heritage, including the traditional Chinese zither, the ancient Kun Qu opera and Long Song, a lyrical chant that Mongolians have been performing forever, but might stop performing, without UNESCO-inspired help. These are all classed by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Like most of us, UNESCO has difficulty defining "culture." It so carelessly broadens this concept that just about anything qualifies for inclusion. When the committees start dealing with Europe and North America (so far relatively neglected), what won't they uncover? Surely they'll include the rules of mah-jong, once a major Chinese contribution to North American culture, now a tradition maintained (in America) only by a few brave senior citizens. The key moves in disco, the language of 1920s sports writers, the waning art of lion-taming in circuses: These once-rich forms of expression are all severely endangered. And since we're dealing with intangibles, what about facial expressions? The exquisite sneer of a BBC television interviewer when dealing with an American politician superbly embodies British leftish culture (though so far it's not dying out).

Not long ago, a Times of London story reported that the French Assembly had declared foie gras an emblem of French gastronomy and culture, therefore deserving of protection -- against, presumably, animal-rights activists working through the European Union. Eventually that question will land on a desk at UNESCO, exciting cries of delight. Think of the committees that could be formed, the memos written, the promotions achieved. As a centre for culture and related matters, UNESCO may be useless. But as a job-creation program for intellectuals, it has few equals.
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