Camel greeting

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Redefining Democracy – and getting the monkey off Turkey’s back

I’ve spent several years trying to define and or describe Turkey and its people on this blog – and now I feel I’m ready to tackle one of the world’s really big questions. What is this ‘democracy’ thing that people keep talking about?

William J Clinton to the contrary, it was the USA's 16th President Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, who asserted that 750,000 of his citizens would die in the Civil War 'that government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.' Well, he didn’t know the exact figure at that stage, of course, but he must have known it would be a lot. He was, we assume, expressing his support for a democratic system of government, despite the fact that the vast bulk of the US population in those days was not eligible to cast a vote.

Lambs to the slaughter - so what's changed?
The word 'democracy' has a long history, yet as a concept, it has only relatively recently become widely accepted as a desirable goal, and among political leaders, tends to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. Encyclopedia entries and tourist brochures describing the modern nation of Greece often refer to that land as the cradle of democracy. In truth, however, the much vaunted Athenian system of Cleisthenes lasted a mere two hundred years, more than two and a half millennia ago - and at best allowed for the participation of perhaps twenty percent of the population.

Subsequently, there was not even self-government in that small corner of the Mediterranean until the 19th century when the Great Powers of Europe wrested it from the Ottoman Empire. Even then, self-government is a misleading term, given that said Great Powers installed, first a German, then a Danish Prince on the throne of the kingdom they had created. The foreign-imposed monarchy lasted, on and off, until 1967 when it was finally deposed by a military coup, whose generals ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974. So it seems democracy as a political system has an uncertain, questionable pedigree at best.

Still, it's a worthy aim, for all that. However, you can understand that some might view it with cynicism. Check any collection of quotations on the subject: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.(Winston Churchill);The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting.’ (Charles Bukowski).

Apart from the cynics, much of the other wisdom has to do with the fragility of the concept when put into practice, and its vulnerability to abuse and manipulation: ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt);A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful.’ (Charles W. Pickering).   Education of the masses is seen as an indispensable component, as is constant vigilance, by which we may understand, an effective system of checks and balances – not to mention a need for honest folks in high places, and probably compulsory polygraph testing for lying and hypocrisy, especially in the case of high court judges.

The big problem is that in any country or institution, the ruling elite is always understandably reluctant to surrender its grasp on power. As they are forced to give up concessions to populist reformers - abolition of slavery, universal suffrage (especially for the non-wealthy, and for women), an open press, the secret ballot, objective supervision of vote-counting and so on - they are obliged to find more subtle ways of ensuring that votes cast do not unduly hamper their pursuit of riches and power.

One such method is the sophisticated, expensive and lucrative system of political lobbying. According to Wikipedia: ‘Wall Street lobbyists and the financial industry spent upwards of $100 million in one year to "court regulators and lawmakers", particularly since they were "finalizing new regulations for lending, trading and debit card fees." . . . Big banks were "prolific spenders" on lobbying; JPMorgan Chase has an in-house team of lobbyists who spent $3.3 million in 2010; the American Bankers Association spent $4.6 million on lobbying; an organization representing 100 of the nation's largest financial firms called the Financial Services Roundtable spent heavily as well. A trade group representing Hedge Funds spent more than $1 million in one quarter trying to influence the government about financial regulations, including an effort to try to change a rule that might demand greater disclosure requirements for funds.’ Given this level of expenditure, what would you say are the chances of persuading Congress that Wall St needs a little more regulating?

Another method of circumventing the democratic process is the creation of 'flexible' labour markets - which essentially means the removal of manufacturing and service industries from countries with high labour costs (read 'a reasonable standard of living for all') to poor countries where workers can be exploited for wretchedly low wages and conditions. A useful side benefit of this 'flexibility' is a level of ‘structural’ unemployment in the original country such that those who do have jobs can be frightened into accepting lower pay and reduced conditions.

Parallel to this ‘flexible labour market’ runs the establishment of a senior management elite with the power to remunerate themselves beyond King Croesus’s wildest dreams for their achievements in reducing costs and maximizing profits for their companies. Since most of their work force is either employed for slave-labour wages in distant third world lands, or too frightened and de-unionised to complain, and the unemployed, on the whole, don't have a voice, we don't hear a lot of criticism. There have, admittedly, been protests in France over the salary package of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, though even the French government couldn't convince him it was excessive. Reuters reported recently that, Ghosn earned 2.79 million euros from Renault in 2011 and 9.92 million from Nissan in its corresponding financial year, making him one of the highest-paid CEOs in France or Japan.’ In the same article, it was noted that, ‘Renault is cutting 7,500 jobs over three years . . . and is demanding union concessions on pay, flexibility and working hours in return for guarantees to keep French plants open.’ Interestingly, my Turkish daily reported the other day that Mr Ghosn had agreed to a 30% cut in salary if workers in Turkey’s Renault plant accepted the company’s new contract. Nice to see the developing world fighting back! Still, it must be comforting to know that you can take a 30% cut and still make 9.6 million euros for a year’s work, if work is what the gentleman in question actually does.

It seems, for the most part, that corporate CEOs can pretty much do what they like, especially those in the financial sector, who don’t have to worry about uppity union representatives from the factory floor. Nevertheless, you can't be absolutely sure some bleeding heart President isn't going to get nervous about the effect all this is having on the morale of the nation as a whole, and start trying to change things. Lobbying alone may not be sufficient. Political campaign funding is a tried and tested means of buying the support of the people’s elected representatives. A recent phenomenon, or at least one that has recently been brought to light, is known as “dark money”[1]. What we have here is wealthy individuals hiding behind seemingly public-spirited organizations donating large sums to politicians' election campaigns.  Huffington Post gives some examples: The Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the shadowy American Future Fund, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent $295 million since the beginning of 2011, targeting candidates from President Barack Obama on down to the most contested House and Senate races, all without disclosing the names of their donors to the public.

‘These groups are organized as either social welfare nonprofits under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code or, in the case of the Chamber of Commerce, as a trade association under section 501(c)(6). Since these groups qualify for tax-exempt status, they are also exempt from disclosing their donors, which political committees are required to do.

‘In total, these "dark money" groups have combined to spend $416 million on the 2012 election.’

Once you have these systems in place, you can pretty much guarantee that things will go the way of big business. On the other hand, there remains the problem of investigative news media that may probe and embarrass your tame politicians. It's not a major problem, since your big business probably owns most of the media anyway - but still you may get the occasional maverick. What you really need to do is ensure that your system is so deeply entrenched and unresponsive to uncontrolled influence and change that most of the citizens who might want reform have been effectively disenfranchised. A post-election article in Time Magazine noted that large numbers of reporters slaved throughout the presidential campaign to ferret out lies and contradictions perpetrated by candidates:

‘Clear examples of deception fill websites, appear on nightly newscasts and run on the front pages of newspapers. But the truth squads have had only marginal success in changing the behavior of the campaigns and almost no impact on the outside groups that peddle unvarnished falsehoods with even less accountability. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” explained Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, echoing his industry’s conventional wisdom.’ Clearly both political party machines are happy to play fast and loose with the truth, secure in the knowledge that the system is stacked against accountability.

In consequence, voter turnout in US Presidential elections seems to reflect a lack of belief in the electoral system. It is estimated that 57.5% of eligible voters turned out at the polls in 2012. Mitt Romney was ridiculed and lambasted for stating that 47% of voters would vote for Obama no matter what, so he didn't have to worry about them. In fact, 43% of US voters, approximately 93 million citizens, have been so effectively cut out of the democratic process that neither party needs to think about them.

Which brings me to my next point in the sorry tale of exemplary democracy. Does anyone really understand how representatives are sent to the US Congress and Senate, and how a President is elected? And if they do, can they explain to what extent the results actually reflect the wishes of US voters? The current system for electing a US President was designed by the founding fathers at the birth of the Republic, allegedly to guard against potential evils, one of which was the dominance of party politics. In fact, the same two parties have been taking turns to screw the country for the past 160 years, the 'Democrats' since 1832, and the Republicans since 1854. Interestingly, at the time of Abraham Lincoln's Civil War, the Democrats were actually the pro-slavery party - another bend sinister on the ancestral escutcheon of democracy.

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton is said to have told the European Parliament in 2009, 'I never understood multi-party democracy. It's hard enough with two parties.' If Madame Clinton actually did utter those words, and if they truly reflect her opinion, you'd have to wonder whether she has the mental equipment to cast a responsible vote, never mind carry out the duties of Secretary of State or, God forbid, President of the most powerful nation on Earth! For Mrs Clinton's information, the majority of the world's democratic states employ a proportional representation electoral system which allows for the presence in their legislative assemblies of several political parties - and most of those countries have a higher turnout at the polls than the USA. Not surprising when you remember that the media were telling us prior to the 2012 election that, if you didn't live in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada or New Hampshire, you might as well stay home for all the difference your vote would make to the final result.

One of the things that have impressed me about Turkey in recent years is the capacity for change within the system. When I first came to this country in 1995, the AK Party currently in power did not exist. Now, none of the parties involved in government at that time can manage a single representative in parliament. Very likely, Mrs Clinton would struggle in such an environment. She wouldn't know which lobbyists to listen to, or which unaffiliated public interest group to accept campaign funds from - or even which party to join. The Turkish system may be tough on politicians, financiers and retired army generals, but it does keep Turkish voters interested. And I suspect a good number of those 93 million non-voting Americans would make more effort if there were a little more choice on their voting papers.

Undoubtedly there are social and economic problems in Turkey. The education system is desperately in need of serious expert attention, for instance, and the gulf between rich and poor is unacceptably high. On the other hand, the nation has so far avoided the worst effects of the world financial crisis that has battered its European neighbours Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even the UK. The home of modern democracy seems to have silenced its discontented poor for the time being, but tens of thousands have been taking to the streets regularly in the PIIGS nations in recent months to protest their governments’ imposed ‘austerity’ measures.

‘Austerity’, needless to say, is generally understood to mean reducing pensions and social welfare benefits for the retired and unemployed, cutting back the public sector workforce, and reducing spending on education and public health. Little in the way of belt-tightening is required from the banking and finance sectors – Irish banks, for example, have reportedly received 64 billion euros in government handouts to keep them solvent. Furthermore, those government handouts are funded from tax paid by the diminishing pool of wage and salary earners, or more likely, given their indebtedness, by government borrowing from banks. In the mean time, the UK parliament has published a report announcing plans to try and collect billions of pounds in tax from US multinational corporations such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon, who use a technique referred to as ‘profit-shifting’ to pretty much avoid paying any tax at all. The New York Times reported the other day that, Starbucks said . . . that it was reviewing its British tax practices after the company disclosed recently that it had paid no corporate tax in Britain last year despite generating £398 million in sales.’ Unfortunately, the article goes on to say, the British Government expects that their campaign to extract a little internal revenue from these sources will cost them at least £77 million.

Still, the British taxpayer has got it soft compared to his or her American counterpart. According to a recent article in Time, the Pentagon is splashing out $400 billion dollars to purchase 2,457 Lockheed F-35 fighters that are apparently starting to show many of the attributes of a white elephant. At approximately $160 million each, the single-seat warplane costs about the same as a 204-seater Boeing 767. I don’t remember seeing that voters were offered the opportunity to say yay or nay to this project in last year’s national presidential poll – but I suspect not. The same article quotes a Republican senator saying that US spending on ‘defense’ now accounts for 45% of the world’s total.

Well, so much for the power of a democratically exercised vote, and the fair spread of the tax burden over those able to pay. What about equality before the law, another foundation stone of a democratic system? A recent study carried out in New Zealand by an academic at Victoria University found that white-collar fraudsters are far less likely to spend time in jail than denizens of society’s lower echelons hauled into court for welfare benefit cheating – in spite of the fact that the sums of money involved are invariably much larger in the former group.

Like me, you may be following the case of Jesse Jackson Jr, former Chicago Democrat congressman once talked about as having the potential to become the first black president’, who has admitted charges of channelling campaign funds to his personal use. Apparently Jesse Jr delegated the responsibility for the family tax forms to his wife Sandi, a Chicago City Councillor – who is also facing charges for filing false returns. Let’s see what happens to them, bearing in mind that a blue-collar employee who steals from his or her employer is usually treated harshly by the justice system. And then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief with plans to run for President of France. His stellar career was derailed when a hotel maid accused him of sexual assault. Stauss-Kahn’s lawyers were able to discredit the woman and avoid criminal prosecution, but she subsequently brought a civil case against him. The latest news is that the case has been settled out of court for an undisclosed, but presumably large sum. Well, you’d have to wonder why the guy would want to do that if he was, in fact, innocent. You can’t help feeling that Big Abe’s famous words could be modified these days to: Government of the people by a small and privileged elite largely for the benefit of that latter group. Monsieur Dominique, incidentally, would have been standing as a Socialist candidate!

Anyway, where does all that leave us? I’m sure you knew or suspected most of the foregoing, even if you may not have known all the fine details. I fondly remember the days when my own name was on the ballot paper in New Zealand, which made casting a vote in national elections so much easier. These days it seems I don’t qualify to exercise democratic voting rights in New Zealand or Turkey, so for the most part, I just sit on the sidelines and offer helpful comments. Still, I do feel that the Western media should assist in getting their own national houses in order before criticising too harshly democracy in Turkey and elsewhere.

[1] coined by the Sunlight Foundation

Friday, 15 February 2013

Reset your Dials – the Middle East in your wildest dreams!

Imagine a Middle East where a democratic secular republic of Iran cooperated with America to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq; where Israel and Palestine resolved to accept each other's existence and agreed on territorial boundaries; where Saudi Arabian rulers worked out a way to govern their people and relate to the outside world without the support of the US arms industry.

A refreshing look at old problems
You may say I'm a dreamer - but I'm not the only one. Stephen Kinzer, author, academic and sometime foreign correspondent with the New York Times and the Boston Globe is with me on this - or rather, I'm with him. Kinzer's recent publication 'Reset' proposes these and other fabulous possibilities in an impressively researched, cogently argued, extremely readable book subtitled 'Iran, Turkey and America's Future'.

The essence of Kinzer's thesis is that, for various historical reasons, the United States is locked into two relationships in the Middle East whose continued relevance is at best questionable, and which are poisoning the diplomatic climate in the region, rendering futile all attempts to achieve long term peace and stability. He argues that America's continued support for the dysfunctional Saudi royalty, and its commitment to backing the Israelis, right or wrong, have in fact helped to create the world-wide axis of evil and terror it so wants to destroy, and actively worked against all moves to pacify and democratize the region. Kinzer goes on to propose that the best and most logical allies for the United States in those troubled lands are Turkey and, in defiance of current logic, Iran.

'The old triangle - actually two bilateral relationships, the United States with Israel and the United States with Saudi Arabia - served Washington's interests during the Cold War. It has not, however, produced a stable Middle East. On the contrary, the region is torn by violence, terror, hatred and war. Yet, for economic as well as strategic reasons, the United States must remain engaged there. Its dilemma can be simply stated: America wants to stabilize the Middle East, but its policies are having the opposite effect. What new policies could America adopt to replace those that have failed?

Here is one answer. First, build an ever-closer partnership with Turkey and, in the future, with a democratic Iran. Second, reshape relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in ways that will serve their long-term interests and those of the United States - even if they protest.'

One factor often lacking in discussions about the problems associated with radical Islam is perspective. In order to move on from the seeming impasse in which we find ourselves, there is a need for some historical context and a sense of where we actually want to be, eventually. This perspective is what Stephen Kinzer provides in an accessibly slim volume of 227 pages (excluding notes, bibliography and index).

The book's first chapter looks at Iran (or Persia) in the early years of the 20th century. According to Kinzer, the country was taking its first steps to becoming a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliament. Why this did not eventuate he attributes to the interference of, first Russia, and later, Great Britain, inspired by our old friend Winston Churchill. And not coincidentally, to the fact that Iran was 'sitting atop an ocean of oil.' So, first Russia stepped in, in 1911, to dissolve the popularly elected parliament. After their own revolution, when Russians became more concerned with their internal problems, it was the British, thirsty for that liquid gold, who engineered a coup resulting in the installing of a puppet prime minister, later to become Shah Reza Pahlavi. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was the turn of America to instigate an upheaval which ousted the democratically chosen government of Mohammed Mossadegh and installed Shah Reza's son on the throne.

Twenty-five years of increasingly repressive rule by this pseudo-royalty sowed the seeds of extremist revolution, the fertilizer provided by a US whose economy required oil in vast quantities, and customers for its arms industry. The 1979 hostage crisis that terminated the employment of President Jimmy Carter, and brought to power the Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, was, in Kinzer’s view, a predictable outcome of continued foreign interference in Iranian/Persian affairs.

Turkey’s comparative advantage was, perhaps ironically, its lack of oil. When nationalists reacted against the threat of post-World War One partition, ousted the victorious allies and their lackey Greek invaders, overthrew the puppet government of the last Ottoman sultan and established the modern secular Republic of Turkey in 1923, the European powers were embarrassed and somewhat put out, but not inclined to force the issue merely to save face.

Perhaps the most interesting pages of Kinzer’s chapters on Turkey are those where he analyses the achievements of the current AK Party government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 
Something truly historic happened in Turkey during the first decade of the new [21st] century’, he says. ‘It was not simply that the country made its decisive breakthrough to democracy; that was certain to happen sooner or later. More remarkable was the fact that for the first time in modern history, a country was led toward democracy by a political party with roots in Islam.’

‘The success of Erdoğan and his AKP,’ he continues, ‘does not represent the triumph of Islamist politics in Turkey, but precisely the opposite: its death. Democracy has become Turkey’s only alternative. Even pious Muslims recognize, accept, and celebrate this.’

Having made a case for the adoption of Turkey and Iran as its new partners in the Middle East, Kinzer then turns to the matter of why the US should revisit and revise its historically-rooted and anachronistic relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Somewhat fortunately for the credibility of his case in this area, the author appears to have impeccable Jewish credentials, dedicating the book to his grandparents who, we are informed, ended their days in 1945 amidst the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He traces the origin of the modern state of Israel to the intercession of Harry Truman’s army buddy and best friend Eddie Jacobson, who apparently successfully twanged the Presidential heartstrings to gain his indispensable support for the project.

It was Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D Roosevelt who initiated the US’s special relationship with the Saudi royal family. In another touch of irony, the Saudis were totally opposed to the foundation of an Israeli state in Palestine – but American pragmatism carried the day, establishing friendships with two implacably opposed foes. These friendships were of particular benefit to the US during the Cold War years, with the Sauds providing unlimited funding and the Israelis their talents in covert operations, to implement strategic policies in far-flung parts of the world requiring action without too obvious direct American involvement.

Again, however, Kinzer argues that the continuation of these friendships in their present form no longer serves US interests in the Middle East. On the contrary, he suggests that US support of Israel right or wrong is the single most influential factor working against the achievement of lasting peace in the region. In his final chapter, he makes the provocative statement that: 
‘Israel and Iran are in similar positions. They are the two Middle East countries most mistrusted by their neighbours, and their governments are detested by millions around the world.’

He concludes with a powerful message: ‘In today’s rapidly changing Middle East,  . . . realities include growing Iranian power, intensifying Israeli intransigence, continuing Saudi support for anti-American terror, and the likelihood that democratic governments in Arab countries will not be reflexively pro-American. Unless the United States accepts and deals with these realities, rather than trying to wish them away or pretending they don’t exist, it risks a serious erosion of its ability to shape events in the world’s most turbulent region.’

My advice to you? Buy this book and read it!

Reset – Iran, Turkey and America’s Future, Stephen Kinzer (St Martins Griffin, 2011)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Don Draper Syndrome - More on looted treasures

There is a popular American TV series, Mad Men, set in and around a New York Madison Avenue advertising agency of the 1960s. The central character is charismatic womanizer Don Draper, whose tragic flaw is his shady past. A certain Private Dick Whitman swapped dog tags with, and assumed the identity of his officer, Lt Don Draper, who died alongside him on active service in the Korean War. The reinvented ‘Draper’ builds a stellar career in the emergent advertising industry, accompanied by his picture postcard wife Betty and their two ideal children.

Sir Charles Nicholson Bart - or was he?
Well, if you follow the series, you know what I’m talking about and how it turns out – if you don’t, it’s worth a look, and I’m not going to spoil a fascinating story for you. What I’m really interested in here is the intriguing business of borrowed identity, and its connection to a topic dear to my heart – the treasures of antiquity: who they belong to and what should be done with them.

With a little time to kill in Sydney on my recent trip to see family downunder, I visited one of the town's lesser-known attractions, the Nicholson Museum, located on the campus of Sydney University. It's not a huge establishment by world standards, but is said to have the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. Sydney-siders and Australians generally are indeed fortunate in having access to such a collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman civilizations, and, most interesting to me, a special exhibition showcasing relics of the ancient Etruscans, of whom more later.

Sir Charles Nicholson Baronet was apparently quite a big noise in Sydney back in the mid-19th century. A small plaque near the entrance to the museum informs the visitor that he emerged from humble origins to subsequent fame and fortune – suggesting a fairy tale rags-to-riches, self-made man. A more detailed biography inside explains that Sir Charles had been orphaned as a child and raised by an aunt. The transition from rags to riches had, in fact, been facilitated somewhat by the death of a wealthy uncle who had bequeathed him a substantial fortune.

This fortuitous leg-up set the young man on his path to fame and public honours. He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, later becoming Speaker of the House. He was one of the founding fathers and first Chancellors of Sydney University and, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was regarded as ‘one of the most cultivated men in the colony.’ Financial independence enabled Charles Nicholson to travel extensively through Europe, Egypt and the Near East where, it seems, he amassed a large and valuable collection of Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan antiquities’. One source claims he bought them, which in itself raises interesting questions. This collection he later donated to the University of Sydney, leading to the establishment of the Museum which bears his name and preserves it for succeeding generations . . . only it wasn’t his name!

Sydney historian Michael Turner, his curiosity aroused, as was mine, by the glib contradictions of the Nicholson fairy tale, carried out a lengthy investigation and established that ‘Charles Nicholson’ had in fact been born Isaac Ascough in 1808, son of an unmarried maid from a village in Yorkshire. The identity of the father is not known, but clearly there was a mysterious benefactor whose generosity paid for the young Isaac to attend and graduate M.D. from Edinburgh University in 1833. The Ascough uncle, whose legacy provided the wealth for ‘Charles Nicholson’s’ new life, apparently made his pile as owner and captain of ships transporting convicts from the slums of industrial London to the penal colonies of Australia.

The entry in the ADB, on the other hand, reads: Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), statesman, landowner, businessman, connoisseur, scholar and physician, was born on 23 November 1808 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the only son of Charles Nicholson, merchant, and of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant’, and goes on in a similar vein. Mad Man Don Draper’s transformation pales into small-time insignificance alongside that.

Well, money, like love, is capable of covering a multitude of sins, and charity too, as many a latter-day billionaire will attest. Leaving aside those who acquire it from a lottery ticket, it’s a rare human being that can accumulate a major fortune in one lifetime – and an even rarer one who can do it without resorting to shady practices. Having made one’s fortune, however, the urge to establish oneself as a pillar of society is strong – and what better way than by donating large sums to a worthy cause or two?

It’s mostly speculation on my part, of course. There was nothing illegal about what Uncle Ascough did to accumulate his wealth – the British Government wanted to ship thousands of London’s convicted poor to Australia, and getting the shipping contract could be a lucrative business. Still, a sensitive young man might not be too proud of such an uncle and his line of work, even if he inherited the money on said uncle’s death. The same sensitive man might also feel twinges of conscience about having ‘collected’ thousands of priceless antiquities on his Grand Tour of the Ancient World. He might possibly calculate that, with one large donation to the University Museum, he could sanitise the money he had inherited, assuage his conscience, forestall questioning about his origins, and purchase respectability in a new land. I’m not saying that’s how it was, but isn’t it possible?

Certainly it’s not an uncommon practice among the fabulously wealthy. Take George Soros as an example. His Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘business magnate, investor and philanthropist.’ His philanthropy covers a range of causes, from encouraging democracy in Eastern Europe, through eliminating poverty in Africa, to financing political opposition to the re-election of George W Bush – all worthy objects, you’d have to agree. Mr Soros’s wealth, however, was mostly sourced from edgy financial wheeling and dealing, especially currency speculation on a monumental scale. The Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time blamed Soros for the Asian financial collapse of the late 1990s. More recently, he was convicted by French courts for insider trading related to dodgy activities in the late 1980s. One could argue that this Hungarian-American-Jewish ‘business magnate’ has been one of the prominent engineers of the global financial house of cards that collapsed with such disastrous results for the world economy in 2008.

Of course it’s nice, perhaps even praiseworthy that Soros ‘gave away over $8 billion to human rights, public health and education causes’ between 1979 and 2011. On the other hand, I imagine he still has a few billion left for his own creature comforts; and if that largesse purchased him a place in heaven and a reputation for philanthropy to go with his honorary doctorates from Yale, Oxford and several lesser universities, he may consider the money to have been well spent.

But I digress. Getting back to the Nicholson Museum in Sydney – its collection includes treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt and Cyprus. For locals to see such wonders would otherwise require a time-consuming and expensive journey to some Northern Hemisphere institution – so its existence is lucky for Australians. Nevertheless, when you see that monumental sculpted head of Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, or the stone capital from a column of the Temple of Bubastis, you can’t help marveling at the achievement of Sir Nicolson-Ascough in getting his collection out of the various countries he visited, and back around the world to Sydney, NSW. For sure, they are not the kind of thing you can stash in a suitcase, conceal in your underwear or secrete in a bodily orifice. We’re talking here about some serious manpower, a bullock cart or two, and maybe even a train of camels, not to mention a couple of industrial-size containers. My guess is he didn’t have to worry about a 23 kg limit for his check-in baggage on the trip back downunder – but still, it’s hard to see the whole enterprise being accomplished without some connivance by local officials who may or may not have been paid off to provide assistance, or at least turn a blind eye.

Undoubtedly regulations regarding the ownership of unearthed antiquities were less stringent in those days, as were those controlling border crossings. At least two books have been published on a phenomenon sometimes known as the Rape of Egypt, which reached its peak around the beginning of the 19th century. The passion that overtook genteel Europe has been less offensively referred to as Egyptomania, which, however you look at it, involved the mass theft, removal and/or destruction of vast quantities of mummies, statuary and other relics from tombs and pyramids. Apparently there was a fashion in regency drawingrooms for soirées where three or four thousand-year-old corpses were unwrapped for the titillation of the idle rich. Not all were so  flagrantly destroyed, however, and one of the sights that impressed me on my visit to the British Museum was a room containing more mummies than I saw in the corresponding institution in Cairo.

To be fair, there is a long tradition of victorious empires uplifting and relocating monuments from conquered territories. The hippodrome in Constantinople contained at least three such trophies, two of which can still be seen in present-day Istanbul: the Serpent Column, originally located in Delphi, Greece; and a huge portion of Egyptian obelisk purloined from the Temple of Karnak, where it had been erected by the Pharaoh Tutmoses around 1400 BCE. The third piece was a group of four bronze horses formerly standing over the entrance to the stadium, which can now be seen adorning the facade of St Marks Basilica in Venice, whither they were transported by knights of the Fourth Crusade after the sack and pillaging of their sister Christian city in 1204. It is said that booty from conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE financed the building of the Colosseum in Rome by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus – and who remembers that these days?

Two brothers of Italian extraction, Luigi and Alessandro di Palma Ceonola, served sequentially as American consul to Cyprus in the 1860s and 70s. As a sideline to their consular duties, the brothers carried out archeological excavations, which, after the US ended its diplomatic presence on the island, became a full-time occupation. Their digs resulted in a collection of thousands of valuable artifacts, much of which ended up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while some was sold to collectors in the United Kingdom. Authorities in Cyprus today still, I understand, consider the actions of the brothers as tantamount to looting. More recently, another Australian gentleman with the imposing name of Professor James Rivers Barrington Stewart, carried out extensive excavations of burial sites on the island. It was, I gather, only after Cyprus gained independence from Great Britain in 1960 that controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts.

I spent a significant portion of my high school days attending classes in the Latin language - for which I am, in fact, quite grateful. In an odd way, its peculiarities of noun declensions, verb conjugations and idiosyncratic syntax prepared me for my later, more practical study of Turkish. Hand in hand with the language, we Grammar boys were also expected to acquire a knowledge of Roman life, history and customs. Not a lot stuck, I have to confess, but I do recall that the Roman calendar was dated from a zero year corresponding to our 753 BCE. Following after the lupine siblings Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the great city, was a succession of six kings, the last three of which were allegedly Etruscan.

Well, from those days to these, the Etruscans never crossed my path again - until my visit to the Nicholson Museum. That establishment, as I mentioned, houses a collection of relics of those very Etruscans, and I found myself empathising across the millennia with that lost civilization. Very little, it seems, is known of the people whose language and culture were well nigh obliterated by the Romans who conquered them. What we do know mostly derives from tombs and funerary inscriptions, and suggests that Etruscan civilization arose around the 8th century BCE. The people are thought to have originated from Asia Minor, and spoke a language unrelated to any we know.

Professor Graziano Baccolino of the University of Bologna makes the surprising claim that the Etruscans deserve to be recognized as ‘the true founders of European civilisation’, and suggests that the Romans deliberately denied their debt to these people from the East, falsifying their own history to facilitate the cover up. The English novelist DH Lawrence, in a collection of travel essays entitled ‘Etruscan Places’, waxes lyrical on these ancient folk: The things [the Etruscans] did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.’

He is less generous to their conquerors who, he says, ‘did wipe out the Etruscan existence as a nation and a people. However, this seems to be the inevitable result of expansion with a big E, which is the sole raison d'étre of people like the Romans.’

So it’s not a new phenomenon. Isaac Ascough aka Sir Charles Nicholson is part of a long tradition wherein sons of empire have, for millennia, appropriated the trappings of overthrown civilisations. Just as inevitable, perhaps, is the emerging trend, in today’s world, for descendants of the losing sides to seek redress and perhaps the return of looted treasures. It is not a conflict amenable to easy solution.