Sunday, October 17, 2010

Edward Said as an Intellectual

For years, he was a familiar face on the network news – an urbane, articulate man, invariably dressed in an elegant suit and tie, who could always be counted on to provide polished, unaccented, pro-Palestinian (or, more generally, pro-Arab or pro-Moslem) spin on recent Mideast developments. Yet Edward W. Said is more – much more – than just another TV talking head.


A longtime professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as a former president of the Modern Language Association, Said is also largely responsible for the influential school of literary and cultural criticism known as "postcolonial studies." Which is not as far removed from being a Palestinian spokesman as it may sound, for, as Said has made clear in such works as The Question of Palestine (1979), he views Israel as (above all else) a product of colonialism – a pseudo-European state carved by Western imperialist powers out of lands rightly belonging to the subjects of empire.1
Said has been in the spotlight for a long time now, but in the last two or three years – and especially since September 11 of this year – his public profile has been higher than ever. Vintage Books, after reissuing several of his works in matching paperbacks, published his memoir, Out of Place, in 1999. In the next year, two new volumes appeared from various publishers: The End of the Peace Process, a sizable gathering of articles and op-eds on the Middle East, and The Edward Said Reader. These were followed in 2001 by Reflections on Exile, a hefty collection of essays, and Power, Politics, and Culture, a lavish compilation of Said’s interviews.2 In these times when major publishing houses almost invariably disdain collections of anything, the treatment accorded Said’s essays, op-eds, and interviews – which tend not only to date rapidly but also to repeat the same broad points over and over again – is nothing less than stunning. On the dustjacket of Power, Politics, and Culture, Nadine Gordimer ranks Said "among the truly important intellects of our century." Surely his publishers would appear to be telling us that something extraordinarily important is indeed going on here – though, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, one might reasonably wonder if any of those publishers have reconsidered their enthusiasm.
What is going on here? Let us begin at the beginning. The son of a Lebanese mother and an affluent Palestinian father (whose World War One service for Uncle Sam won him U.S. citizenship), Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, was baptized in the Anglican Church, and grew up as a member of Cairo’s privileged set. Fluent from childhood in both Arabic and English, he attended exclusive British and American schools in that city, then went on to a New England prep school, to Princeton, and to Harvard, where he received his doctorate. He began a fairly typical career in the American academy, only to be politicized (he has said) by the Six-Day War. Before long he was working closely with Yasir Arafat (with whom he has since fallen out) and serving as a member of the Palestinian National Council (from which he has since resigned). He became a familiar media presence. And with his book Orientalism (1978), he also attained academic superstardom. Examining at length the works of T.E. Lawrence, Sir Richard Burton, and Ernest Renan, among others, Said argued in Orientalism that Westerners have long looked upon the Orient, and in particular upon Moslems and Arabs, with a condescension born of ignorance, solipsism, and a colonialist mentality.3
Orientalism made some valid points: there is something wrong, for example, with the fact that many American students who receive comprehensive educations in Western civilization gain only the most rudimentary understanding of the world’s other civilizations. (The fact that many students are graduated knowing very little about any civilization is another topic altogether.) But ultimately, Said’s thesis amounts to a truism: that people look at the "other" through their own eyes, and tend to judge alien cultures by their own culture’s standards. A problem? Yes. But Said’s take on it is problematic, too. Almost consistently, he condemns any negative commentary by any Westerner on any aspect of the Orient. Often he seems to imply that the only proper Western posture toward the East is to suspend judgment entirely and bathe everything in sympathy. ("Sympathy" is a favorite Said word: routinely, he slams Western observers of the non-Western world for failing to show enough of it.) Yet in Said’s view even so sympathetic a Westerner as Burton is guilty of elevating his own "consciousness to a position of supremacy over the Orient," a position in which "his individuality perforce encounters, and indeed merges with, the voice of Empire." In Said’s view, in short, simply to write can be to coerce, control, colonize.
What Orientalism does with Western scholars’ ideas about the Orient, Covering Islam (1981, 1997) does with the notions of Islam set forth in the Western media.4 Repeatedly, Said serves up quotations from newspaper op-eds and television news programs that depict Moslems as potential terrorists and/or religious fundamentalists; and his complaints about these media images are not entirely off base. But what’s odd about Covering Islam is that it never really gets around to the ticklish topic of Islam itself. Granted, the Western media have frequently simplified and caricatured the Islamic world – but then, they do this to everything. Besides, a substantial percentage of Moslems are in fact religious fundamentalists who despise individual liberty and sexual equality, who believe profoundly that all sorts of things should be punished by death, and who readily cheer acts of violence directed against innocent civilians in the West. Tirelessly, Said dances around or rushes past these facts. Time and again he dismisses "fundamentalism" as an anti-Moslem code word. Confronted with the multi-volume Fundamentalism Project, which usefully examines fundamentalism in a variety of religions, Said (who invariably represents himself as having the utmost respect for serious scholarly work) ignores its contents and instead presumes to read the editors’ minds: "My suspicion," he says darkly, "is that the project itself was started precisely with Islam in mind, although Judaism and Christianity are in fact discussed." They certainly are discussed, and at great length; nowhere in the Fundamentalism Project can one find evidence that Said’s "suspicion" has any basis.
On occasion, to be sure, Said admits the downside of recent Islamic history. Yet he is always quick to turn his focus – and his criticisms – westward. Typical of his approach is a passage about Saddam Hussein from a 1990 essay that appears in Said’s 1994 omnium gatherum The Politics of Dispossession .5 Saddam, he admits, "is a deeply unattractive, indeed revoltingly tough and callous leader, who has suppressed personal freedoms..." and so on. "But he is neither mad nor, I would suggest, an unlikely figure to emerge out of the desolation that has characterized recent Arab history." And of course much of the responsibility for that "desolation" can be laid on the United States, with its "imperialist" and anti-Arab policies. By paragraph’s end, Said has brought in the American invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya in order to make the point that Saddam, in invading Kuwait, was after all only doing what the U.S. does all the time.
Throughout his oeuvre, Said singles Noam Chomsky out for praise with astonishing frequency. What may not be clear to many readers is that Said practices (also with astonishing frequency) a rhetorical strategy that Chomsky may be said to have perfected. For Chomsky’s way of addressing the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge – or, rather, of not addressing it – was to focus on the errors and oversimplifications of Western journalists and on the wiles of Western officialdom. The effect, which one could hardly see as anything other than intentional, was to minimize the genocide itself. Said approaches Saddam, Khaddafi, & Co. identically: skirting their negatives, he attends rather to the peccadilloes of Western media and governments, reminding readers constantly that though many Westerners tend to view Islamic culture monolithically ("[Daniel] Pipes speaks...as if Islam were one simple thing"), it is in fact a complex phenomenon whose adherents number over a billion. (Forget events such as the recent U.N. AIDS conference at which the Islamic countries did vote monolithically – opposed by virtually every other sovereign state on earth, except the Vatican – to disinvite a scheduled speaker from a gay AIDS organization.) For Said, it can seem, any generalization about the Islamic world is an outrageous overgeneralization. In Covering Islam he mocks concerns about "organized Islamic militancy" by saying that such militancy "accounts for less than five percent of the billion-strong Islamic world." (Which adds up to something under fifty million organized militants: how comforting!)6
As Covering Islam scratches away at the Western media, so Culture and Imperialism (1993) picks its way through Western literature.7 It contains the most notorious single example of Said’s postcolonial criticism, namely his underscoring of the fact that the privileged lives of the main characters in Mansfield Park are made possible by the labor of colonial Antiguans whose harrowing existence is of no interest whatsoever to Jane Austen. Point taken. Yet it seems ironic that the principal contribution of this book, written by a man who demands that the West recognize the complexity of Islam, the Orient, the Arab world, etc., was to advance a species of criticism that neglects human and literary complexities in favor of inane, vacuous, and unilluminating cant about Western imperialism.8 Yes, Europe’s colonial legacy, with its attendant cruelties, is an established historical fact; but it should be remembered that the concepts of human equality and individual rights are Western legacies, too – and are perceived as such by many people in the East. (The courageous citizens of Islamic countries who work as human-rights advocates are customarily savaged by their governments, and by many of their compatriots, as traitors, tools of the West, opponents of "Islamic values.") Said has spent his career studying Western civilization and enjoying its freedoms, yet, just as he sidesteps the less salutary realities of today’s political Islam, so he continually avoids acknowledging that the very values by which he judges Western governments and media are Western values. Indeed, the principal reason why Said has served so effectively in America as a TV pitchman for the Palestinians is that his self-presentation is thoroughly Western: he comes off as the very model of a tolerant, liberal Western academic, his distinguished appearance and civilized manner serving to dispel any notion of Arabs as irrational, zealous, terror-prone.
It’s all about image – and a key element of Said’s quite consciously contrived personal image is the word "intellectual." For Said, this word is manifestly nothing less than a mantra, a lodestar; it’s a cloak in which he wraps himself proudly, apparently confident that it confers upon him an air of higher objectivity. And, above all, it’s a weapon. He wields it constantly, employing it to shoot down ideological adversaries whom he depicts variously as ill-informed, economically corrupted hirelings, as hysterical, politically compromised ideologues, and as vulgar, professionally incompetent journalists – non-intellectuals all, naturally – and whom he contrasts with himself, the intellectual who stands above petty prejudices and personal motives, embodying pure thought, humanistic sentiments, and disinterested truth-seeking. In The Politics of Dispossession, for example, he dispatches two opponents (both of them exceedingly knowledgeable and perceptive students of Middle Eastern culture and politics) as follows: "[New York Times writer Thomas] Friedman is a journalist....[Fouad] Ajami is a second-rate scholar who has written one collection of essays...and a very bad history of Musa Sadr. These are all people who belong to the genre of celebrities. They have no particular anchor in the process of intellectual work or in institutions of intellectual production." As opposed, of course, to Said himself, who begins Reflections on Exile by telling us that the book constitutes "some of the intellectual results of teaching and studying in one academic institution, Columbia University in New York," who states in Out of Place that his "first opportunity for intellectual instruction during the summer came in 1949" (he is speaking here of himself at age 13 or 14), and who pads book after book with gratuitous references to "intellectual concerns in the scholarly community" and the like. Said’s acolytes play the same game: the editors of The Edward Said Reader, in their introduction, use the word "intellectual" several times on one page, concluding that "Ultimately, what we find in the broad variety of works we present here is an affirmation of the intellectual vocation, an unwavering belief that the rigors of intellectual thought and the courage to speak one’s convictions will lead one down the incorruptible road to discovering and demanding equal justice for all."
The apotheosis of all this silliness is Representations of the Intellectual (1994), an unbearably stuffy little book – originally a series of lectures – in which Said defines the intellectual as "neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public."9 The intellectual, in short, engages in the act of "speaking truth to power." From this it is only a short, easy step to connecting the word "intellectual" with Said’s own opposition to various official U.S. positions while denying the label to those with differing views. For Said, "speaking truth to power" clearly means, among other things, deploring America’s actions in the Gulf War, though it does not encompass explicitly condemning terrorist acts by Palestinians and others who, in his formulation, cannot be understood to have "power."
In the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, to read Said on the subject of terrorism – a term he often puts in quotation marks, as if to question its legitimacy as a concept – is an experience in a category of its own. In a 1988 article that appears in The Politics of Dispossession, Said does his best to suggest to the reader that the very notion of "terrorism" is imprecise, ideologically charged, and – well – downright vulgar, and that the connection in Western minds between this term and Arab and Moslem societies is unjust. ("The uniqueness of this region [the Middle East] and its people to discussions of terrorism is, I believe, quite special," he writes. "To my knowledge, of no other country, no religion, culture, or ethnic group except Islam and its societies has it been said that terrorism is, after a fashion, endemic.") Arguing that terrorism-targeted nations such as the United States are in fact responsible for "state violence" that dwarfs the "private violence" of so-called terrorists, Said praises as "sensible" an article by one Eqbal Ahmad, who describes terrorism as "a violent way of expressing long-felt, collective grievances" and who refers sympathetically to "the violence of the helpless." In a piece that appeared in the Observer on September 16, 2001 – a mere five days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington – Said expresses impatience with the consensus interpretation of those attacks, arguing that "what is going on" is simply that "an imperial power [has been] injured at home for the first time." He admits that "there has been terror of course," but feels called upon to pronounce that "nearly every struggling modern movement at some stage has relied on terror." After reading this article, one no longer wonders why it appeared in a British newspaper rather than on the op-ed page of Said’s usual high-profile outlet, The New York Times – whose readers, many of them ordinarily receptive to Professor Said’s critiques of Western democracy and whitewashing of Islamic tyranny and terror, were perhaps too busy that week trying to recover from the violent assault on their city to be able to profit from his wisdom.10
Routinely, Said reduces terrorism from a horrific reality perpetrated by terrorists to a distasteful locution perpetrated by Western journalists and scholars. "Both the United States and Israel," he remonstrated in 1997, "are...enamored of clichés about Islamic terror"; in the 1988 article, sounding like a fastidious music critic responding to some harsh dissonance, he refers to "the unpleasant tingling induced by the word terrorism." Rejecting Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that "the root cause of terrorism is terrorists," Said sniffs that this view "is open to objection on both journalistic and scholarly grounds as well as on aesthetic and grammatical ones." In a phrase, moreover, that may read somewhat differently than intended to those who witnessed the ash- and grime-covered aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center, Said excoriates various Western Arabists for their contributions to what he calls "the verbal dust storm induced by terrorism." One might think that the events of September 11 would have shamed him into silence on at least this particular topic, but no: in his September 16 Observer article, while wisely allowing himself a few negative words about the World Trade Center attackers and their "lying religious claptrap," he again zeroes in on the deplorable role of "words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘freedom’" in American political rhetoric, complaining that "such large abstractions have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the influence of the oil, defence and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to (and ignorance of) ‘Islam’ that takes new forms every day." No, Professor Said: these "large abstractions" describe living realities that are now clearly at war with each other.
"I must...confess," Said has written, "that I find the entire arsenal of words and phrases that derive from the concept of terrorism both inadequate and shameful." Well, for my part I must confess that I find Said’s slick, supercilious, faculty-lounge intellectualization of terror morally unsettling. It is one thing to analyze terror; it is quite another to attempt, as Said has done repeatedly, to analyze it away. He would have us forget that the arsenals that matter, where contemporary terrorism is concerned, are composed not of "words and phrases" but of guns, knives, and bombs – and, in the year 2001, commercial airliners that have been hijacked and employed as guided missiles. (To be sure, Said is invariably careful to insert into any discussion of terrorism a sentence or two acknowledging that violence against innocents is always wrong; but whenever he writes a sentence like "Terror bombing is terrible, and cannot be condoned," you can be certain that the next sentence will begin with "But.")
Said’s image as a truth-seeking, truth-speaking intellectual came under serious attack in September 1999. An article by Justus Reid Weiner in that month’s Commentary argued persuasively that Said had on occasion misrepresented his early life, describing himself as having grown up in Jerusalem and fled to Cairo as an exile in 1947 or ’48, around the time of the founding of Israel, when in fact (as Weiner’s research showed, and as Said’s memoir, also published in 1999, belatedly acknowledged) he was raised in Cairo and only spent relatively brief periods in Jerusalem.11 Weiner cites a 1992 Harper’s article by Said: "I was born, in November 1935 in Talbiya, then a mostly new and prosperous Arab quarter of Jerusalem. By the end of 1947, just months before Talbiya fell to Jewish forces, I’d left with my family for Cairo." Similarly, in London Review of Books (1998): "I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt." And a 1998 New York Times profile reads: "Mr. Said was born in Jerusalem and spent the first twelve years of his life there." Weiner’s comment: "A great deal of the moral authority accruing to Edward Said derives as much from his personal as from his intellectual credentials"; yet "although Said has defined his own intellectual vocation as one of ‘tell[ing] the truth against extremely difficult odds’... it turns out that, in retailing the facts of his own personal biography over the years, he has spoken anything but the plain, direct, or honest truth." Said’s aim, according to Weiner? "To strengthen his wider ideological agenda – and in particular to promote the claims of Palestinian refugees against Israel."
Said replied to Weiner’s article with a short piece in the weekly English-language edition of the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram.12 In a subsequent letter to Commentary, a group of people identifying themselves as founders of the "Arab-Jewish Peace Group" claimed that "each one of Mr. Weiner’s allegations is addressed and refuted" in Said’s Al-Ahram article; another Said supporter wrote, "Now that Justus Reid Weiner’s assertions about Edward Said’s life and origins have been found inaccurate, does Commentary have any plans to issue a formal apology or clarification?" Yet Said’s article in Al-Ahram, entitled "Defamation, Zionist-style," provided no such refutation. Instead Said added to his autobiographical duplicities an audacious misrepresentation of Weiner’s charges. Weiner, he claimed, "attacks my life and story as a Palestinian by pretending to show that I am neither Palestinian, nor ever lived in Palestine, nor that my family was evicted from Palestine in 1948....It is part of the Palestinian fate always to be required to prove one’s existence and history!" But at no point did Weiner deny that Said was a Palestinian, or that he may at some point have resided briefly in Palestine, or that members of his extended family were forced to leave Palestine in the late 1940s. On the contrary, Weiner specifically charged Said with maintaining that he had grown up in Jerusalem and been driven from it by the Israelis – and this was an accusation to which Said obviously had no answer. In Al-Ahram Said wrote that "what Commentary wants is not the truth but the Big Zionist Lie." Yet truth was something that Said had plainly bent in the past, and was bending again in Al-Ahram.
The Arab-Jewish Peace Group’s letter insisted that "claims like Mr. Weiner’s hurt the Palestinians in the same way that revisionist historians who try to deny the Holocaust hurt the Jewish people." But if any harm was done to the Palestinians, it was not by Weiner’s article but by Said. Why, one wonders, did he fib about his past? My own sense of Said from his writings leads me to suspect that he simply couldn’t help himself – that for him it was not enough that there is some justice in Palestinian claims; his overweening amour-propre compelled him to place himself at the center of it all. He needed to be not just a spokesman, but a symbol. And why, it may be asked, do Said’s untruths matter? They matter because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a nearly hopeless moral quagmire in which each camp has racked up a litany of legitimate world-class grievances and a history of unspeakable deeds. To take a leadership role on either side is to enter an atmosphere rife with double-dealing, propaganda, and spin. In such circumstances, truth becomes the dearest commodity of all. Those who participate in such a conflict in sincere hopes of achieving a fair and peaceful resolution must strive to honor the truth. Thus Said’s are no ordinary deceptions, but instead resonate in a way that, say, the recently revealed prevarications by the historian Joseph Ellis (who for years told his classes at Mount Holyoke that he had served in Vietnam) do not.
The Ellis case, indeed, makes for an arresting comparison. "What has puzzled nearly everyone," noted a New York Times editorial about Ellis’ falsehoods, "is the transparency of these stories. Why should a man as successful as Mr. Ellis...feel compelled to reinvent his past? One might almost suppose that he was not so much reinventing his past as confirming his present, projecting his current degree of success backward in time, living up to a version of himself."13 Quoting the executive director of the American Historical Association to the effect that Ellis' case "has provoked a conversation about the limits and the values of truth," the Times insisted that "that is exactly what this case should not do," since Ellis’s stories were neither "part of some self-avowed exercise in personal fiction nor...a post-modernist experiment in the boundaries of truth": they were lies, pure and simple.
Excellently said. Yet where, one may wonder, was the Times editorial on Edward W. Said, who has contributed to that newspaper’s editorial pages on innumerable occasions over the years, and to whom many of the Times’ observations about Joseph Ellis seem eerily applicable? It is hardly less than astonishing that while Ellis’ reputation has been forever tarnished by the revelations about him, Said emerged utterly unscathed from the Commentary episode. Nor does his good name seem to have been damaged by a photograph, published in The New Republic’s issue of July 24, 2000, that showed him, on a recent visit to Lebanon, hurling a rock across the border at an Israeli guardhouse. Commenting on the picture, TNR’s editors made note of "the purity that [Said] has claimed for his own activity as an intellectual. He has made a career of defining a high, romantic ideal of intellectual life and heroically adducing himself as an example of his definition." Yet the photo, wittily captioned "Representation of the Intellectual," plainly contradicted Said’s image as (in TNR’s words) "an exquisite, wounded soul distracted by politics from art."
More than a year after the appearance of that photograph, however, Said – surely the Teflon intellectual par excellence – not only endures but thrives. Indeed, even before the events of September 11 provided him with a fresh wave of media prominence, his latest crop of books had arguably raised him to new heights of renown. After all, how many other English professors these days could persuade a major publisher to issue such a mixed bag as Reflections of Exile, whose topics include Tarzan, pianists, the Egyptian belly dancer Tahia Carioca, Moby-Dick, Michel Foucault, R.P. Blackmur, Chopin, Hemingway on bullfighting, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations? One piece in this collection grew out of an encounter with a black woman history professor who complained that a seminar paper by Said had focused too much on white European male writers; in response, Said assails such bean-counting even as he seeks to certify his credentials as a hero of "the victims of race, class, or gender." In another essay, Said attacks V.S. Naipaul as a "scavenger" for choosing to survey the Third World’s "follies, its corruption, its hideous problems...rather than to render that history’s processes, occasional heroism, intermittent successes" – for, that is, telling the truth rather than propagandizing. (Naipaul, according to Said, lacks Nadine Gordimer’s "sympathetic insight.")
Throughout Reflections of Exile, Said seesaws between aesthetics and politics. It is hardly an exaggeration, in fact, to describe him as being two writers in one. The writer that I think may fairly be identified as the more genuine of the two – and who can be seen at work in Said’s music criticism for the Nation, in Out of Place, and in some of his literary criticism – is a Western-oriented highbrow of the first water, a cultural traditionalist who genuinely loves European and American literature and classical music, who believes fervently in the idea of literary and artistic greatness, who brings serious critical standards to bear on his material, and who says what he thinks. It is in his political writings, and in those of his critical writings in which aesthetics are overwhelmed by politics, that the less attractive, and (I believe) less genuine, Said emerges – the Said who plays unworthy rhetorical shell games, avoids uncomfortable truths, and (while frequently insisting on his opposition to terrorism) seeks to cultivate sympathy for the murderers of innocents. At times one has the distinct impression that, deep down, Said feels (to coin a phrase) rather out of place in his role as flayer of "U.S. imperialism" and empathic observer of "the violence of the helpless."
One would have hoped that if he had any conscience at all, Said’s sense of discomfort in this role would have been exacerbated by the events of September 11. Yet his Observer article, alas, betrays little if any hint of remorse over his years of faithful service as an apologist for terrorism. In a contribution to a London Review of Books symposium on the terrorist attacks,14 moreover, Said’s talent for dissembling seemed once more in evidence as he described a post-attack America that I didn’t recognize from anything else I had read: "Hundreds of Muslim and Arab shopkeepers, students, women in hejab, and ordinary citizens have had insults hurled at them, while posters and graffiti announcing their imminent death sprang up all over the place." Ignoring the President’s endless insistence that Islam is a religion of peace and his firm entreaties that Americans not blame their Moslem neighbors for the terrorist attacks, Said accused Bush of drawing "God and America into alignment" against Islam.
To touch briefly on Said’s other recent titles, both The Edward Said Reader and Power, Politics, and Culture offer useful enough surveys of Said’s career – the former by collecting highlights from his books, the latter by rounding up a quarter century’s worth of interviews in which Said summarizes those books’ arguments. Meanwhile, the articles and op-eds brought together in The End of the Peace Process – which picks up where Said’s previous grab-bag, The Politics of Dispossession, left off – add up to an exceedingly detailed and repetitious chronicle of developments in the Middle East during the second half of the 1990s, especially those relating to the Oslo accords (which Said fervently opposed, calling the U.S. a less than impartial intermediary).
Finally, there’s Out of Place. To read it is in one sense a curious experience, for the memoir does pretty much what Culture and Imperialism accuses Austen of doing in Mansfield Park: it vividly portrays Said’s early life as a member of Cairo’s highly Westernized privileged class while offering hardly a glimpse of the 99-plus percent of that city’s many millions who (then as now) lived in staggering poverty. Indeed, by rendering Cairo’s poor all but invisible, and by focusing instead on the ways in which he, as an Arab boy, felt slighted by the Western curricula of his elite schools, Said manages to depict his younger self not as an insufficiently sensitive beneficiary of economic oppression (which is, of course, how he views Austen’s characters) but rather as a victim of social injustice.
To read the memoir with a knowledge of Said’s history of autobiographical fabrications, moreover, seriously damages one’s experience of the book (which, if one were somewhat less well-informed, one might find lovely and moving). Among other things, Out of Place suggests that Said’s career can be understood largely as a reaction to his father, who comes across in this portrait as an almost mythic figure – a rich, powerful, brilliant businessman, seemingly indomitable (until his last years), and always putting down his effete, precocious only son (who, for his part, seems to have viewed his tough and unsophisticated père with something close to condescension). The elder Said adored the U.S., loathed Palestine, and was eager for his boy to become a successful, respected American and to turn his back forever on the Middle East and its messy politics. For a long time Said seemed determined to leave the impression that his conspicuous support for Palestinian rights had as its background a fondly remembered childhood in a Jerusalem that was stolen from him by the founders of Israel; can it be that his powerful self-identification with Palestine is, rather, a defiant response to a father who absolutely hated the place? Might it be, furthermore, that if Said clings so fiercely to the word "intellectual," it is precisely because this is the one thing his otherwise awe-inspiring parent was not?
After September 11, 2001, to be sure, such questions can seem not only trivial but beside the point. For one of the many effects of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington was to underscore the essential wrongheadedness of the ways of thinking about these issues that have been promoted over the years by the likes of Edward Said. Those attacks made it clear that the West’s cardinal error, in regard to the Arab and Moslem world, has not been a failure of "sympathy," as Said would have it, but a refusal to grapple with the basic realities of that world and the very considerable challenges that its most refractory elements pose to the security and values of our own civilization. It should now be thoroughly clear that part of what is required of us in the present world order is that, far from joining Said in his comprehensive denigration of things Western, we take more seriously than we have heretofore our obligation to defend civilized values from barbarism, fanaticism, and tyranny – from people who have no moral boundaries where violence is concerned and who regard us and the ideas by which we live with a hatred that lies beyond our comprehension. After September 11, Westerners can no longer luxuriate in the illusion that that hatred is not real or that it can somehow be dissolved by means of a sufficient application of "sympathy." If we are to show sympathy, rather, it should be for the brave souls in that region who are struggling under perilous circumstances, and against formidable odds, to nudge fundamentalist Islam out of the Dark Ages and to turn rogue states into respectable members of the community of nations. This is, to say the least, a tall order; and in such a monumental struggle, the glib deceptions and slippery distortions of an Edward W. Said can play no positive role. 

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