Monday, March 05, 2007

The falling star of Edward Said

One of the most influential and damaging intellectual trends of the last quarter century - one that still echoes in academic and media culture - was set off in the late 1970s by the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, a superficially serious attack on an entire academic discipline whose history stretches back to late medieval times, with an intellectual pedigree reaching back further to Herodotus. The book simultaneously exhibited shoddy scholarship, execrable writing, and bad faith; while at the same time demonstrating a sharp eye for catching the then-rising academic wave of junk post-humanism: post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism - all later to known to most of us through post-modernism and political correctness.

The consequences have been unrelievedly awful - for academia and general intellectual culture - enthroning a sanctimonious ignorance-cum-PC mythology that rules in certain quarters concerning the Middle East. Based on the undeserved deference paid to him, Said's quackery has been institutionalized in certain universities as "Middle East studies," a PC parody of an older, real academic discipline. The writings of real Arabist and other Middle Eastern scholars against Said - such as those of Bernard Lewis and Martin Kramer - were not enough to stop the spread of the virus.

Dangerous Knowledge, an important new book by Robert Irwin, a prominent British historian, literary scholar, and Orientalist himself, marks a turning of the tide against this ascendancy. The book has received almost entirely favorable reviews (see here, here, and here) - a clear sign that the post-modernist lunacy hatched in academia a quarter century ago is abating. Unfortunately, the entrenched legacy remains. Orientalism, Irwin summarizes, "seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations."

Said's doctored autobiography as a Palestinian refugee contributed to this debacle and helped to delegitimize real scholars and real scholarship. (See here for a free summary and here for discussion.) Said's position at Columbia also contributed strongly to the rise of "Middle East studies" there and elsewhere, a critical component of political correctness. That in turn has led to censorship and intimidation of Jewish and other students, abetted by the usual administrator spinelessness. But as always with the Middle East, "radicalism" also weirdly converges with the "realist" establishment (Baker, Carter), lubricated and backed by oil money.

In reality, Said was from an upper-middle class Egyptian Christian family and educated in Egypt and the US. (Further irony: his family, as Christians, were dispossessed and exiled: from Egypt, by Nasser's revolution in the 1950s.) He later became a successful literary critic who, in the 1970s, re-invented himself as an oppressed Third World peasant and then began shoplifting other people's identities. He created a potent academic cult around himself made up of gullible followers who thought, "He must know what he's talking about - he's one of them." His cult represented an historic failure to tell the truth about Islam and the oppression of non-Muslim and non-Arab minorities in the Islamic world.

Instead, he concocted for the Arab world bogus claims of victimhood as a postmodern layer pasted on a deeper and older layer of theocratic and tribal intolerance. Said's influence validated the suffocating and sometimes violent obscurantism that has engulfed the Middle East in the last 30 years. His ideas have been consistently used as they were intended: clubs to intimidate and strangle free thought. Orientalism caricatures many of the great Western scholars of the Near East of the last few centuries - all of whom probably forgot more than Said ever knew - omits critical facts that undermine Said's argument, and shows a sometimes astonishing ignorance of history and even geography. Instead, the book combines the barely-comprehensible agit-prop of late Marxism with the then-new jargon of post-modernism - and in 1978, failed to anticipate the fall of secular nationalism and Marxism and the rise of Islamic radicalism. Said spent the last decade of his life rationalizing his multiple stories, while spreading a fog of misinformation about the Middle East and pursuing a now-familiar dual career of printing xenophobic nativism in Arabic-language publications, then elegantly repackaging this poison for Western audiences.

That makes Christopher Hitchens' favorable review of Dangerous Knowledge all the more remarkable. Hitchens was a friend of Said and wrongly defended him when Said's embroidered tall tales were exposed. Writing this review not too long after Said's death must have been a painful exercise in honesty and bidding adieu to a documented fraud. Hitchens has emerged as a brilliant critic of the modern Middle East, its intolerance and oil money corruption. (See his earlier 2003 retrospective on Orientalism here.) Said posed as an alternative to this pre-9/11 status quo. In fact, he offered an escapist fantasy that appeals to the historical ignorance and passionate self-hatred of Western leftists. To his very great credit, Hitchens has slowly backed away from the moral squalor of the man and his ideas.

Is there no greater contrast than with Asia? Here was a clash of civilizations that started in the 19th century, when modern Europe encountered then-declining Asian societies and came to influence or control them, then was overlaid with 20th-century ideological conflicts (World War II, Cold War), sometimes mixed in confusing ways, as in Vietnam (confusing to Asians, not just to us). The rebirth of Asian civilizations, under the impact of Western ideas and technology, is complete, after a seventy-year period of wars and violent revolutions. The interaction of the West and Asia since about 1980 has been peaceful, and the exchange between the two is now extensive. While you still hear occasional grinding noises, the "clash" has been converted into a productive symbiosis, with the two maintaining distinct identities even as they borrow from one another. Only a few relics remain from the war-revolution era: North Korea, Burma, and the Chinese Communist Party (in form only, not in content). Even appeals to traditional Chinese concepts of Confucianism play less and less role in Asia.

The Middle East is obviously different, in a politically very incorrect and devastating way. As someone famous once said, Asia solves more problems than it creates, while the Middle East creates more problems than it solves.* The Middle East no longer forms an important civilization. Take away its oil money, and you have a region as backwards as and poorer than Africa. (For example, the Arab world publishes fewer new Arabic books a year than does Israel, its supposed mortal enemy; it has produced fewer translations in four centuries than Western countries publish from Arabic in a year.) Its powerful mix of tribalism and religious intolerance is what makes the place so intractable, unlike Asia. Lewis' classic essay on the "roots of Muslim rage," published in 1990, still hits the mark.

In place of a public culture based on facts and realistic history, the Middle East is dominated by a phantasmagoria of imaginary dream palaces. Not a civilization either, it is rather the collapsed ruin of one, like one of those decayed grands maisons you see at the edge of an old town. It doesn't produce much beyond oil and, technically, doesn't even produce that. In place of the unraveling foreign policy paradigms of realism and liberal internationalism, neoconservatism has had its day in the sun recently and been given the chance to tackle the issue. There are many things wrong with neoconservatism (that's a whole other discussion), but here I want to zero in on one thing: the false idea that the Middle East is "ripe" for constructive and quasi-Western political change. (Even Lewis, as smart as they come and not a neoconservative, has bought into it.) There's no evidence for this; all the evidence is opposite and virtually screams "No!" The Middle East has been moving away from European-inspired paradigms (liberal democracy, nationalism, fascism, communism) for more than a generation and shows few signs of turning in a different direction.

The decline of the Arab nation-state and secular Arab nationalism has created a void that radical pan-Islam is trying to fill. No factor has contributed so powerfully to the strength of radical Islam than the feeling that it has no serious opponents in the Muslim world. It opposes the existing, largely illegitimate state structure of the modern Middle East, but at the same time, derives major support from those states, such Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Lacking much introspection or self-examination, hatred in the Islamic world has classically been directed outwards. (The violence directed at apostate, deviant, and lapsed Muslims is a more recent phenomenon.) The broad features of the spread of Islam - conquest, forced conversion, triumphalism combined with a contemptuous rejection of the pre-Islamic past - continue to shape the Islamic world, including its complete unity of the political, military, and spiritual. The contrast with Christianity could not be more complete - its division of spiritual and worldly, its emphasis on inward examination and change, its absorption of the classical and Hebrew past by Christianizing instead of simply rejecting it, its religious violence largely directed inwards, Christian against Christian.

Of course, Mohamed wasn't thinking about these issues in the seventh century. By all evidence, he was seeking to unite disparate Arabian tribes into a super-tribal religious "nation" (the `umma). But he only partially succeeded. The tribal mentality remains - Islam carried it within itself wherever it went by Arab conquest - and conflicts profoundly with the demands and possibilities of civilization. Historically, within a few centuries of their initial conquests, the Arabs demonstrated their inability to rule themselves, and political leadership in the Islamic world passed over to non-Arabs: the Berbers, the Turks, the Persians, the Indians, and others. The intellectual and economic achievements of classical Arabic civilization depended heavily on the presence of the tolerated (dhimmi) Christians and Jews; as they converted under the pressure of economic and legal discrimination, Arabic civilization began its long decline (see Bostom's Legacy of Jihad).

See now why leftists and Islamists hook up with each other? The haters unite with the self-haters - perfect fit! This is a reminder that the real "Other" here is the West itself, in relation to an isolated and incurious Middle East enraged by its own decline and marginalization. For an introduction to this way of looking at things, see Buruma and Margalit's disturbing but insightful Occidentalism.
* That would be Paul Wolfowitz, in better days, some time in the 1980s.

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At 4:08 PM, Blogger Nikol said...

What do you think of Obadiah Shoher's extensive reply to Ed Said at ?

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Binah said...

I've heard of Shoher's ideas and his book before, although I haven't read the book itself. He has a lot of good insights.

I'm not sure a "Machiavellian" perspective is the right one. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine (which is just a geographic term, nothing else) is real. But it's a serious misrepresentation to make the conflict sui generis; it's actually similar to a lot of post-imperial or politico-religious conflicts around the world.

What's wrong is the false perspective that wrongly presents Zionism as a type of uniquely evil imperialism. It's not an imperialism at all. The conflict is between a nationalism on the one side, and a religious-theocratic imperialism on the other. The Palestinians are just one of the tools one side uses in the conflict. They are *in* the conflict, but the conflict is not *about* them. That was the false viewpoint that Said and others introduced. Said is responsible for a wide range of other falsehoods as well, as I discussed in my posting.

I'm writing an upcoming posting about Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians - look for it! :)


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