Sunday, September 28, 2003
I need to say something about the passing of Edward Said, whose Orientalism was one of the two or three most influential books of the last third of the twentieth century. For readers who want to know the basics on this sad, hateful man, I can point to devastating essays by Keith Windschuttle and Adil Farooq.
While on a trip to Lebanon, Edward Said hurls rocks across the border at the IDF, 2000
Though most published obituaries have glossed over Said's problems with the truth, the one in the London Telegraph gets directly to the point:
Said was born in Mandate Palestine, and for many years it was claimed that in 1947 his family was forced to abandon a home in Jerusalem by the war which led to the foundation of Israel. This "lifelong exile" determined both Said's political commitments and his academic achievements.
The truth was rather different. In 1999, research by an Israeli academic, Justus Reid Weiner, determined that the account which Said had given of his own victimhood was selective and highly misleading. His family had in fact - as Said later acknowledged - left Jerusalem when he was two, and he was never a refugee.
The childhood house he claimed had been taken from his father by the Israelis, and occupied by Martin Buber, actually belonged to his uncle, who was Buber's landlord until he evicted his Jewish tenant, rather than the other way round. When The Daily Telegraph published Weiner's research, Said threatened legal action, but after being presented with a detailed response, quietly allowed the case to drop. He later claimed he had never given a false impression of his childhood years.
The dissimulation here is not minor, considering that Said based his entire intellectual persona on being a dispossessed, aggrieved Palestinian. The persona gave a special resonance to Orientalism as lefty academics, seemingly universally, added it to required student reading lists and accepted its central conviction that Western imperialism was the evil of evils. The Said thesis took over entire departments across multiple Humanities disciplines--History, Literature, Art--with remarkable but understandable speed. Said touches on every contemporary academic fetish: deconstruction, "queer theory," standard Marxian boilerplate. And academia loved him for it.
For all of Said's erudition, Orientalism and its successors present a starkly simple worldview right out of Orwell's Animal Farm: West bad, Non-West good. Any ambiguities that might accrue in the actual study of the history--for example, the political and spiritual transformation of the British Empire from gross abettors of the slave trade to the single force that abolished international slavery--must be ignored. West=bad, Non-West=good. It is no wonder that Said hated Orwell so much.
But Said hated a lot of people, and his later works--check out Reflections on Exile and Other Essays(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000)--are little more than compilations of attacks on the people Said hated most: Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, Bernard Lewis, Christopher Hitchens, and so on. For Said, even poor Jane Austen is an evil colonialist.
Said, I think, recognized in his own work towards the end the same hollow essence that his critics picked up on immediately, which is why he was so vicious to them in the last days of his life. In particular, the "peculiar condescension towards Arabs and Muslims" that Adil Farooq noted in Said became more pronounced after the events of 9/11/01. Said, ever unwilling to see anything but childlike helplessness in non-Western peoples, became utterly mealy-mouthed when talking about Islamist terror. For Said, Arabs and Muslims are forever infantilized, and cannot be held responsible for their actions, any more than a five-year-old throwing rocks at cars can be tried as an adult. That, ultimately, is the defining image of Said, the one that appears above: The absurd tableau of a full-grown adult, a respected university professor, throwing rocks like a five-year-old, adopting the absurd simplicity of a child whose primary exegetic response to the complexity of the world is the temper tantrum . RNIP.