The Magazine

Edward Said, Imperialist

The hegemonic impulse of post-colonialism.

Oct 8, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 04 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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CONSERVATIVES HAVE BEEN RAILING AGAINST the leftist takeover of the academy for a generation, with little to show for their efforts. A scholarly attack on Jane Austen for her unwitting complicity with British imperialism in Mansfield Park is, after all, unlikely to stir public outrage. But what about being told that more than 5,000 New Yorkers are dead for their unwitting complicity with American "imperialism"?

This latter piece of political and moral lunacy has cropped up in more campus discussions than one can count, infuriating decent conservatives and liberals alike. What’s interesting is that the apologias for the World Trade Center destruction are more intimately connected with the assault on Jane Austen than you might think.

Step away from your television set and into the groves of academe and you will learn from distinguished scholars that the terrorist attack on America is our own fault, the ripe fruit of this country’s imperial hegemony. That, at any rate, is the view of the campus left, nowhere more powerful than in the host of humanistic disciplines that sponsor studies of the Middle East, South Asia, China, and Africa. And when it comes to the study of the world outside the West, the man to whom the campus left turns for guidance is Edward Said, the same literary critic who devised that critique of Jane Austen.

The public knows Edward Said as the most prominent American supporter of the Palestinian cause, the onetime confidant of Yasser Arafat (until Arafat’s "capitulation" to the peace process), who was famously and incongruously photographed—a Columbia professor in southern Lebanon—hurling a rock at a guardhouse on the Israeli border. But Said’s real influence has been as the founder of "post-colonial theory," arguably the dominant intellectual paradigm in those sections of the academy dedicated to the study of non-Western cultures.

A past president of the Modern Language Association, Said has primarily influenced departments of literature and languages, but the reach of post-colonial theory extends also to "area studies" and to the social sciences, especially departments of anthropology. Not only is post-colonial theory pervasive at the likes of Said’s Columbia, but even on a once traditionalist campus like the University of Chicago, the study of non-Western cultures is arguably now shaped more by post-colonial theory than by any other single paradigm.

At a stroke, Said’s 1978 book Orientalism created post-colonial theory. Drawing on the work of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault, and taking aim at the traditional liberal understanding of the humanities, Orientalism is built upon the supposition that there is no such thing as disinterested knowledge, that all knowledge is contaminated by its entanglement with power. It follows that all Western knowledge of, say, the Middle East or South Asia must wittingly or unwittingly serve the purposes of imperialist (or present-day "neo-imperialist") domination.

Said has a field day in Orientalism raking over outdated European accounts of cultural primitivism and religious ignorance in colonial domains. The simplistic and demeaning depictions of the Orient favored by the European colonists, Said plausibly claims, served as rationalizations for European rule. The colonial powers could only justify their civilizing mission by portraying their charges as ignorant savages.

But the cleverest twist in Said’s theory is his claim that even the most sophisticated and respectful Western accounts of foreign cultures are actually tools of imperialist oppression. Just by treating Islamic societies as different from the West, scholars commit an act of highhanded condescension. The insinuation hiding behind even the most respectful study of cultural difference, Said claims, is that the people who practice exotic customs, however intriguing or complex they may be, are sufficiently irrational as to be unfit to rule themselves.

So the Western scholar gets it coming and going. Say something nice about other cultures, and you’re an evil imperialist; say something nasty, and you’re worse. Although Said tries to deny it, the upshot of his theory is that no Westerner, at any time or place, is capable of attaining fair or truthful knowledge of a non-Western culture. Of course that view implicates Said in exactly the sort of stereotyping he decries.

And as one of Said’s few critics in the academy, Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, points out, Said never successfully establishes the supposed connection between Orientalist knowledge and Western colonial power. German scholars, for example, were leaders in the European study of the Orient, yet the Germans had no empire in the area. Said even resorts to backdating Western colonial expansion to make it appear to coincide with the much earlier development of scholarship on the East.