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.

But whatever the gaping holes in his theory, it is the circumstances of Said’s life, as told in his recent and controversial memoir, and in an important autobiographical essay, "Between Worlds," that explain the hold his thought has gained over the American academy. Something has drawn Said into an extravagant hatred of American society, something that binds him to his fellow leftists, and to the feckless liberal scholars throughout the academy who have allowed the practitioners of post-colonial theory to "subvert" (their favorite word) America’s capacity to gain knowledge of the rest of the world.

SAID’S HAS BEEN A LIFE of no fixed attachments. Reared as a Christian by parents who were part Arab and part American; educated in an elite British colonial boarding school that forbade the use of Arabic; sent alone to the United States to complete his education while still a youth, Said became a loner—out of place in either America or the Middle East. By the time he began his academic career, Said had been completely Americanized, so Americanized that he held himself aloof from other Arab immigrants. Yet his sense of being betwixt and between cultures—without a real home—still burned.

The sixties changed all that. Said found solidarity and a home of sorts among the crowds of antiwar protesters. After the Six Day War, the rise of Palestinian nationalism provided him with a link to the homeland from which he had otherwise been estranged. By opposing America’s alleged imperialism in the Middle East, Said was able to reconnect himself to a Palestinian identity that he had never really consolidated. No doubt that is why, for years, Said made misleading and exaggerated statements about his Palestinian background, the exposure of which by Justus Reid Weiner in Commentary kicked up a scandal two years ago. But Said’s reappropriation of his own ethnicity by way of politics was always tenuous. In almost every sense that mattered, he had long ago become an American.

Post-colonial theory offered a way out of this cul-de-sac. Many practitioners of post-colonial theory, Said included, have surprisingly little to say about non-Western cultures. They are preoccupied instead with Western scholarship, which they scrutinize and excoriate as bigoted and imperialistic. This political pose allows the sophisticated, Westernized immigrants who generate post-colonial theory to cement a connection with their erstwhile homelands, while simultaneously banning the sort of scholarly attention to their cultures of origin that might actually remind them just how far they have strayed from their roots. The dirty little secret of the post-colonial theorists is that many of them don’t much like, or even know, their ancestral cultures, and are even embarrassed by them. They’d much rather banter about French literary theory and the evils of America and the West at some café than go to mosque.

And when you get down to it, the American leftists who have adopted the post-colonial pose, like the nice-guy liberals who’ve allowed the post-colonialists to take control of much of the academy, are in the same boat as Said. These are the folks who once romanticized Mao, Fidel, and the Vietcong (or more recently, Rigoberta Menchu, the radical Guatemalan peasant famous, like Said, for her exaggerated autobiographical tales of oppression).

For three decades now, the culturally deracinated campus left has been looking to find a home in a lonely secular world by latching onto someone else’s ethnicity. This vicarious identity politics, easily established through acts of political empathy (and the right piece of indigenously manufactured cloth), can be just as easily undermined by disciplined attention to the undemocratic politics or culture of the favored Third World group. These familiar, if shallow, acts of political empathy already typify the response to the war on America’s college campuses, from Said himself to the whole generation of leftist allies and liberal facilitators who have felt his pull.

Given his influence on the American academy, it’s worth examining Said’s understanding of the United States. Simply put, he sees America as a malign, imperialist power. In his writing, Said expresses this viewpoint cautiously, self-consciously bracketing the question of America’s dedication to the principles of freedom and democracy, while pointing to parallels between America’s preeminence in the world and that of earlier colonial powers. In interviews, Said is less careful, unequivocally stating that America’s influence is as odious as 19th-century British and French colonialism. Although formally speaking, the United States may have no colonies, Said treats countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia as American possessions.

America’s response to past acts of terrorism, then, has been mere "hysteria." Said criticized an earlier anti-terrorism bill, strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans, as an "Orwellian" effort to impose an "us vs. them" dichotomy on the world, a substitute for the old Communist enemy. And Said makes it clear in Orientalism that one of his chief purposes in writing the book was to discourage cooperation between American students of the Middle East and the United States government.

Here, Said has succeeded admirably. If you want to know why our intelligence agencies are unable to find enough speakers of Arabic, try to imagine a bright young student at one of our elite universities enrolling in an Arabic class with the avowed aim of joining the CIA. At many or most of our finest schools, such an admission would result in social ostracism, and put both grades and faculty recommendations at risk.

BUT FOR ALL THAT, SAID’S PUBLISHED ESSAYS and interviews mask the extent of his anti-Americanism. His views are presented, uncamouflaged, where few of his American admirers will read them, in the pages of the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram. There Said makes it clear that he sees the United States as a genocidal power, with a "history of reducing whole peoples, countries and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." According to Said, when it comes to war crimes, in comparison to Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or Sandy Berger, Slobodan Milosevic is "a rank amateur."

The evident intent of Said’s pieces in Al Ahram is to encourage his Egyptian readers to turn against their government on account of its willingness to cooperate with the United States. Again and again, Said tries to strip away the persistent conviction of his Egyptian audience that, for all its faults, America is genuinely dedicated to the principles of freedom and democracy. For Said, American democracy is a sham; he contemptuously dismisses the Constitution as a document created by "wealthy, white, slaveholding, Anglophilic" men. The remarkable thing is how thoroughly convinced Said is of America’s stultifying intellectual climate, even as his own ideas have grown to prominence—arguably, predominance—in significant sections of the American academy. But it’s obvious that Said will be satisfied only with a revolution—a radical breakdown of the current global system. In his work for Al Ahram, Said’s despair at the existing world consensus on free markets and democracy is palpable.

In his remarks on the September 11 attacks—published in both the British Observer and in Al Ahram—Said meets expectations, blaming the strikes on America’s support for Israel and on our sanctions against Iraq. He spins out his now familiar case against the American media for their supposedly Manichaean division of the world into good West and evil Islam—this despite the fact that the networks and the president have been bending over backwards to avoid that sort of stereotyping. And he continues to obscure the depths of his hatreds. Washington journalist Andrew Sullivan spotted a telling bit of bowdlerizing in the British version of one essay, which left out a swipe at Rudy Giuliani’s "virulently Zionist views," added for the delectation of Al Ahram’s readers.

But for all of the usual incantations, there is something different this time in Said’s response to the terror. Said is evidently agonized by the recognition that the attacks may destroy his plans. His longtime hope has been that an alliance of Arab nationalism and Western liberalism (the same alliance that has given him so much academic influence) might eventually turn the politics of the Middle East in a Palestinian direction. That hope is now dying.

So, forgetting himself, in his remarks on recent events, Said lashes out at the terrorists’ "primitive" ideas of revolution, their "magical thinking," and their "lying religious claptrap." It’s almost enough to make a bigoted British imperialist blush. Indeed, it’s difficult to decide whether to make sense of this descent into classic "Orientalist" language as a vindication of his post-colonial theory or not. After all, Said spewed his invective at "primitive" Arabs at the very same moment he was demanding that control of the revolution be returned to secular radicals like himself. So maybe forms of knowledge and power go hand in hand after all. Or is it that the liberal humanists were right all along about there being truths that transcend political differences? Maybe certain insights are available to Western "neo-imperialists" and leftist Third World intellectuals alike, say, the insight that "magical thinking"—scapegoating for instance—might compromise the legitimacy of terrorist tactics and call for a response that goes beyond attempts at rational persuasion or exercises in role-playing.

Edward Said and his supporters in the American academy know a lot about scapegoating. Like the terrorists themselves, the post-colonial theorists have long found comfort and solidarity in blaming both American power and a fast-fading band of traditionalist scholars for the complex ills of the Muslim world. The price of this little bit of enchantment has been the erosion of our capacity to listen to, contemplate, and when necessary defend our very lives against the sometimes unpleasant realities of life on the other side of the globe. One wonders whether the evident costs of our flirtation with post-colonial theory might finally prompt a restoration of balance to the academy, or whether American students of the Middle East will continue to direct their attention away from Saddam Hussein, to focus instead upon the terrible burden of Jane Austen’s imperialist legacy.

Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.