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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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.