Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Thursday, October 02, 2003

On the Passing of the Icon of Bias

I forgot to blog on this when it happened, but, Edward Said, labelled by CNN as a "scholar and voice for Palestinian cause," has died.

From what I hear, Said may well have been very gregarious in person, a talented speaker, a patient sufferer, and a dedicated teacher. All those things are well and good.

However, I cannot very heavily mourn the passing of an intolerant racist who has done more than any other modern academe to pervert and destroy serious study of the middle east and south asia.

A friend sent me a clipping from the WSJ, which I have been fortunate enough to find on Campus Watch:
by Ibn Warraq
Wall Street Journal
September 29, 2003

Late in life, Edward Said made a rare conciliatory gesture. In 1998, he accused the Arab world of hypocrisy for defending a Holocaust denier on grounds of free speech. After all, free speech "scarcely exists in our own societies." The history of the modern Arab world was one of "political failures," "human rights abuses," "stunning military incompetences," "decreasing production, [and] the fact that alone of all modern peoples, we have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development."

Those truths aside, Mr. Said, who died last week, will go down in history for having practically invented the intellectual argument for Muslim rage. "Orientalism," his bestselling manifesto, introduced the Arab world to victimology. The most influential book of recent times for Arabs and Muslims, "Orientalism" blamed Western history and scholarship for the ills of the Muslim world: Were it not for imperialists, racists and Zionists, the Arab world would be great once more. Islamic fundamentalism, too, calls the West a Satan that oppresses Islam by its very existence. "Orientalism" lifted that concept, and made it over into Western radical chic, giving vicious anti-Americanism a high literary gloss.

In "Terror and Liberalism," Paul Berman traces the absorption of Marxist justifications of rage by Arab intellectuals and shows how it became a powerful philosophical predicate for Islamist terrorism. Mr. Said was the most influential exponent of this trend. He and his followers also had the effect of cowing many liberal academics in the West into a politically correct silence about Islamic fundamentalist violence two decades prior to 9/11. Mr. Said's rock-star status among the left-wing literary elite put writers on the Middle East and Islam in constant jeopardy of being labeled "Orientalist" oppressors -- a potent form of intellectual censorship.

"Orientalism" was a polemic that masqueraded as scholarship. Its historical analysis was gradually debunked by scholars. It became clear that Mr. Said, a literary critic, used poetic license, not empirical inquiry. Nevertheless he would state his conclusions as facts, and they were taken as such by his admirers. His technique was to lay charges of racism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism on the whole of Western scholarship of the Arab world -- effectively, to claim the moral high ground and then to paint all who might disagree with him as collaborators with imperialism. Western writers employed "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." They conspired to suppress native voices that might give a truer account. All European writings masked a "discourse of power." They had stereotyped the "Other" as passive, weak, or barbarian. "[The Orientalist's] Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized," he said.

By the very act of studying the East, the West had manipulated it, "politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively." This conspiracy of domination, he said, had been going on from the Enlightenment to the present day. But while deploring "the disparity between texts and reality," Mr. Said never himself tried to describe what that reality was, merely sighing that, "To look into Orientalism for a lively sense of an Oriental's human or even social reality . . . is to look in vain."

Mr. Said routinely twisted facts to make them fit his politics. For example, to him, the most important thing about Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" was that its heroine, Fanny Price, lived on earnings from Jamaican sugar -- imperialist blood money. In his writings, verbal allusion and analogy stood in for fact, a device to reassure the ignorant of the correctness of his conclusions. Of these he found many over the years in American universities. His works had an aesthetic appeal to a leftist bent of mind, but even this now can be seen as a fad of the late 20th century. The irony, of course, is that he was ultimately grandstanding for the West -- for Western eyes, Western salons, and Western applause.

Ibn Warraq (a pseudonym used to protect himself and his family from Islamists) is the author of "Why I am Not a Muslim" and the editor of "Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out," published by Prometheus Books in 1995 and 2003 respectively.

I reprinted that in full because it says much of what I would want to say, and better than I could say it, and because I cannot disagree with a single word. I will not touch Said's discussions on Israel; I leave that to more knowledgeable people. I discuss only what I do have knowledge of: his views on white people studying brown areas of the world.

I had the misfortune to read Orientalism at the same time as Harvard was in the middle of a storm of current or dredged-up comments from members of cultural and ethnic groups saying how they disliked having so many white people in their groups. A leader of the gospel choir, a few years ago, had said that the white members just really weren't all that welcome because they couldn't perform black music; several current members were echoing the sentiments. Some of the South and East Asian groups were complaining that white students wanted to join their dance troupes -- while one or two students were acceptable, once they reached a critical mass it made the Asians nervous and made them feel like their culture was being stolen from them. This isn't like white families wanting to move out of a neighborhood because they have eighteen black neighbors who do various things that disrupt white suburbia; this is like white families wanting to move out of a neighborhood because they have eighteen black neighbors who try as hard as they can to fit into the existing culture of white suburbia. (Yes, I know, I've written on this before. Several times, actually. Tough -- it's an ongoing interest.)

I must emphasize again that I never was on the receiving end of antagonism from people I knew, despite my Sanskrit major and my sometime interest in taking part in cultural events. There were many generalizations made, however, saying that white people who wear Indian-influenced clothing and people who profess an interest in a culture not their own because they find it fun and interesting are baaad people. (White people who listen to hip-hop were also tarred, but that generalization didn't hit me personally.) These generalizations don't sound like they should be taken personally by someone who fits the generalization? Think of it this way: "black people being Episcopalians, playing country music, and lecturing on Shakespeare are just baaad people. They are getting totally out of line and stealing our culture." Don't find that personally offensive if you're one of those people? Ok, you're strange.

Then I go read a book written directly at and about people like me, westerners studying an eastern culture. We are evil, we are The Enemy, we, even if we deny it to ourselves, are living only to cause inestimable and irreparable damage to the people whose culture we deceitfully say we are simply (perhaps even benevolently, perhaps entirely dispassionately) interested in. As said the New York Review of Books reviewer, in an accurate description of the book, "The scholar who studies the Orient ... the imaginative writer who takes it as his subject ... all have a certain representation or idea of 'the Orient' defined as being other than the 'Occident,' mysterious, unchanging and ultimately inferior." In other words, nobody who does not belong to a culture has any right to study it or write about it. Get your filthy, non-lily-white hands off my Shakespeare and away from criticizing my country, and don't even think about setting your next novel here, then.

Having read this book at the suggestion (to the department and world at large, not to me personally) of people I respected, and having heard it highly praised by two teachers (both of them from the broadly-defined "Orient") I quite liked, I had to come to grips with the notion that people I had looked up to admired a man who believed that people like me should pretty much be shot on sight. I went around to nearly all of my teachers over the next year and a half about my deep concerns. Was I really hurting millions of people by my interest? Did my participation in Indian dances destroy their culture? Did my study of Sanskrit bias the world's perception to make them hate the weak inferior Hindoos? (We're not talking about my attempts at translation, which would certainly skew people's perceptions of ... some things -- we're just talking about my possession of a dictionary and some xeroxed texts.)

To my dismay, all but one of my "Oriental" (stretching from Turkey to South Asia, well within Said's boundaries) professors emphasized that they agreed with Said. Of course, they said, they wouldn't want to dissuade me -- but they did want me to be aware of my position as an outsider, and outsider many would not find welcome, and not an irrational "many" either. The exception, a dear woman, has herself been victim of one heck of a lot of irrational bias from within her own racial group because her religious beliefs and marital choices don't line up with the racial group's ideals, so she told me I shouldn't listen to the loonies.

Then what of my "Occidental" teachers, who, according to Said et al, shouldn't exist -- a good bet they'd disagree with him, right? No luck. I forgot I was in the middle of a place where dead-white politically-active Kennedy relatives expound on the evils of wealth, white people, and America (I'm talking about students, not about our Senator). Self-hating isn't exactly an unusual thing there. Again, with one exception (and one likely exception, to whom I didn't get a chance to talk -- a British man married to a Bengali woman), they reiterated that white people are the enemy and we need to seriously question our position as scholars of what lies near and dear to someone else's heart. The exception pointed out that no one would even dream of complaining when non-Christians write, often quite vindictively, about Christianity; indeed, she said, in the American Academy of Religion, every religion except Judaism boasts more non-adherents among its major scholars than adherents (Judaism's the exception both because of the concept of being "born Jewish" even without any religious beliefs whatsoever and because of the overrepresentation of Jews at the higher levels of academia).

In all, not too good a record. Two of my four favorite professors said they were thrilled to see anyone studying Sanskrit and thought interest in cultural aspects should be seen as flattering, not threatening. The other two, and the rest of the (interviewed) department, were heavily influenced by Edward Said and were at best in the fuzzy middle, if not leading me to believe they were only allowing white students into their class because Harvard's not the University of California and does not allow discrimination in class enrolment. I felt like a monster; I quit or severely curtailed my involvement in South Asian religious and cultural groups (except for a dance class I was paying for) and still have no desire to pick up such associations ever again in this country (Indians in India are, in my experience, uniformly thrilled when you wear Indian clothes, try to speak an Indian language, and eat Indian food with your hands); and I came very close to changing my major entirely to something acceptable for white people, something like German literature or physics.

And then I got help. Bob, of course, as a boyfriend should, supported me in everything and told me the complainers were bigoted idiots -- he's glad I do Indian stuff so that he doesn't have to! -- but that wasn't quite enough. But a book I picked up from the Harvard Book Store for $2.50 changed it all. The author, likely of Portuguese descent, opens with a scathing destruction of the Saidian view of western scholarship of the east. She then goes on to write an impeccable book showing a good knowledge of Sanskrit and an incredible ability to analyze methods of and problems with translation. The book itself convinced me she, a non-Indian, was a respectable scholar; the introduction convinced me I could be one too. The appearance soon afterwards of a thesis instructor (white, previously married to a south Indian) who also found Said et al to be intolerant and hallucinatory fools cemented this notion. Said will no longer scare me.

The scar he has made on academia will last quite some time longer, I fear. An eastern European Sanskrit professor here made a fairly poignant comment in class last week: much great work was done on recording folk tales of India, translating and preserving rare literary materials of India, learning and linguistically tracking Indian languages, and stimulating western influence in Indian religions, practices, and material products -- back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "before they decided that being interested in things outside one's own culture was intellectual imperialism." She must feel the bite of the hatred and fear emanating from our darker-skinned colleagues.

And what are they afraid of, one may ask? When I began learning about Hinduism, Bob was scared and not supportive. It turned out he was afraid of what I would learn, that I would be so disgusted by the ritual murder, the blood-lust, and the sexual perversion I found that I would leave him. I realized that that which is called "Hinduism" is too vast, that you can pick eight people who have not a single belief in common yet all call themselves Hindus, and that Bob's beliefs were different from those I did find depraved and despicable. His fears and reluctance do lead me to wonder what the other opponents fear -- are there things which truly exist which they do not want to come to light? Various religious groups have "secret texts," things accessible only for those who are sufficiently indoctrinated, things which often bring the group much antagonism or ridicule when they are leaked. Are there things in the east not fit for unindoctrinated eyes, things either so evil or so ludicrous that they should be kept from the eyes of the west? Truly, I do not think so, but I still wonder, what is it that they fear? If they have nothing to be ashamed of, should they not be eager to have others see there is no harm in the other culture or religion? If they do have things to be ashamed of, should not those things be brought to light?

Every American Academy of Religion meeting, I hear, includes a panel or two debating the question of whether Christians and Jews should be allowed to study and write on other religions (never the other way, however). A small yet very bitter and noisy bunch invariably gets into shouting matches with my thesis advisor and others like her who believe that every field of study should be open to everyone. Some even occasionally argue that women should not be allowed to write on Islam as, by the very fact that they believe women have something of interest to say about Islam, they will not be showing respect for Islam. Said and his disciples are the main sources of support for the exclusionary gang. I fear that, despite his passing, his destructive and wretched ideas will not lose their impact for years to come.


Post a Comment

<< Home