Edward Said and his four-decade-long association with our University should be familiar to every Columbian. So, did Yale professor Paul Bracken, SEAS '71, suffer a bout of temporary amnesia on March 29 at Thursday night's panel discussion on the implications of Iran's developing nuclear program? It's unlikely-professors in the Yale School of Management and members of the Council on Foreign Relations tend not to spontaneously lapse into paroxysms of textbook orientalism, unless, of course, they're doing it to prove a point. Or, as in Bracken's case, to prove a tremendously important point.
Bracken argued convincingly that the tense diplomatic situation with Iran is best viewed as a "systems analysis problem"-in other words, Iran exists both as a practical challenge in the real world and an incredibly complicated strategic puzzle in the theoretical one. Bald-faced orientalism seems at odds with such dispassionate rationality. But when Bracken argued that the Cold War is different from our current standoff with Iran because that was a clash between "enlightenment" societies, Columbia professor and co-panelist Richard Bulliet readily though implicitly invoked Edward Said by not-so-subtly branding Bracken an orientalist, and worse, an ethnocentrist-two intellectual death blows at the school that gave Said a University Professorship.
Bulliet's brusque response left unclear whether Bracken was making a statement of fact or a value judgment, and whether Bulliet's curt reply was a responsible stand against "imperialist" modes of thought or self-aggrandizement on the part of a worldly, decidedly non-orientalist Middle East scholar. It could have been any of these, which is why it is so important to give Bracken's statement the scrutiny it deserves.
In terms of truth value, it brought to mind a flowchart that Jewish Theological Seminary philosophy professor Leonard Levin distributes to students in his Jewish Philosophical Texts class. It depicts Levin's interpretation of the progress of human intellectual history from the Bible to the present day, and there are few philosophers in his intermediate phase between "Hellenistic thought" and the Enlightenment that did not complete their most important work under Islamic rule. To some intellectual historians, thinkers like Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, and Maimonides were heralds of the Enlightenment. All of them spoke and wrote in Arabic.
Yet if Iran and its Western adversaries are heirs to the same intellectual tradition, then the way in which the two types of states apply it to their respective societies is vastly different-we are, after all, a federal republic, and Iran is an Islamic one. So while Bracken was wrong to place Iran outside of the Enlightenment framework, there is surely a reason that American and Iranian societies are so vastly different. And for a systems analyst, the nature of those differences-their causes, effects, and possible relevance-is crucially important and is worth examining.
Yet by implying that this line of reasoning is ethnocentric, and by later drawing an equivalency between the European armies' suicidal battle tactics during World War I and contemporary Islamist suicide bombers, Bulliet condemned as orientalist and illegitimate any discussion of cultural and intellectual difference, no matter how pertinent those differences might be. If this statement were meant to operate only as a value judgment, and if Bracken truly meant to place Western rationality above the barbarism of an Islamic and therefore anti-Enlightenment enemy, then his words could easily be viewed as a pernicious assertion of Western moral and cultural superiority. But if they were intended purely as a statement of fact-as a controversial but defensible claim that understanding cultural difference is as essential to human survival as understanding cultural similarity-then silencing it through summoning forth the ghosts of postcolonial theorists past is no less narrow-minded than the sentiments that such a tactic tries to defeat.
Five years into an increasingly worrisome "War on Terror," it is important to keep Professor Levin's flowchart in mind: our society is, essentially, the result of a millennia-long confluence of Greek, Islamic, Judaic, and Christian ideas. Without this basic recognition of historical and intellectual commonality, the "War on Terror" is little more than an endless full-on clash of inherently oppositional civilizations. But without an appreciation of how cultural divergence-divergence, not inferiority-helped create our very frightening set of contemporary realities, then terrorism is at least qualitatively no different from shoplifting or jaywalking. Bracken's message this past Thursday night was that we can assume complete cultural equivalency at our own mortal peril. You don't have to agree with him-but silencing him with stock accusations of orientalism carries hazards of its own. Western narrow-mindedness shouldn't serve as a collective death pact. But neither should political correctness.