Probably the best that can be said of the late Professor Edward Said, who died Thursday, is that there was a part of him that ardently loved and sincerely appreciated art and beauty. Under different circumstances, he might genuinely have become the great literary critic that his admirers falsely make him out to be.
On the other hand, under different circumstances, any one of us might have turned out to be much better or much worse than we in fact turned out to be. We can only be judged against the circumstances we actually encountered – and by that standard, Said does not deserve the many accolades that will surely now be showered upon him.
Said is best known for his 1977 book Orientalism, a book that may well rank as the single most influential academic study of the past quarter-century – and as the most disastrous. Orientalism has, as the Straussians might say, both an exoteric and an esoteric meaning. The exoteric meaning is that it is wrong to study a foreign culture as if it were, well, foreign: That the act of recognizing something as "other" somehow violates the integrity of that culture. In the esoteric reading, however, Said allowed one escape from the grave charge of "orientalism": it was permissible to study a foreign culture provided that one fully embraced the political demands of the most radical and anti-western members of that culture.
Orientalism was intended (among other things) as an attack on the life and work of Bernard Lewis. Lewis replied with an absolutely devastating essay, "The Question of Orientalism," which can either be read here (for a fee) or in Lewis's collection of essays, Islam and the West.
"Imagine," Lewis asked, "a situation in which a group of patriots and radicals from Greece decides that the profession of classical studies is insulting to the great heritage of Hellas, and that those engaged in these studies, known as classicists, are the latest manifestation of a deep and evil conspiracy, incubated for centuries, hatched in Western Europe, fledged in America, the purpose of which is to denigrate the Greek achievement and subjugate the Greek lands and peoples. In this perspective, the entire European tradition of classical studies—largely the creation of French romantics, British colonial governors (of Cyprus, of course), and of poets, professors, and proconsuls from both countries—is a long-standing insult to the honor and integrity of Hellas, and a threat to its future. The poison has spread from Europe to the United States, where the teaching of Greek history, language, and literature in the universities is dominated by the evil race of classicists—men and women who are not of Greek origin, who have no sympathy for Greek causes, and who, under a false mask of dispassionate scholarship, strive to keep the Greek people in a state of permanent subordination."
But if Lewis won the intellectual battle, he lost the academic war. Said's disciples went on to reshape the entire discipline of Middle Eastern studies. In his timely and important book, Ivory Towers on Sand, Martin Kramer describes how professors imbued with Said's ideas blinded themselves to the rise of Islamic extremism – that is, when they did not volunteer their services as apologists for it.
Kramer quotes Said: "During the 1980s, the formerly conservative Middle Eastern Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation. … What happened in the Middle Eastern Studies Association, therefore, was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination." In plain English: largely thanks to Said's influence, those American academics who once devoted themselves to the scholarly study of the Middle East were replaced by a new cohort who devoted themselves to the denunciation of the United States and the celebration of America's enemies.
If the United States was caught unawares on 9/11, Edward Said's name belongs high on the list of those responsible.
Said based both his academic work and his political advocacy upon his identity as a Palestinian refugee. He often told the story of his birth in Jerusalem and his family's loss of its house in that city during the war that began (as Said seldom mentioned) when six Arab armies attacked Israel after it declared its independence in 1948.
Said's claims turn out to be less than fully true, as Justus Weiner demonstrated in a lengthy article in the September 1999 issue of Commentary. Said's family's principal residence was Cairo, and it was in that city that Said was born and raised. Said's wealthy father, an American citizen, sometimes sent the young Said to Jerusalem to visit relatives, and Said may even have attended school there for a time, but the image Said created for himself as (in Weiner's phrase) the "avatar of Palestinian suffering" was almost purely bogus.
Said and his friends rallied after Weiner's piece. Said's reponse to Weiner is no longer available online, but Christopher Hitchens joined the battle with a
piece that is better argued than anything Said was able to say on his own behalf. (And you can read
here a very touching obituary by Hitchens that generously omits mention of how ill Said repaid Hitchens' friendship in the cantankerous professor's final years.)
Said's defenders cannot quite deny the facts of Said's life or Said's long habit of lying about them. Instead, they point out that Said offered a more truthful account in his 1999 autobiography. And they protested that the technicality that Said never lived in Jerusalem for more than a few weeks at a time should not invalidate Said's claim to be a Palestinian refugee.
Given the widely prevailing animus against Israel now loose in the world, there may even be people out there who will be convinced by these arguments. Nevertheless, not even Said's most vehement friends can cope with what to my mind is the most important and suggestive part of the story. For fifty years, Said put his passion and his intellect at the service of his grievances. And yet, when you look again at the details, you see something very strange: By far the greatest catastrophe to afflict the Said family was not the loss of a single house in Jerusalem, but the destruction of their family fortune in Egypt – first by mob attacks against their store in 1952, then the following year by outright confiscation by the Nasser government. Said was indeed the victim of dispossession by a tyrannical and bigoted state. Only, the state that dispossessed him was not Israel, but Egypt; and the grounds for his dispossession was not his Arab ethnicity, but his Christian religion.
Yet in all Said's long life thereafter, he could never (as far as I am aware) bring himself to address this core truth. I used to read Said's column in the online edition of Al-Ahram, the state-controlled newspaper of the government that ruined his family. Somehow, the normally vituperative Said never quite found occasion to mention what Egypt had done to him. All his fury was concentrated on one target: the Jews.
Is this not a microcosm of everything that is wrong with so much of analysis of the Middle East, both in the West and in the region? Said's personal and individual lie – that he was born into a Middle Eastern paradise that had been spoiled only by the intrusion of an alien Zionist serpent – is the collective and political lie that has distorted all our understanding of the region.
One last thought. Said served for many years on the Palestinian National Council – the theoretical government of the Palestinian national movement. As such, he was at least formally implicated in Yasser Arafat's three-decade-long terrorist crime spree. Nor did Said flinch from his responsibility: He may not have liked Arafat much as a man or leader, but he excused and condoned Arafat's atrocities. Yet ironically, the same Islamic intolerance that has unsuccessfully sought since 1948 to drive the Jews out of Israel lay at the foundation of the larger campaign to drive Christians like the Said family out of the whole Middle East. The thugs and murderers to whom this embittered exile lent his strength were the same thugs and murderers who had exiled him in the first place. And the only people in the region who championed the humane, liberal, and democratic values that Said praised but did not practice were the very Israelis to whose extermination he sacrificed both his vocation and his integrity.