Against all Saidists … and in defence of the West

This is a cross-post from Jacobinism

@RichardDawkins “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Both parts of that tweet are demonstrably true. And yet, it was the object of the usual derision and hostility from those who appear to hold that any criticism of ‘minority’ cultures is racist and prejudiced by definition, irrespective of its accuracy. Especially when said criticism is expressed by a ‘privileged’ white Western male, who – it is alleged – harbours a racist agenda to embarrass and humiliate the Muslim world.

A good part of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs can be laid at the door of the late Columbia professor of comparative literature, Edward W. Said. The influence of Said’s writing is undeniable and incalculable. His key works Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam(1981) and Culture & Imperialism (1993) revolutionised the way in which the Middle East is studied, discussed and perceived in the Occident, and the first of these, Orientalism, is credited with having midwifed the birth of Post-Colonial studies in Western academia.

Today his work is assigned reading across a head-spinning array of disciplines and many of his arguments and premises have acquired the power of cross-cultural memes – that is to say, so entrenched have they have become in contemporary received wisdom, that one does not have to have read a page of Said’s writing to believe in the essential truth of his views.

As the neo-Conservative writer Joshua Muravchik allows in an otherwise highly critical piece for World Affairs:

[Said] not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.

Orientalism is – prima facie – an imposing piece of work. It confronts the reader with a blizzard of assertions, names, quotations and arguments dressed up in the kind of stultifying post-modern jargon often mistaken for scholarly erudition, all of which point to the same damning conclusion: that the West has been engaged in a lengthy, thoroughgoing and systematic attempt to dominate, control and subjugate Islamic society and culture, and that Orientalism, a hitherto respected discipline dedicated to the study of the Near, Mid and Far East, was and is little more than the malevolent handmaiden of Western militarism and Empire. As Said explained in one particularly intemperate passage:

It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. [Pg. 204]

This view, while manifestly absurd, nonetheless chimed with the prevailing view on the Left at the time of Orientalism‘s publication that Western culture, and caucasians in particular, had very little of which they could be proud and much of which they should be ashamed.

Two wars had devastated the European continent and beyond; technological advances were suddenly in the dock following the summary obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; post-Colonial guilt tormented those horrified by the crimes committed by their forefathers in the name of Empire; the brutal and bitter war for independence waged by the people Algeria had ended in 1962; the bitter struggle for racial equality in the United States had finally been won, but Martin Luther King was dead; and, across the globe, American foreign policy was held in contempt for its military involvement in South-East Asia.

In 1967, Susan Sontag informed the readers of The Partisan Review that:

The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.

(“Only,” Tom Wolfe remarked years later, “in the Land of Rococo Marxists.”)

French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose attacks on the notion of objective truth had seen a resurgence of moral and cultural relativism in the post-War West, was by no means alone in applauding the overthrow of the US-backed Iranian Shah in 1979 by theocratic fascists on this basis. That perverse mentality survives in academia to this day, as evidenced (to take but one example) by the English historian Mary Beard’s nauseating pronouncement in the immediate wake of 9/11 that “no matter how tactfully you dress it up, the US had it coming.”

Do read the full article here