Monday, September 29, 2003

Edward Said and his Discontents

Or: what does one say about an arrogant, petulant, pro-terrorist, anti-semitic intellectual bully who died?

Edward Said, who died last week after a long battle with cancer, was the subject of a recent article by Christopher Hitchens, who remarked in its opening lines that his first meeting with Said took place at an early '80s conference on the rights of small nations. Hitchens is rumored to have a memory somewhat truncated by a lifelong habit of consuming alcohol in heroic quantities, but I will take it for granted that his recollection is accurate. Judging by the rest of the article, a measured critique of Said's recent stance regarding 9/11 and the War on Terror, contrasted with the Hitchens assessed promise of Said's early career, it appears that Hitchens lacks a certain sense of irony. Were this not the case, Hitchens might have noted that, at the very moment Said was attending a conference on the rights of small nations, presumably arguing in favor of said rights, since people rarely attend such conferences to argue the opposite, he was a prominent member of a movement which was, at that very moment, busy violating, in the most brutal and savage manner imaginable, the rights of a small nation known as Lebanon.

It is a shame that Hitchens failed to recognize this paradox, for it manages to say a very great deal more about Said than Hitchens' assessment of his old friend, colored as it is by much admiration and affection. For Said, like many a late 20th century American intellectual, and, lest we forget, Said was an American, made his celebrity, if not his reputation itself, on a kind of ferocious hypocrisy, on an aggressive, vitriolic, condemnatory excoriation of real and perceived enemies which often existed in caustic dissonance with the realities of his own ideology. One of his most prominent critics, and he had far too few over the course of his long career, described him as the intellectual equivalent of a suicide bomber, an intellectual terrorist of the purest kind, a man for whom the violence he apologized for in real life became the means and method of his intellectual career.

Said was all illogic and dissonance, he personified it in the very marrow of his personal and intellectual identity: a Marxist who was also an ultra-nationalist, an utterly Westernized Arab who spent his career condemning America and the West in near-cosmic terms of approbation, a cosmopolitan to his bones who embraced an almost Fascistic ethnic romanticism, a Christian Arab who spent his adult life in the service of an organization which spent the better part of the 1970s slaughtering Christian Arabs en masse, a scholar of the most erudite of Victorian literature who nonetheless engaged relentlessly in the most vulgar kind of character assassination, a self-proclaimed advocate of human rights who spent his career advocating and apologizing for terrorists and terrorist organizations, a self-proclaimed advocate of peace and coexistence who called for the annihilation of an entire nation of people. Said sought purity, moral, political, intellectual, while imbibing the debased and cruel. In the end, as his old friend Hitchens noted with some sadness, he seemed to have wholly lost his grip on reality itself.

Like most college professors, his ego was of epic proportions, and he was used to deference, deference to his genius, deference to his wisdom, deference to his moral superiority. When a Commentary article blasted several battleship-size holes in his claim of Palestinian refugee status, he reacted with characteristic bluster, first calling the author a damn liar and then, when the article turned out to be accurate, accusing him of racism. It surprised no one, and it shouldn’t have. Said's specialty was a kind of superfluously verbose character assassination, the intellectual's equivalent of kindergarten name calling (his friend Hitchens often suffers from a similar tendency). He preferred slander to debate, buzzwords to logic, and polemic to reasoned argument. He was the godfather of that generation of academics for whom fury was the mark of insight, and rage the watchword of righteousness, and if intellectual consistency or reason threatened to dampen, or even extinguish fury and rage, then reason be damned and on with the struggle. Said must have seen no contradiction in advocating the Palestinian cause on the grounds of a universal right to self-determination and statehood, while simultaneously advocating, as the very consummation of that right, the denial of the Jewish people's own right to self-determination and statehood. To think otherwise might have dampened the furies at work within him, and that could not be allowed. His belief in himself as an anti-racist, even faced with the obvious racism of his own ideology, never seemed even slightly shaken. In fact, Said seems not to have noticed it at all.

And perhaps this is the most telling and disturbing aspect of Said's work, his utter lack of inner struggle. He appeared, in fact, to be utterly conscienceless. He seemed never to wrestle with the intellectual or moral implications of his ideas at all. His politics, over the course of thirty years, shifted not a single iota. He seemed to expend his considerable intellectual energy on building elegant, but ultimately empty, defenses against the changing world beyond. To twist the upheavals of a troubled age into complex and impenetrable knots, so that they might conform to the schema of his theories. So that he might remain secure in his own infantile resentments and carefully cultivated discontents. He was the purest kind of ideologist, the one who eventually sacrifices his ability to perceive the world in order to remain faithful to his creed. Said's recent writings, which so shocked Hitchens in their disconnection, denied, among other things, that terrorism was a mass phenomenon in Palestinian culture, that Iraqis saw Saddam Hussein as a brutal dictator who they wished to see deposed, and that 9/11 was anything much worth bothering about. It seemed that that precious fury and rage, which had intimidated so many and so inflated his reputation, was now reducing him, slowly but surely, into something small, pathetic, and perhaps pitiable.

But on the way to this perhaps pathetic nadir, he did an incalculable amount of damage. He fostered an entire generation of scholars dedicated to the proposition that Western culture is irredeemably racist and imperialist, that Israel has no right to exist and the Jews no right to national self-determination, that all the problems of the Third World are the product of capitalist/Zionist/imperialist machinations, and helped turn the American university from an institution of learning and investigation into an Orwellian nightmare, complete with Saidian thought police eager to root out the slightest hint of Orientalism. The man himself is gone now, perhaps to an oft-dreaded meeting with the Christians of Damour or the Israeli schoolchildren of Maalot, massacred at the hands of the PLO he did so much to legitimize, but the academic culture that spawned him and that he did so much to spawn is alive and well, and in many universities ubiquitous and hegemonic. His ideological offspring are mourning today at Columbia University, where a Saudi-funded Edward Said chair now exists for the foreseeable future. We will hear much from them in the coming years, much spitting of fire and poison, much fury and rage, all of it, ultimately, signifying nothing. The same cannot be said of Said. He did indeed signify something. And now, for that, he is no doubt facing a most uncomfortable reckoning.

Beersheva, Israel
September, 2003

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