November 15, 2003
By: Colin S. Cavell, Ph.D.
University of Bahrain, American Studies Center
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle
(Sun Tzu Wu, The Art of War, 512 B.C.E.)
In a March 2003 article for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Edward Said related the story about Saudi prince Ibn Al-Walid donating ten million dollars to the American University in Cairo that same year in order to establish an American Studies Center, commenting that: "apart from a few courses and seminars on American literature and politics scattered throughout the universities of the Arab world, there has never been anything like an academic centre for the systematic and scientific analysis of America, its people, society, and history, at all. Not even in American institutions like the American Universities of Cairo and Beirut" (Said, March 20-26, 2003). Well, a little known secret has been developing here in the Kingdom of Bahrain since May of 1998 when then-University President Mohammed Al-Ghatam established the first American Studies Center in the Middle East here at the University of Bahrain. Beginning first with studies in American literature, the American Studies Center now offers over 19 courses in literature, history, politics, and culture, all critically analyzing the diverse peoples who comprise and contribute to an understanding of American society.
As Said explained in the Al-Ahram article above: "The point I am making is that to live in a world that is held in the grip of an extraordinarily unbound great power there is a vital need for knowing as much about its swirling dynamics as is humanly possible." Or as one pundit once put it: "It does no one any good to ignore the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the center of your compound."
Said, both an avid supporter of independence for Palestine as well as one of Yasser Arafat's fiercest critics over tactics how to achieve that independence, contrasted general Palestinian knowledge of America, which he described as a "caricatural knowledge of America (based mainly on hearsay and cursory readings in Time magazine)," with that of his longtime friend and political activist Eqbal Ahmed who, he said, "had carefully studied the Algerian FLN's relationship with France during the war of 1954-62 as well as the North Vietnamese while they were negotiating with Kissinger during the 1970s." Said stated that the "contrast between a scrupulous, detailed knowledge of the metropolitan society with which these insurgents had been in conflict with" and that of the present-day Palestinians "was stark." Said argued that Arafat's single-minded obsession was to meet with that "whitest of white men Bill Clinton : in his view that would be the equivalent perhaps of getting things done with Mubarak of Egypt or Hafez Al-Assad of Syria." And after Clinton confused and overwhelmed the Palestinians, Said continued, "so much the worse for Arafat and his men" whose "simplified view of America was monumentally unchanged, as it still is today." Like disappointed lovers, Said concluded, most people just throw up their hands saying: "'America is hopeless, and I don't ever want to go back there,'" albeit, he remarked, "one also notices that green, permanent residence cards are much in demand, as are university admissions for the children" (Said, March 20-26, 2003).
Studying the United States and American society had been one of Edward Said's lifelong pursuits, having received degrees from Princeton and Harvard before eventually becoming a virtual institution at Columbia University for the remainder of his life. Born a Palestinian in Jerusalem in 1935, his family fled to Cairo in 1948 having been dispossessed of their land as the state of Israel was welcomed into existence with swaddling clothes by the world's superpowers, owing partially to their collective guilt of not acting quickly enough to stem the Nazi holocaust and partially to (re-)write the history of that holocaust as to who were its main victims: Jews or communists. Said himself made his way to the US in the 1950s, first as a student, then as a teacher, eventually being awarded a professorship at Columbia University where he had taught since the 1960s.
One of Edward Said's most important works, Orientalism, published in 1978, coined the term for what he diagnosed as a symptomatic shorthand for the tendency of European scholars to exoticize the East by utilizing racist and demeaning representations, portraying the East as subordinate, irrational, sexually obsessed, childlike-all aspersions Western men attempted to denigrate women with. In their obsession of defining the East or the Orient, these scholars were attempting to define themselves, perhaps to make sense of Western imperial actions since the Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, and definitely to justify the "necessity of" 19th and 20th century imperialist control over the Middle East and Asia. Providing a lens through which Europeans and Americans have "seen" the Orient as "the stuff of children's books and popular movies: a world of harems and magic lamps, mystery and decadence, irrationality and backwardness," says scholar Mary McAlister, "Said's Orientalism provided a detailed analysis of the history of such images, as well as a language for understanding how the cognitive mapping of spaces (East versus West) and the stereotyping of peoples are both intimately connected with the processes of economics, politics, and state power" (2001, pp. 8-9).
In calling for the systematic study of American society, Edward Said, more than most, was well aware of the negative consequences of a myopic perspective, especially one fraught with ignorance and stereotypes. Recognizing US politics as multi-dimensional and its culture as multi-faceted, Said saw fluidity where others saw stagnation, diversity where others saw conformity, multi-dimensionality where others saw uniformity, tension and conflict where others saw only hierarchicalization and unanimity.
Yes, Edward Said recognized the US government as an imperialist superpower, but he also witnessed as hundreds of thousands protested the 1991 Gulf War as well as the recent war against Iraq. Nor did he forget the part played by millions of antiwar activists in getting the US out of Vietnam by the mid-1970s. US politics, he pointed out, is made up of diverse strands, with the so-called Christian right in the ascendancy at present backing the administration of George W. Bush. These fundamentalists, Said noted, are in a "peculiar alliance" with Israel's Zionists-peculiar because the Christian fundamentalists "support Zionism as a way of bringing all the Jews to the Holy Land to prepare the way for the Messiah's Second Coming; at which point Jews will either have to convert to Christianity or be annihilated" (Said, March 20-26, 2003).
By why would so many presumably well-meaning Christians opt for such an absurd perspective? Part of the answer is the contradictions and stagnation the US capitalist economy has been undergoing now for the past few decades, even though the defeat of so-called "imperial" communism (i.e. the Soviet Union) was supposed to herald the "end of history," in former US State Department analyst Francis Fukuyama's words, with liberal, capitalist democracies riding into the sunset in triumph. Quoting economist Julie Schor, Said remarked that "Americans now work far more hours than they did three decades ago, and are making relatively less money for their efforts." The alliance of US corporations with the federal government "still hasn't been able to provide most Americans with decent universal health coverage and a sound education" (Said, March 20-26, 2003). Indeed, as the only industrial democracy with no universal health care, this issue alone constitutes the single biggest concern in surveys of US citizens. With the most technologically advanced health care in the world, it is, unfortunately, priced out of the reach of most Americans, with over 40 million (officially) with no health care insurance at all. Indeed, with even a two-day hospital stay sometimes costing over $6000, it is not surprising for many to turn to God, and all the manipulations which organized religion in America can bring, for the government is surely not answering their prayers (unless, of course, if you join the military). And as the asymmetry of wealth distribution in the US grows wider with over 70% of all wealth now owned by only 10 percent of the population and, hence, with over 90% of the country owning a mere 29.1 percent (Wolff, April 2000), the hallelujahs will only get louder and the absurdity of US government policies even more profound.
More precisely, repeated calls for reform and systemic change are drowned out by a continuing series of "crises" (e.g. currently the "war on terror") which demand US countermeasures and the bulk of federal funding. And the age-old American practice of systemic racism which superexploited Black Americans while grossly underfunding African American and other US minority communities in the past is no longer politically tenable, at least not overtly. Conveniently-for the ruling US strata-the "peace dividend" from ending the Cold War has now been squandered-for the vast majority of citizens-and redirected towards more profitable endeavors. Indeed, fiscal appropriations for the US military budget have gone up from $300 billion in 1998 to nearly $400 billion in 2004. As Cecil Rhodes, the British colonist and founder of Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) stated in 1895: "The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists" (quoted in Lenin, 1916, Chapter VI). In effect, continuous war abroad is a fundamental necessity if the current US corporate structure is to remain in the driver's seat, even if it means piping lemmings into the sea.
And then there is the issue of oil, one of those nonrenewable resources like coal and natural gas, except that modern civilization runs on oil, and current estimates place world peak oil production between the years 2003 and 2010; from there on in, oil will become an even more valuable commodity than it already is ("New Energy Report #90," January 7, 2003). But, if you want to believe the Bush Administration, the US went to war in Iraq because: 1) Saddam Hussein's Iraq was in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and both were responsible for the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001; or 2) Saddam's Iraq posed a threat to the US with its (yet-to-be-found) stockpile of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; or 3) Saddam's Iraq posed a regional threat to its neighbors through its continuing support for terrorism; or 4) Saddam's regime was a brutal dictatorship and humanitarian reasons dictated US intervention; or, more recently, 5) US dependence on anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East for the past 60 years has not made the US safe "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty" (Bush, November 6, 2003). Oil? Of course not, if you believe the Bush Administration's apologists. But, then again, there are those nagging American critics like current presidential candidate Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) who wrote before the current deployment of over 130,000 troops to Iraq:
What commodity accounts for 83 percent of total exports from the Persian Gulf? What is the U.S. protecting with our permanent deployment of about 25,000 military personnel, 6 fighter squadrons, 6 bomber squadrons, 13 air control and reconnaissance squadrons, one aircraft carrier battle group, and one amphibious ready group based at 11 military installations in the countries of the Persian Gulf? (Note, the disproportionate troop deployments in the Middle East aren't there to protect the people, who constitute only 2 percent of the world population.)
What was Iraq's number one export when the U.S. made an alliance with Saddam Hussein, sold him biological and chemical weapons agents, and then did not object when he gassed his own people?
For what major Iraqi resource has Saddam Hussein denied contracts with the largest U.S. and U.K. multinational companies? (Note, those companies are the #2 (ExxonMobil), #4 (BP-Amoco), #8 (Shell) and #14 (ChevronTexaco) largest companies in the world, and the Bush Administration has been known to listen when large energy corporations speak.)
For what Iraqi resource did French and Russian multinational companies receive lucrative contracts from Saddam Hussein? What valuable commodity does one reprehensible, megalomaniacal tyrant (Saddam Hussein) control that another reprehensible, megalomaniacal tyrant (Kim Chong-il) does not?
How do the White House and State Department plan to pay for a post-Saddam occupation and reconstruction?
The answer to all of these questions is oil, of course. Oil obviously drives U.S. policy in the Middle East. So who can doubt that this war in Iraq concerns oil (Kucinich, March 11, 2003)?
What good are such pronouncements such as that of Representative Kucinich's above if they do not find their way into the Arab press or are not studied by students in the Arab world? What good does it do for future generations of Arab leaders to think that Israel dictates what goes on in America because of the seeming invincibility of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)? What good is served by Arab students not understanding the tripartite division of governmental power in the US federal government (i.e. legislative, executive, and judicial) or the federal nature (i.e. shared power between the national government and the 50 US states) of American politics or the numerous checks and balances between the separate branches? Can the Arab world continue to depend upon superb accomplished public intellectuals alone, like Dr. Edward Said or Dr. Eqbal Ahmed, or even Dr. Hanan Ashrawi or Dr. Hussein Ibish, to champion the Palestinian cause or speak for Arab interests before the US media? What about a much larger contingent of Arab intellectuals writing, educating, and telling-in English-the US public its side of the coin, lobbying US officials, and countering anti-Arab propaganda? Will Arabs continue to stay largely disengaged from US politics-as is currently the case-while Israel involves itself in every facet of national, state, and local politics in the US, funding favorable candidates with seeming bottomless coffers and assiduously countering anti-Israeli propaganda? Or is the concern that Arab citizen involvement in the give and take of US democratic politics may act to destabilize unitary autocratic governments at home? And, if Arabs continue to stay aloof from involving themselves more deeply into the fray of US domestic politics, should we be surprised that US policies continue to be one-sided and asymmetrical and, indeed, absurd in their anti-humaneness towards Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general? These and other questions Edward Said would likely want addressed by the establishment of American Studies Centers throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Hopefully, some progress on these fronts is being made here at the University of Bahrain's American Studies Center.
Edward Said, prominent Palestinian-American public intellectual, influential scholar, political activist, literary critic, accomplished pianist, devoted and beloved teacher, member of the faculty since 1963 and professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City since 1992 died of leukemia on September 25th, 2003. Outpourings of commemoration, lamentation, and sympathy rose forth from a chorus of devotees, colleagues, and admirers throughout the world. And, it is certain, that his many works-including Beginnings (1975); Orientalism (1978); The Question of Palestine (1980); Covering Islam (1981); The World, the Text and the Critic (1983); After the Last Sky (1986); Blaming the Victims (1987); Culture and Imperialism (1992), The Politics of Dispossession (1995); Peace and Its Discontents (1996), Out of Place: A Memoir (1999), The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000); Reflections on Exile (2000); The Edward Said Reader (2000); and Power, Politics, and Culture (2001), most of which are already translated into more than 35 languages-will invite and intrigue students and scholars long after his physical death for many years to come.
And as regards honors accorded to Dr. Edward Said, the Columbia University press release of September 25-26 indicated:
Professor Said received honorary doctorates from Bir Zeit, Chicago, Michigan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jami'a Malleyeh, Toronto, Guelph, Edinburgh, Haverford, Warwick, Exeter, National University of Ireland and American University in Cairo. He twice received Columbia's Trilling Award and the Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of King's College, Cambridge, and an Honorary Fellow of the Middle East Studies Association. In 1999 he was President of The Modern Languages Association (Columbia News, September 25-26, 2003).
So long as the American Studies Center here in Bahrain, and whatever others may follow throughout the Middle East, provide a critical appraisal of US society-and not mere apologetics or celebratory triumphalism for US actions, Edward Said's legacy will be honored. In so doing, a more even handed approach and engagement between the US and the Arab world may result.
Bush, George. November 6, 2003. "President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East. Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy." Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary
"Columbia Community Mourns Passing of Edward Said, Beloved and Esteemed University Professor." September 25-26, 2003. Columbia News: the Public Affairs and Record Home Page
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/03/09/edwardSaid.html. New York, NY: Columbia University Office of Public Affairs.
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