31 October 2005

Missing Edward Said

By Tapani Lausti

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics and Culture. Interviews ed. by Gauri Viswanathan. Bloomsbury 2005.

If there is one by-line I miss, it is that of the Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said who died in 2003. Whilst doing my morning press round on the internet I used to be delighted every time I found an article by Said. As a reminder how stimulating he could be, this collection of interviews is most welcome. One can imagine hearing his resonant New York voice in these interviews which cover three decades and all his political and literary concerns.

One constant worry in his mind was the failure of so many intellectuals to be moved by a sense of justice. In one interview Said said: “For intellectual discourse and for intellectual activity, one has to be stimulated not by highfalutin ideas in the appallingly solemn Habermasian sense — you know, the public sphere and the discourse of modernity, which is all just hot air, as far as I am concerned — because there is no moral center to what Habermas does. I think there has to be a kind of moral view, as you find it in Chomsky, or Bertrand Russell, and people like that.” (p. 205)

In another interview Said said: “There has to be identification not with a secretary of state or the leading philosopher of the time but with matters involving justice, principle, truth, conviction.” (p. 366)

These observations can also be applied to the media. However, the space where we should have meaningful news and analyses is to a large extent occupied by corporate media which by definition does not have a sense of justice or a moral view. Yet, it should be the duty of journalists to critically investigate official information. Especially in the US, however, the situation, according to Said, is seriously flawed: “Journalists internalize governmental norms to a degree that is quite frightening.” (p. 45)

A reporter does not need to become a human rights campaigner but he or she should always point out double standards and outright lies. A journalist should avoid helping to make harmful politics seem normal or a reasonable alternative among many options. Often journalists, however, are too timid to sound critical of the powers that be. They seem to be much more free to vent criticism when they deal with people with less or no power — not to mention people who are “official enemies”.

A journalist could take as advice Said’s comment about intellectuals: “The role of the secular intellectual is to provide alternatives: alternative sources, alternative readings, alternative presentation of evidence.” (p. 222)

Said was horrified by the way American intellectuals are unwilling to acknowlege U.S. imperial rule: “The American intellectual community in the main doesn’t consider itself sufficiently bound by responsibilities toward the commonweal, doesn’t feel responsible for the behavior of the United States internationally. In the Middle East, the United States has routinely obstructed struggles for human rights. The U.S. has sided with every entrenched and rooted power against struggles for women’s rights, for minority rights, for rights to free assembly and free speech. All as matters of policy.” (p. 357)

Many of the interviews in this book, of course, deal with the Palestinians’ plight. Towards the end of his life Said became convinced that the two-state solution was not feasible: “… I don’t think that partition or separation would work. The two-state solution can no longer be implemented. And given the realities of geography, demography, history, and politics, I think there is a tremendous amount to be gained from a bi-national state.”

To the Israeli interviewer’s question whether he then thinks that the idea of a Jewish state is flawed, Said answered: “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting. The Jews I know — the more interesting Jews I know — are not defined by their Jewishness. I think to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic. Look at this problem of ‘Who is a Jew.’ Once the initial enthusiasm for statehood and aliyah (1) subsides, people will find that to be Jews is not a life-long project. It’s not enough.” (p. 452)

Said was impatient with the whole project of identity politics both in the U.S. and the Arab world and wherever people got obsessed with their roots: “That strikes me as colossally boring and totally off the mark. I think that’s the last thing that we should be thinking about. What’s much more interesting is to try to reach out beyond identity to something else, whatever that is. (…) It may be an altered state of consciousness that puts you in touch with others more than one normally is.” (p. 431)

In another interview Said had this to say about this question: “Identity politics becomes separatist politics, and people then retreat into their own enclaves. I have this strange paranoid feeling that somebody enjoys this — usually people at the top, who like to manipulate different communities against each other. It was a classic of imperial rule.” (p. 240)

Said often lamented the state of intellectual life in Arab countries. Yet, he also found reasons for optimism: “I’m impressed by the fact that everywhere I go in the Arab world, once you sweep away the collective self-identity imposed by the environment — the television, the government, political rhetoric — and deal with students on one-to-one basis, there’s tremendous curiosity, eagerness and sheer intellectual energy that is bursting to go somewhere.” (p. 283)


(1) Aliyah, (pl. aliyot) "ascension" or "going up" is the arrival of Jews as individuals or groups, from exile or Diaspora to live in Eretz Yisrael — the Land of Israel.

See also articles of Edward Said in the archive

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