Further Musings on Edward Said, San Francisco State University, and Western Civilization
As I noted yesterday at the Campus Watch blog, a mural has been erected at San Francisco State University (SFSU) honoring the late Columbia University English and comparative literature professor Edward Said.
Said was the author of the 1978 book, Orientalism, which posited that Western Middle East studies scholars were motivated solely by colonialist sympathies and racist attitudes. The rhetoric of post-colonialism inspired by Orientalism took hold in the field of Middle East studies and, from that point on, the historical and political narrative was framed in terms of colonialists vs. subjects, oppressors vs. victims, occupiers vs. resistance movements, white vs. brown, and, of course, West vs. East.
It is fitting that the Said mural appears on the wall of SFSU's "Cesar Chavez Student Center," which is located in "Malcolm X plaza." Such altars to political activists seen as opposing the powers that be have a long tradition at San Francisco State University, and Said's inclusion is just the latest.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a common theme of anti-Zionist and, at times, anti-Semitic sentiment seems to be a pattern in these murals. I was a student at SFSU during the years the Malcolm X mural was under construction and remember well the inclusion of none-too-subtle imagery of Stars of David and dollars signs dripping with blood. The mural was eventually destroyed and replaced with the more palatable version that appears today, but, for many, the negative feelings – compounded by a series of anti-Semitic incidents on campus – remained.
In the case of the Said mural, it was the initial inclusion of a character named Handala – created by the late Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali – which courted controversy. Handala is a symbol for the Palestinian "right of return" and the diminutive refugee boy comes armed with the ubiquitous key and sword--the former representing the mythic homes that Palestinians left behind and the latter the campaign of annihilation against Israel they've been engaged in ever since.
After objections by local Jewish and pro-Israel groups and the temporary halting of the project by SFSU president Robert Corrigan, Handala was eventually dropped. But the fact that the character was ever included speaks volumes about the political intent of the Said mural. That the mural was sponsored by the highly political and disproportionately influential General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), as well as being supported by various leftist groups, only adds to this impression.
No doubt, Said would have approved heartily. For he dedicated much of his career to romanticizing Palestinian "resistance." The notorious photo-op of Said hurling a rock at an Israeli Defense Forces tank comes to mind.
Despite my contention that the Said mural represents an ideological defeat for those interested in preserving Western civilization, an anti-Said backlash appears to be underway. Several books have come out in recent years that seek to overturn Said's false and damaging attacks on Orientalist scholarship and, in a larger sense, the West. Daniel Martin Varisco's Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid and Robert Irwin's Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents are among them.
Then there's ex-Muslim and stalwart guardian of the West Ibn Warraq, whose book, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, came out just last month. Bruce S. Thornton's review of Warraq's book at City Journal is especially insightful in regards to overturning Said's prejudicial attitude towards the West. As he puts it:
Warraq then turns to Said’s misrepresentation of the West as a xenophobic culture, fearful of the “Other” and cultural difference. Warraq explodes this canard by identifying what he calls the “three golden threads” woven through Western culture since the time of the Greeks: rationalism, universalism, and self-criticism. As Warraq argues, Western intellectual curiosity has driven an interest in other cultures and peoples and created a magnificent edifice of scholarship formalizing that interest. The Western notion of a universal human nature reinforced this intellectual openness to other cultures. And self-criticism has been the engine of the West’s improvement, leading to the rejection of traditional practices that were unjust or inefficient, as Warraq shows with his discussion of the British Empire’s war on slavery. In fact, the West’s most trenchant critics, Said included, have always been Westerners.Classical historian Victor Davis Hanson also made note of the Western predilection for self-criticism at a Hillsdale College symposium I attended in September. But, as he pointed out, self-criticism, "beginning with the Vietnam War began to veer dangerously close to nihilism." Nonetheless, it is the very lack of self-criticism that, according to Warraq, has rendered the Muslim world seemingly incapable of progress in recent history.
Perhaps it's not the Orientalists that Western intelligentsia should be worried about, but, rather, its own reinforcement of cultural failings rightly left behind in the dustbin of history. Would that we could say the same thing about Said, but, for the moment, his ideas (and, now, his visage) will continue to hold sway on college campuses.
Update: Historian/blogger Ralph Harrington weighs in on the matter at The Greycat Blog, including linking to the blog of a Said fan who provides a detailed look at the mural.