Learn or Burn

Photo by Jack Gould "The Arab nations have been deprived of world power for 2,000 years. They have had 2,000 years of living in the desert, fighting over nothing very tangible, until oil wells came along very recently. They have learned to negotiate and trick and play and maneuver and distort reality in such a way that we are encountering a mind, geopolitically speaking, that is more evil than any mind that we have encountered before."

Guess who said this? If you're thinking Jerry Falwell or Rush Limbaugh, try setting your sights on slightly less neanderthal manipulators of the body politic. Could it be William F. Buckley Jr.? Bill Safire?

No, go left. Yes, left. And higher. And more literary. Try Norman Mailer, who spoke these words in Esquire magazine in May 1991. Sure, he said this in the heat of the Gulf War, but Mailer has never exactly aligned himself with racist idiots before (or with the military-industrial complex), so how do you account for such ravings?

Edward Said, one of America's most renowned public intellectuals—not just a prominent literary and cultural critic but also one of the principal Palestinian negotiators during peace talks with the Israelis in the 1990s—spoke to a hanging-from-the-rafters crowd at Chapman University's Memorial Hall on Feb. 28 to give his answer.

His talk, titled "Power, Politics, and Culture: The United States and the Middle East," presented a history of American encounters with Arabs and Muslims (who, Said dutifully pointed out, aren't always one and the same), starting with the battle between American Marines and North African "Barbary Pirates" at the turn of the 19th century and going forward through America's cultural mania for Palestine in the 1870s (see, for instance, Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad) to the decisive period during the 1920s and '30s when American interests locked into the discovery of the Arabs' vast oil reserves, and finally to 1948, when the U.S. and other Western powers (to their credit, stunned by the Holocaust) created the state of Israel, which aimed to protect and dignify what remained of one people while disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of another people—i.e., the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, who thought it was their holy land.

What has typified American encounters with Arabs and Muslims from the beginning is what Said calls "Orientalism"—that is, the long-standing Western attitude that sees all non-Westerners as inferior and specifically sees Arabs as fanatical, mindless, smelly desert rats who abuse their camels as well as their women. Versions of this prejudice permeate both high and pop culture, both Right and Left in this country—hence Mailer's willingness to cast an entire race as "evil" and a national magazine's freedom to print it without worrying it would offend anybody. (Would Esquire have let a comment like this pass about Jews? Blacks? Of course not.) That American prejudice against Muslims and Arabs was one of the few culturally sanctioned forms of bigotry before Sept. 11 has made the situation after the towers fell that much more dangerous. "I don't know a single Arab- or Muslim-American," Said said, "who does not now fear that he or she belongs to the enemy camp. . . . I've been living here for 50 years, and I've never felt quite as alienated."

What are we to do about this? It would help, Said suggested, if we could get rid of all the rhetoric from people like Bush pre et fils (e.g., "lines in the sand," "axis of evil," "war between good and evil," etc.) whose intention is to demonize the opposition and, Said emphasized, "is simply a formula for more war." It would help if the full story of the Arab world were told here—and by Arabs themselves. It would help if Americans learned about the Middle East from a slightly more complex and subtler source than our mass media. It would help, Said finally suggested, if Americans didn't take so many of their cues about the Arab world from the most reactionary Israeli factions, factions whose military roots are as steeped in terror as Yasser Arafat's. It would help to see the fates of Arabs and Americans as fatally interrelated, to see that neither side can afford the accelerating cycle of American military and cultural imperialism on the one side and desperate terrorist acts by Islamic fundamentalists on the other. Like the sad, embattled humanist he is, Said thinks multicultural understanding is the key to preventing future towers from falling. These are good things to mull over as Bush Jr. starts setting his cross hairs on Baghdad.


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