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Edward Said and the War Against Terrorism By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 08, 2002


A FEW WEEKS AGO, writing about the statement by 60 intellectuals on why the US is at war, I wrote that I found their position “unnecessarily defensive,” and that reading their arguments, one had to wonder why it was even necessary for them to spell out in such great lengths why the American response to September 11 met the criterion of a “just war.”

Now, in this “Thoughts About America,” written for AlAhram Weekly (March 2), Edward Said has given us good reasons for why such a statement was necessary. We can also be thankful that the ultraleftwing Z Magazine on line has seen fit to reprint Said’s essay, because it reveals for all those who have praised the Columbia University Professor for his brilliance and comprehension to get the full measure of what he really thinks, and what kind of arguments he offers. Reading Said, it is, quite frankly, hard for me to believe that anyone can take him seriously from this point on.

Said, for those who are not aware, is one of the most influential of all contemporary radical theorists. One of the founders of what is called postcolonial studies, an offshoot of neoMarxist French cultural criticism, he devised the theory of “the Orient” as a discourse constructed by Western imperialism. His 1978 book Orientalism perhaps single handedly created the idea that the concept of the Orient became the mechanism by which the West sought to dominate and gain authority over the Arab world. To Said, it was only a concept which never existed, but which was created by Westerners as a tool to subjugate the region. Said’s work has been subject to brutal criticism by the distinguished scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, who has argued that Said has oversimplified the dichotomy between East and West, as well as having exaggerated the nature of colonial reality. Most recently, Martin Kramer has argued in Ivory Towers on Sand that the entire field of Middle Eastern studies became ideologically distorted as a result of Said’s work. His Orientalism, as Hillel Halkin writes, was nothing but “a crass and politically motivated attack on the entire tradition of Arabic studies in the West,” and hence “quickly became…the Bible of Middle Eastern Studies.”

Said essentially became the person most responsible for creating the idea that a paradigm of development in the Middle East was an evil construct of Western capitalism, and hence had to be resisted. Said, once a member of the Palestinian National Council, broke a few years ago with Yasser Arafat because he found him too moderate. And a few years ago, as readers of this page are aware, Said was exposed as having lied in his own memoir, in which he depicted himself as an Arab who was born and raised in Jerusalem and driven out by the Israelis after the 1948 war. His story, as we learned, was completely false. He and his family lived in Egypt, not Palestine, and Said attended a posh private school in Cairo. And in July 2000, Said was photographed throwing rocks over the Lebanese border into Israel, attempting to hit Israelis on the other side. The Columbia Daily Spectator, his own university’s student paper, commented that his “hypocritical violent action” was “alien to this or any other institution of higher learning.”

Edward Said’s damage, however, is far deeper when he uses the pen. There are plenty of thugs available to throw rocks, and undoubtedly, he did so to show his solidarity with those he calls part of the “resistance.” A good example is what he has written in his very latest screed. He writes, for example, that he deeply resents having to accept the picture of the US being involved in a just war “against something unilaterally labeled as terrorism by Bush and his advisors.” Think a moment about that sentence. Said implies that there is no terrorist war, only a unilateral declaration of such by the Bush administration. Indeed, Said continues to present the preposterous claim that the Bush administration is in effect an “American Taliban,” that brands all those who dissent as guilty of antiAmerican behavior. Said, of course, sees America on a course of future aggression, symbolized by the desire to target Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq. And of course, Said refers to the Taliban and Al Queda prisoners being held at Guantanamo base as an abduction of individuals about whom the US has decided “unilaterally” that the Geneva Convention does not apply to them.

To Said, the problem is not that we in the West and in our own country are faced with a major and dangerous terrorist foe, a foe inspired by radical Islambut rather the problem is “how to deal with the unparalleled and unprecedented power of the United States,” whose rulersa “small circle of men,”have decided to unleash an unjust war against the entire Muslim world. We have, in clear words, his main point: The enemy of the world is the United States and our democratically elected leaders. Among other crimes, it has carried out what he calls the “Israelisation of US Policy,” symbolized by what he sees as a kowtowing to Arial Sharon. And to make his point, he magnifies what is in reality an insignificantly small number of Israeli reservists who signed a statement against serving in the Palestinian areas as proof that Palestinian terror bombingswhich he of course calls“resisting occupation,” has “finally brought fruit.”

To Said, the Bush administration is wearing the mantle of “righteousness, purity, the good, and manifest destinies,” while its enemies are “equally absolute evil.” Let us pause a moment. The face of evil, is in fact, clear. Contrary to Edward Said, its face is that of our enemiesthe Taliban, al Qaeda, and its terrorist allies in nations like Iraq and Iran. What Said attempts to do is to deflect our attention away from this very real threat, and to make it appear that the Bush administration simply views any nation with different views as an enemy, or as he puts it, “eradicating everyone who opposes the US.” In his eyes, since there is no actual threat, you have bureaucrats like Condoleezza Rice chomping at the bit to use all the weaponry available to them simply because they see the world “as a distant target” for our “real and virtually unopposed power.”

What shocks Said is that many intellectuals seem to have woken up, and actually support the war against terrorism, even though many of them consider themselves to be on the Left. Even Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is faulted by Said for supposedly tiresomely sermonizing to the Arabs, without showing any of the “slightest tone of selfcriticism.” Evidently, Mr. Said has not read the many Friedman columns in which the author regularly argues that Israel has to give up its settlements, or most recently, accept the phony Saudi “peace plan” which was first made known to Friedmanwho thrilled at the scoop, has accepted it as a meaningful plan despite its plan deficiencies.

To Said, to be an intellectual means that one has to be “critical of great power.” But what if great power happens to be correct, and on the right side of the moral, political and military issue? What he thinks intellectuals should do is offer a “restraining and a comparative perspective;” in other words, use their intellectual power to morally disarm the public, so that America’s enemies will have the advantage. That is why he is so upset about the rather weak endorsement of the war by the 60 American intellectuals. That these people, so many of them selfdefined critics of US policy, have come to their sensesis itself unacceptable to Said. Of course, Said misstates the credentials of the statement’s authors. The noted political scientist and author Jean Bethke Elshtain, is called a “conservative feminist academic;” a description so far from accurate it is virtual parody, while Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent magazine, is called a “supposed socialist.”

I guess that means that a “real” socialist is one who agrees with Said, that the US is the sole enemy of the world’s peoples. Walzer’s sin, of course, is that he seeks to “justify everything Israel does” and that he has “vaguely leftist principles,” unlike Saidwho opposes everything Israel does and whose “leftist principles” are 100 percent redder than the rose. Somehow, all the various criticisms Walzer has made over the years about Israeli policy and his well known opposition to the Israeli political Right is nonexistent. Why is Walzer now proclaimed by Said to be one who has “give up all pretension to leftism?” The answer: he sees America “as a righteous warrior against terror and evil.” That in and of itself is revealing. What Edward Said means is that to be on the Left means one must define oneself as opposing the US war against terrorism. That means that all those Leftists who now firmly support the war, like Todd Gitlin, are objectively in the enemy camp. The familiar logic, to those of us who know the mindset of the Old Left, is that of Stalinism. You are either a supporter of the Party line, or “objectively” an “enemy of the people.”

It is most interesting that Said continues to take offense at the concept that the Bush administration seeks to make clear all the time that the war is not a war against Islam. Said is offended because he believes that this is just rhetoric, and that in fact, the US is using the phony war against terror as an excuse to depict the United States as the “aggrieved party,” when he thinks everyone knows that the principles the US supposedly stands for (human rights, freedom of conscience and religion, etc.) are “more contravened than followed,” and moreover, “the murder of Arabs and Muslims” are “neither mentioned nor tabulated.” One might wonder when and where the US has moved to slaughter these Arabs and Muslims? To Said it is clear. He uses in making up his tally the “hundreds of thousands killed with American weapons by Israel”and those “innocent civilians” supposedly killed in Iraq because of US sanctions. And of course, he admonishes us; we cannot forget “the millions killed in Vietnam.”

Finally Edward Said’s conclusions are what are most amazing about his essay. In considering that these intellectuals, however tepidly, now support the US war against terrorismhe sees a replication of the creation of a new generation of Cold War liberal intellectuals. The statement of the 60 academics, he writes, is “the opening salvo in a new cold war declared by the US” that equals that of those extremist Arabs who argue that they are at war with “the West and America.” That is strange, since the whole thrust of his entire statement is in fact that the US is at war with Islam, despite the assurances of the Bush administration. One would think that he should save his energy for debating those of the Arab peoples who are proclaiming such a war, instead of opposing the US response to terrorism. Said also engages in a bit of conspiracy theory: he argues that the statement of the 60 “wasn’t published here” because “it would be so severely criticized by American readers.” Wrong again: the article got wide publicity in the United States, was featured in a Washington Post news article, and was circulated on line with a plea for more signatures and funds for placement of advertisements. Moreover, Said slanders its authors by declaring the statement to be part of an “extremely wellfunded Pentagon scheme to put out propaganda as part of the war effort,” meant only for “foreign consumption.” This is the kind of charge the Left always makes. No evidence is needed. It is enough to plant the seed for his gullible Arab audience, which already believes, as we know, that the Mossad staged the Sept. 11 attack on the United States.

In fact, Edward Said’s “Thoughts About America” is important for one reason: it is in fact exactly what he writes the statement of the 60 in support of the war is, an essay representative of “a new and degraded era in the production of intellectual discourse.” Finally, unlike those British intellectuals who on the eve of World War II argued for pacifism and appeasement of Hitler, some American intellectuals are breaking with their long held leftwing themes, and facing reality. To Edward Said, this means that they have “flagrantly” aligned themselves with power, instead of pressing “restraint” and “understanding.” Somehow, believing that Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and the Mullahs of Iran would respond to a plea for “understanding,” at this point, rings a little bit hollow.

Most significantly Said ends by comparing the intellectual’s support of the United States to “the bad old days of the intellectual war against communism,” which he sees as having been filled with “too many compromises, collaborations and fabrications” and which he says was “subsidized and underwritten by the government (the CIA especially)” which sponsored magazines like Encounter and also “underwrote scholarly research, travel and concerts as well as artistic exhibitions.” (That evil old USA; the KGB spent millions of rubles subsidizing Communist Parties throughout the West, and the US responded by sending our cultural representatives abroad, and by providing the funds for an intellectual response to Communism by independent antiCommunist liberal and socialist intellectuals, who also filled the pages of the subsidized journal with many critical articles about life in the United States.)

To Said, the few embattled antiCommunist intellectuals, who unfortunately were far outnumbered by the growing band of anti antiCommunist intellectualspeople who filled the WaldorfAstoria Hotel in New York for the infamous 1949 Waldorf Peace Conference run by the American Communist Partywere a group of “militantly unreflective and uncritical intellectuals” whose opposition to Communism he calls a case of “complicity” with the CIA and something which brought a “disastrous dimension” to the intellectual’s world. They became part, he says, of “the domestic campaign to stifle debate, intimidate critics, and restrict thought.” This, of course, is unadulterated leftwing revisionist historythe old now familiar charge that liberal opponents of Communism were all McCarthyites.

In fact, those brave intellectuals who dared to break with the stranglehold the Left had on the cultural apparatus since the 1930s were the real intellectual heroes; they risked not getting published, facing opprobrium, and yet they dared to tell the truth about the Communist tyranny so many of their colleagues swallowed hook, line and sinker. Those intellectuals, who have responded as American patriots, even though many of them are critics of aspects of US policy and are opposed to conservative politics, are in fact acting as intellectuals should act. They have carefully assessed the situation facing our country, looked at the real threat now being posed, and have stood with those daring to face up to what is necessary. It is writers like Edward Said(I hate to use the term intellectual to describe his drivel)who want those in the intellectual and academic communities to in fact repeat the “shameful” antics of the anti antiCommunist intellectuals of the 40s and 50s, and to apologize for tyrants and to continue to condemn the United States. As Said says, “we must be on our guard against and resist” such advice.


Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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