Day By Day

Monday, March 20, 2006

The End of Orientalism

One of the most pernicious texts to emerge from the academic wars of the past generation was Edward Said's "Orientalism". Robert Irwin, writing in Prospect, rightly labels it "a paranoid approach to an essentially benign academic discipline." He writes:
The attack by Said and his allies on academics can be seen as a soothing displacement activity. In mounting such an onslaught, specialists in literary criticism and cultural studies could imagine themselves to be on the frontline of a global conflict and as "speaking truth to power." But their guns were pointing in the wrong direction. In general, stereotypes and patronising misrepresentations of Arabs and Muslims do not originate in university departments.
Indeed! The absurd pretensions of both the Arabists and their academic opponents in this contentious debate were not only risible, they were pathetic.

I attended a conference not long after 9/11 in which one of Said's former students at Columbia launched into a broad condemnation of American culture and its "racist" response to the catastrophe. His complaint? More than 300 Muslims had complained to authorities that they felt threatened by the actions or speech of someone and in a handful of cases there had been actual assaults on people openly proclaiming their Muslim identity. I noted at the time that in a nation of 300 million people this was literally a one in a million occurrance. My observation was not welcomed by many the self-flagellators in attendance.

It is a measure of the absurd divorce of academic studies from objective reality that such pernicious and obviously silly doctrines as those expounded by Edward Said and his students could gain general currency in Anglo-American discourse. Robert Irwin laments the extinguishing of Orientalism and Arabism. So do I. Those much abused fields of study, unlike the assertions of their critics, at least had some contact with the real world.

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