Thursday, March 18, 2010

Was Edward Said a great intellectual?

David Barsamian has written The Pen and the Sword: Conversations with Edward Said, due to be published 4-1-10.
I have yet to read a review, but there is a little block on page 10 of 11 March 2010 issue of the London Review of Books lauding it, or rather lauding Said and implying that Barsamian provides “an accessible engaging introduction to Said’s thoughts . . .”   The Independent is quoted as describing “Edward Said” as “one of the greatest intellectuals and public activists of our time.”
What a poor crop of intellectuals we have if Edward Said is “one of the greatest . . . of our time.”  One can quote Said almost at random and find slanted superficial assertions that don’t bear up under examination.  One of the Said books I’m bogged down in is his Humanism and Democratic Criticism.  I was recently involved in a discussion on Humanism and, ever the optimist, thought Said might have something useful to say on the subject.  But not so.  One of the first scholars he takes to task is Alan Bloom.  If one believes what Said says about him, Bloom should be read as advocating “the closing of the American Mind” rather than deploring it.  I read his book shortly after it was published and was mightily impressed by it.  Bloom held up the standards of Western Literature and deplored the fact that they were being replaced in universities across the U.S. by politically-correct women’s and minorities’ studies.  Universities were including literature because it represented these and other minorities and not because it was the finest the West had to offer.
Said finds Bloom’s thesis deplorable.  Surely only a minority, an “elite,” can master Bloom’s body of Western literature and philosophy; therefore, Said implies, Bloom is advocating the narrowing or closing of the American Mind.  I read Bloom’s book about 20 years ago, but I wonder if Said read it at all.  Maybe we can’t read all the great works of Western Literature and Philosophy, but this is no reason for casting these works aside and opting for the faddish and political correct of the current time.  At one time anyone who strove to become educated spent time with many if not most of the great writers of the Western Tradition.  I certainly have.  Perhaps that is why I can see that Edward Said is not one of “the greatest intellectuals . . . or our time” and whoever wrote those words for The Independent cannot.
Said writes on page 20 of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, “. . . if Bloom and his followers were to have their way, a carefully engineered curriculum and scrubbed-clean and tiny student body would set right most of the problems.  Only by proper education could a new elite come into being, and this elite, given the style and undoubted popular audience solicited by the ultra-astringent Bloom, is, peculiarly enough, supposed to have a mass appeal.  Soon even Bloom’s relatively sophisticated rhetoric was overtaken by William Bennett’s thumping oratory about reclaiming a heritage and a core of traditional values, which also attained great popular acclaim.” 
One finds this sort of writing throughout Said’s book: slanted, sarcastic, abusive and wrong.  What sort of mind would describe a book that strives to preserve the Humanistic tradition, the great works of Western Literature and Philosophy, as a call for a “carefully engineered curriculum”? 
One might gather, if one has been educated with all the fads and political correct writings of these modern times, that what Bloom has done is create a new and dangerously right-wing sort of censorship.  What Bloom actually did was create a potent call that our Western Tradition, the great works of Western Literature and Philosophy not be abandoned in favor of whatever is currently popular or politically correct.
Said goes on to excoriate the desire to reclaim  our “core of traditional values.”  He adds that “These have once again been trundled out in the aftermath of 9/11, as a way of justifying America’s apparently limitless war against evil.”  Was America’s war against those who attacked us on 9/11 ever a “limitless war against evil”?   One can give Said a slight benefit of doubt by assuming he is referring to Bush’s reference to an “Axis of Evil” and not just the Islamists, but time has borne out the fact that this “axis” has colluded in attacks on the West.   Bush has been replaced by Obama but the change in American administrations hasn’t withdrawn our forces from Iraq or lessened the perceived threat of the two remaining members of the “Axis of Evil.’ 
It is a characteristic of Edward Said and those who were in agreement with him such as John Esposito, that they make light of the Islamist threat.  What they worry about is the ongoing reaction of the West, especially the U.S., and not the aggression of the Islamists or Middle Eastern “rogue” nations.  Who thinks like that?  Who attacks the U.S. and then blames the U.S. for responding?  This occurred with some regularity during the Cold War.  The USSR could move against Hungary or Czechoslovakia or encourage North Korea to invade the South and little of a critical nature appeared in the Western Press, but let the U.S. come to the aid of an ally the world Press wrings its hands at our “outrageous acts.”   
On page 21, Said writes, “ Read through most of the lamentations of today that decry the absence of standards . . . that keep talking about literature sequestered from the world of human history and labor, that decry the presence of women’s and gender studies, of African and Asian literatures, that pretend that the humanities and humanism are the prerogative only of a select handful of English-educated people uninfected by illusions about progress, freedom, and modernity, and you will be hard put to explain how such a refrain is sounded in a radically multicultural society such as America’s.” 
Perhaps this a bit is harder to see through, but Western Literature has not been “sequestered from the world of human history.”  What Said means is that Bloom et al would not update the curricula in U.S universities simply in order to have the latest of “human history and labor” or the most political correct of “women’s and gender studies.”  Bloom was concerned about the worth of the literature and not about what was most “politically correct” in the modern world.
When Said implies that a desire to value the great works of Western Civilization comprises a contradiction in a “radically multicultural society such as America’s,” he is ignoring America’s actual history.  America is the greatest modern promulgator of what has become known as Liberal Democracy.  Yes we invite people from around the world to become citizens, but pause at that word “citizens.”  We do not say we will become citizens of every nationality that wants to live here.  We say the reverse.  If you want to live here then you must become a citizen of our nation.  We do have a few standards and some of us will agree with Heidegger that there is value to seeking after what is most “authentic” in our tradition. 
Perhaps it is helpful to view this controversy in terms first of a Conservative wish to preserve what is best (authentic) about our traditions, including the Western Traditions, the great works of literature and philosophy which we brought with us.  Opposing this “Conservative wish” are “progressives” such as Said who don’t see the “great works of Western Literature” in quite the same way.  Said would like to see this body of Literature as a work in progress; which in a sense is fair.  Harold Bloom would say that as well, but Harold like Alan deplored the addition of writers just because they represent women or gender or racial issues. 

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