Twenty years ago, on July 3, 2000, an incident occurred along the Lebanese border with Israel that, at the time, seemed both bizarre and, in the broad span of things, unimportant. But with the hindsight of 20 years, it was a seminal moment and a harbinger for the mob violence now taking place in many parts of America.
That day, Columbia University professor Edward Said was photographed on the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese side of border with Israel throwing a rock at an Israel Defense Forces watchtower 30 feet away.
Said, who passed away in 2003, was no mere professor. He was the superstar of far-Left intellectuals. Even better, he was at once both a professor and a member of a terrorist organization. Said served not only as an academic, but as a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terror group’s formal governing apparatus.
Still, his action was strange. The PLO had ostensibly forsworn terrorism seven years earlier, when it embarked on a peace process with Israel. True, since then, Palestinian terrorism had risen to unprecedented heights, with more Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists between 1993 and 2000 than had been killed over the previous 15 years. But Said himself insisted that he was a man of peace. So why did he choose to get photographed throwing a rock at Israeli soldiers protecting their border?
To understand his action, it is necessary to understand Said’s intellectual record.
Although his field of expertise was comparative literature, Said became a celebrity intellectual for a work that had nothing to do with comparative literature.
In 1978, Said published Orientalism, a polemical analysis of Western study of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Said’s work, which became the canonical text of postcolonial studies in the American academy, was a repudiation of all Western scholarship on the Islamic world—and, more broadly, a repudiation of the capacity of Western academics to study other regions and peoples of the world.
In Orientalism, Said characterized all Western—and particularly American—scholarship on the Arab and Islamic worlds as one big conspiracy theory. As Middle East scholar Martin Kramer explained in his 2001 work, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, Said said that Western scholarship on the Arab and Islamic worlds amounted to an expression of white supremacy, “articulated in the West to justify its dominion over the East.”
From the Enlightenment period through the present, Said wrote, “Every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric.”
When Orientalism was first published, scholars across multiple fields panned it. Those whom Said had personally and professionally attacked in the book, as well as those whom he supported in it, rejected both his thesis and his argument.
And this makes sense, because at the heart of Said’s polemic was a clear goal of invalidating fact- and evidence-based scholarship in favor of narrative arguments. If all Western—and specifically American—scholarship of the non-Western world is inherently and inescapably racist, then it didn’t matter how well a person mastered the subject. Nothing he could possibly do would be credible.
At its base, Orientalism was a call to arms against reason.
For students both then and now, the kind of thinking—or non-thinking—that Orientalism prescribes is extremely alluring. Said’s essential message is that a great scholar of Islam—or of Asia, Africa or Latin America—is worse than worthless. If he is a white American, he is an agent of evil. In recent years, the academic areas where Said’s anti-intellectual prescription have determined white Americans are by their nature unfit to work have massively expanded. Among others, they now include African-American studies, gender studies and transgender studies. On the other hand, a student at any level who embraces Said’s postcolonial posture is automatically accorded the status of the moral and intellectual superior to an expert who devotes his life to studying his subject.
The ignorance of the postcolonial academic is rewarded, while the knowledge of the veteran scholar is vilified.
The power of the conspiracy theory is its impermeability to fact. Conspiracies have a built-in explanation for their manifold contradictions: Anyone who questions the conspiratorial worldview is a member of the oppressor class.
In the case of Said, cast aspersions on postcolonial studies and you are deemed a racist if you are white—and a collaborator, or servant of racism, if you are non-white.
This then brings us to political violence.
Said tried to shrug off the criticism of his rock-throwing as much ado about nothing. But Israelis were not convinced. Dennis Zinn, an Israeli television reporter, who was covering the rock attacks at the border when Said threw his stone, explained at the time that there was nothing either indiscriminate or “symbolic” about what he did or where he did it.
According to Zinn, the site where Said threw the stone was the scene of daily assaults. “The Lebanese line up and wait to throw their rocks until soldiers and civilians are exposed.”
Why did Said do it? What was a celebrity professor trying to signal by throwing a rock at Israelis from across the border?
The answer is twofold. First, there is the significance of Said’s membership in the PLO. The PLO wasn’t simply the incubator of modern terrorism—the terror group that introduced the world to airline hijacking and bus bombing. It was a trailblazer in the fusion of political warfare with terrorism. PLO chief Yasser Arafat recognized that it wasn’t sufficient to merely kill Israelis or Jews. The Jews’ right to a state and, indeed, to life, had to be delegitimized and criminalized through political warfare. For Arafat, political warfare and terrorism went hand in hand, from the outset.
From Arafat’s perspective, the purpose of political warfare—delegitimization and criminalization of its intended victims—was to enable and legitimize the terrorist warfare whose goal was the physical destruction of the victims’ society.
For Said, throwing a stone at Israel was a signal that the next phase of the battle against Israel should begin. Notably, the Palestinian terror war against Israel began just two months later.
In a larger sense, though, Said’s championing of the Palestinian war against Israel was part of a far wider postcolonialist crusade he waged against the United States. The purpose of his scholarship was to deny American professors the right to study and understand the world by delegitimizing them as nothing but racists and imperialists. Orientalism formed the foundation of a much broader campaign on campuses to delegitimize the United States as a political entity steeped in racism.
The purpose of the intellectual nihilism these champions of “narrative” over evidence advocate is not simply to leave students ignorant of facts. It is to manipulate students to engage in political violence against the United States. After all, if American scholars are inherently racist and therefore evil, they are so because America is inherently racist and therefore evil. And if America is inherently evil, then the right thing to do is to engage in violence to destroy it.
Said’s rock attack on Israel 20 years ago was the inevitable and desired endpoint of his anti-intellectual scholarship. And now his endpoint has become the reality on the streets of America’s great cities.