Edward Said was the world’s second most famous Palestinian. And much like Palestine, his biography was a fake and his culture was nothing more than the advocacy of a perpetual supremacist conflict against the indigenous Jewish inhabitants whom the colonial myth of Palestine was meant to displace.
The great genius of Arab and Islamic supremacism was their pretense that the Jewish story of an indigenous minority resisting their colonialism was really their own story. Having failed to destroy every culture that they had conquered, they instead appropriated their stories, painting their fallen empires as the tragic victims of the imperialism of the very people whom they had conquered and oppressed.
Arabs and Muslims still remained the dominant and domineering group in the Middle East repressing other cultures and religions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, but they flipped the history books over so that the descendants of caliphs and conquerors who had ground the Jews and other indigenous peoples under their boots could reinvent themselves as the victims of Jewish oppression. The members of vast families and clans spanning the Middle East selectively embraced a Palestinian identity if they happened, at any point in their lives, to find themselves within the borders of the Jewish State.
That is both the larger theme of Joshua Muravchik’s Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel and of its chapter on Edward Said, who helped turn the history books upside down.
Like many of the professionally oppressed, Edward Said came from wealth and privilege. Like Arafat, the world’s most famous Palestinian, Said, the world’s second most famous Palestinian came out of Cairo.
His childhood in “Palestine” was as much of a fiction as Palestine itself. Instead his mother had traveled to give birth in Jerusalem to take advantage of Jewish medical expertise. From that tiny act of occupation came the vast cultural appropriation that the newly baptized “Palestinian” would go on to inflict on the indigenous inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Edward Said’s career trajectory took him deep within academia where he denounced rival scholars for constructing simplistic stereotypes of the Middle East by constructing a simplistic stereotype of them as “Orientalists” who were “othering” the east.
In a typically tribal display of hypocrisy, Edward Said was othering the very people he was accusing of othering his own people.
What Edward Said lacked in scholarship (he thought that the Islamic conquest of what is today Turkey had taken place before the conquest of North Africa) and honesty (he claimed that the PLO rejected terrorism) he more than made up for in manufactured outrage, as Joshua Muravchik documents.
Edward Said transformed the Muslim and Arab colonists into the oppressed indigenous peoples pitted against European colonizers. The complex nuanced realities of legitimate scholars who recognized that Europeans and Arabs had both been imperialists and colonizers in their time were swept aside by Said’s nationalistic polemics.
By damning legitimate scholars as racist colonialist Orientalists, Edward Said was able to impose his own racist and colonialist revisionist history on academia.
The New Left had made Third World nationalism into its new creed. Said’s support of the PLO made him a voice for justice no matter how many lies he told or how his botched scholarship perverted history. Third World nationalists could legitimately call on Western guilt and act as moral voices on campus at the behest of a left that glibly assumed that only political terror would end the cycle of oppression.
The unfortunate truth of human affairs is that everyone is oppressing someone else. The great question that the left has been unwilling to address is who their designated victims are oppressing.
By treating the likes of Edward Said as reservoirs of unchallenged morality, the left had become complicit in the oppression of others. The old lessons of the USSR and the French Revolution, the danger of handing unlimited moral authority to outraged fanatics with an agenda, had not been learned. Instead class made way for race. The elites who had claimed to speak for the workers in France and Russia were dismissed. The new elites were wealthy prep school grads like Edward Said who claimed to speak for a non-existent people in an imaginary country based on three vacations he had taken there.
It was not only a breathtakingly impudent act of colonialism, but one that had severe consequences for the intellectual integrity of academia. Edward Said had staked out his place in the academic revolution by denouncing just about everyone else for their Orientalism. Facts were his weak point, but his tactics were Stalinist. Denouncing potential opponents as a class allowed him to turn his own Orientalism into the Lysenkoism of his field. It was not the quality of his scholarship that won him influence, but the broadness of his denunciation. Said’s work was not inclusive, it was exclusive. It came to bar the door.
In Making David Into Goliath, Joshua Muravchik dissects many of the myths and frauds that Edward Said built up around himself. And yet the myths can never be entirely destroyed because of the crucial role that he played in the alliance between the New Left and Third World nationalists. His ideas helped assign intellectual credibility to the intertwining of two reactionary totalitarian movements struggling to remain relevant by denouncing every newer system of government and thought.
Like many racists, Edward Said’s denunciations of others were really expressions of his own limitations. Said condemned his academic enemies for failing to see the diversity of the east, when it was Said who refused to see the diversity of the west. Edward Said reduced his opponents to crude stereotypes while accusing them of reducing Arabs and Muslims to crude stereotypes.
Edward Said accused his opponents of constructing colonialist myths, but his obsession with Israel led him to promote a colonialist myth in which his imperialist ancestors were the true indigenous people and the Jews, the majority of whom were Middle Eastern refugees, were foreign usurpers.
Edward Said tainted scholarship with this revisionist nationalist history. His defense of Arab and Islamic colonialism in an era in which academia no longer looked kindly on conquerors required him to turn history on its head and manufacture a narrative of oppressed colonizers suffering at the hands of the newly liberated indigenous people whom they had oppressed.
This local perversion of history fitted into the larger global perversion of Orientalism which indicted Middle Eastern scholarship for its intellectual colonialism as part of Said’s effort to colonize the study of the Middle East with his own tribal nationalism. Like a thief who pretends to be a policeman to scare away the other competing thieves he imagines are lurking nearby, Edward Said disguised the imperialism and colonialism of his agenda by dressing it up as anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism.
From his biography to his ideas, from his head to his toes, Edward Said was a fraud. Neither a great scholar not a great thinker, Said’s private nationalism played into a larger intellectual debate taking place within the culture. His work lives on because of grants from Saudi princes and because it serves as a pillar of a post-American academia in which political indictments have taken the place of research.
Arafat hijacked planes in the name of a phony nationalism, but Edward Said hijacked academia. These two Cairo natives had briefly lived in Israel as children and built careers around their imperialist efforts to colonize Israel with myths and violence, with lies and terror, pretending to be the oppressed when they were actually the oppressors.
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