In theory, Middle East Studies programs are a good idea. One of the biggest impediments to countering modern jihadism has been the lack of historical knowledge about the region and Islam. But even the attention and urgency that followed the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have not led to such knowledge. The result has been policies pursued both by Republicans and Democrats that are doomed to fail, as the current chaos in the region attests.
Rather than enlightening citizens and policy-makers, Middle Eastern Studies programs have darkened our understanding. As Martin Kramer documented in his important 2002 study Ivory Towers on Sand, most programs have become purveyors not of knowledge but of ideology. Under the influence of literary critic Edward Said’s historically challenged book Orientalism––“a work,” historian Robert Irwin has written, “of malignant charlatanry, in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations”––Middle East Studies programs, Kramer writes, “came under a take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology.” The ideology, of course, comprised the old Marxist narrative of Western colonial and imperial crimes, a Third Worldism that idealizes the dark-skinned, innocent “other” victimized by Western depredations, and the juvenile romance of revolutionary violence.
Yet Said’s baleful influence has not been limited to Middle East Studies programs, one of which has been created at my campus of the California State University, replete with the problems Kramer catalogues. It has insidiously corrupted much of the humanities and social sciences, operating under the innocuous rubric of “postcolonial” studies, which to the unwary suggests a historical rather than an ideological category. Through General Education courses that serve students across the university, and in departments like English that train primary and secondary school teachers, Saidian postcolonial ideology has been shaping the attitudes and presumed knowledge of Islam and the Middle East far beyond the reach of Middle East Studies programs.
Said’s dubious argument in Orientalism is that the work of Western scholars on the Middle East embodied “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient,” thus creating the intellectual infrastructure for justifying colonialism and imperialism. As such, every European scholar perforce was “a racist, an imperialist, and totally ethnocentric.” For social science and humanities departments committed totally to the multiculturalist melodrama of white racism and oppression of the dark-skinned “other,” Said’s work seemingly provides scholarly bona fides to ideas that are in fact expressive of illiberal grievance politics.
English departments have been particularly vulnerable to Said’s work, for he overlaid his bad history with watered down Foucauldian ideas about the relationship of power to discourse. Thus English professors seduced by the poststructuralist theory ascendant in 1978 when Orientalism was published found in that book a seemingly sophisticated theoretical paradigm that shared both poststructuralism’s disdain for objectivity and truth, and its “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the notion that the apparent meaning of a discourse is a mask for the sinister machinations of power at the expense of the excluded “other.”
More important, postcolonialism is a politically activist theory, bound up as it is in the politics of the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now English professors could avoid the legitimate charge that poststructuralism, despite its patina of leftist ideology, was in fact an evasion of politics, a “symbolic politics,” as historian Russell Jacoby put it, “a replacement for, and a diversion from, the gritty politics of the community and the street.” On the contrary, the purveyors of postcolonialism were on the barricades, struggling to liberate Palestinians and other Muslims oppressed by a neo-imperialist America and its puppet Israel. Rather than pampered elitists guaranteed jobs for life, now the professors could fancy themselves freedom fighters and champions of the ex-colonial brown peoples still exploited and oppressed by the capitalist, racist West.
Finally, the dogma of multicultural “diversity” now firmly enshrined in American universities likewise has found Saidian postcolonialism a useful tool for interpreting and teaching literature, one that exposes the Western literary canon’s hidden racism and oppression. Moreover, in a university like Fresno State, half of whose students are minorities, a postcolonial perspective can establish a rapport with minority students who are encouraged to interpret their own experiences through the same lens of unjust exclusion and hurtful distortions of their culture and identity. At the same time white students are schooled in their privilege and guilt, minorities can be comforted by a narrative that privileges them as victims of historical oppression, one masked by the unearned prestige of the classics written by “dead white males.” Now minority students learn that Shakespeare’s Caliban is the true hero the Tempest with whom they should identify, the displaced victim of rapacious colonialists and slavers like Prospero who unjustly define the indigenous peoples as savages and cannibals in order to justify the brutal appropriation of their lands and labor.
Over the thirty years I have taught in the California State University, I have seen this transformation of the English department. Reading lists dominated by contemporary ethnic writers are increasingly displacing the classics of English literature, and even when traditional works are on the list, the books are often taught from the postcolonial perspective. New hires more and more comprise those Ph.D.’s whose specialties lie in ethnic or “world” literature, replacing the Shakespeare scholars and others trained to teach the traditional English and American literary canon. The traditional content of a liberal education––“the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold wrote––is disappearing, replaced by multicultural melodramas of Western crime and guilt.
More important for the culture at large, many of these students will go on to earn teaching credentials and staff public schools. They will carry the postcolonial ideology into their own classrooms, influencing yet another generation and reinforcing a received wisdom that will shape their students’ understanding of the important threats to our national security and interests emanating from the Middle East, especially jihadism. And it will encourage ordinary citizens to assent to the demonization of our most valuable regional ally, Israel, currently battling the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement that can more easily gain traction among those who from grade school to university have been exposed to the postcolonial ideology.
The damage done to our foreign policy by Middle East Studies is obvious. The influence of the godfather of such programs, Edward Said, on the social sciences and humanities departments like English is more insidious and subtle. But it is no less dangerous.
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