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Hitchens Smears Edward Said

by CLARE BRANDABUR

When I first discovered Edward Said’s Orientalism I was overwhelmed but also overjoyed: though I knew I lacked sufficient erudition to read the book as it deserved, I also knew that I had found a source which could challenge and direct my study and gradually allow me to fill in the blanks, especially about the Arab world. It was the most brilliant book I had ever read.

Later in a bookstore in Amman, where I found myself in a queue clutching a new copy of the book for a friend, a well-dressed professorial-looking bystander commented on my purchase. “Orientalism,” he said frowning knowingly. “I find it somewhat overwritten.” Unusually for me–I usually think of the proper response much too late–I managed to contain my indignation. “Oh good, then,” I said deliberately. “Since you know how the book should have been written, I trust you will now write the book as it should be.” Later I reflected on how sad it was that an obviously educated Arab could not just acknowledge and take pride in the fact that another Arab–or another human being for that matter–had achieved such an impressive, learned, and original piece of work.

Christopher Hitchens betrays a similar need to denigrate a book from which he has obviously learned a great deal, though his comments suggest that he has understood it imperfectly. He too knows how Said “should” have done his life work– the title: “Where the Twain Should Have Met” [1] reeks with condescension. The sub-sub-title “What Went Wrong” is an allusion to Bernard Lewis, the doyen of contemporary Orientalists, whose article by that name in an earlier The Atlantic (January 2002) was all about Muslim rage. Reading this kiss of Judas (“I was with him in the garden”) in the flagrantly Zionist The Atlantic, which doubtless paid him more than thirty pieces of silver, what first strikes me is the frequency and oddity of words that Hitchens puts in quotation marks. ” it was still just possible in those days to imagine that a right ‘side’ could be discerned.” This a propos of the Lebanese civil war, implying that in his new wisdom, he now knows that both sides were equally to blame, even though most observers understand that Israel, the US and Opus Dei all exercised Machiavellian influence in Lebanon to instigate ethnic rivalries and foment violence. Next he puts in quotes “settler” in the parenthetical mention of the “messianic ‘settler’ movement among the Jews”. What is this supposed to imply? That Jewish settlers on Palestinian land are only called “settlers” by those who don’t acknowledge them as legitimate residents of the Occupied Territories? And on and on.

Most denigration of Said’s Orientalism comes through damning with faint praise, though at times in addition Hitchens misrepresents what Said’s text actually says. An example of denigration occurs in Hitchens’ calling Culture and Imperialism “a collection of essays showing that Said has a deep understanding, amounting to sympathy, for the work of writers such as Austen and Kipling and George Eliot, who–outward appearances notwithstanding–never did take ‘the Orient’ for granted.” I can’t tell whether that last phrase applies only to George Eliot or to all three writers. Does Hitchens imply that Said’s analysis of these writers amounts to accusing them of taking “the Orient” for granted? Or that only if you look at Austen, Kipling and Eliot from a purely superficial point of view could you think they took “the Orient” for granted? Said’s view of these writers is so nuanced and so elegantly articulated that Hitchens’ remark is inane and trivial. To suggest that Said had “sympathy” for such writers is like saying that Louis Pasteur realized his patients were sick.

In another example of the minimizing of Said’s accomplishment, Hitchens says:

It is easy enough to say that Westerners had long been provided with an exotic, sumptuous, but largely misleading account of the Orient, whether supplied by Benjamin Disraeli’s Suez Canal share purchases, the celluloid phantasms of Rudolph Valentino, or the torrid episodes of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But it is also true that Arab, Indian, Malay, and Iranian societies can operate on a false if not indeed deluded view of “the West.”

Notice the same arrogance as that of my friend in the Amman bookstore: “It is easy” followed by a complete trivialization of the whole point of Orientalism, followed by the non-sequitur that Easterners may have false stereotypes of the West, as though this point had somehow escaped Said!

From this blinding non-point, Hitchens then leaps to “I am willing to bet that I know more about Mesopotamia than Saddam Hussein knows about England.” After which he quotes Adonis as warning “there exists a danger in too strong a counterposition between ‘East’ and ‘West’.” Is Hitchens pretending to lecture Said about the danger of “too strong a counterposition” between East and West? I find this merely pathetic.

But Hitchens also indulges in plagiarism, the journalistic equivalent of dressing oneself up in borrowed finery, a sorry symptom of intellectual dishonesty. Throughout this essay, he takes lines from Orientalism without letting the reader know they are not his own. For example, when he says that Lord Macauley was “a near perfect illustration of the sentence (which occurs in Disraeli’s novel Tancred) ‘The East is a career’.” That line, correctly attributed, occurs on page 5 of Orientalism. But you would not know that from Hitchens’ text. From there he moves to discuss Karl Marx, again taking passages that appear more fully in Said’s text including a passage in which Said quotes Marx quoting a stanza from Goethe (pages 153-4 of Orientalism). Hitchens says:

Said spent a lot of time “puzzling” (his word) over Marx’s ironies here: how could a man of professed human feeling justify conquest and exploitation? The ultimate answer–that conquest furnished an alternative to the terrifying serfdom and stagnation of antiquity, and that creation can take a destructive form–need have nothing to do with what Said calls “The old inequality between East and West” (The Roman invasion of Britain was also “progress,” if the word has any meaning.)

Now in the first place, Said does not say he spent a lot of time puzzling over Marx’s ironies here. What he does say is that there is a dissonance between Marx’s awareness of the suffering of people whose entire lives were uprooted by conquest, and his acknowledgment of the benefits which the conquerors would introduce. In this passage, Said quotes Marx quoting Goethe, an allusion which, Said observes: “identifies the sources of Marx’s conceptions about the Orient”. Next Said quotes Marx as saying that England had the task of “laying the material foundation of Western society in Asia.” Said comments on this passage:

The idea of regenerating a fundamentally lifeless Asia is a piece of pure Orientalism, of course, but coming from the same writer who could not easily forget the human suffering involved, the statement is puzzling. (p. 154)

Why would Hitchens misrepresent Said’s text? It is not Said who is puzzling–and spending a long time puzzling at that–it is the apparent inconsistency within the text of Marx under discussion that he finds puzzling.

In that inserted throw-away line above about the Roman invasion of Britain being “progress”, Hitchens gives a clue to his fundamental argument with Edward Said whom he blames for “taking one side.” Hitchens has come to see imperialism as “progress” and all indigenous societies as backward and primitive. So Hitchens is now the defender of the Imperial cause, a position that obliges him to see the Bush/Blair invasion and occupation of Iraq as “progress.” Witness his refusal to believe the evidence that the destruction and looting of Iraqi cultural treasures was deliberate and systematic as implied by Said (in his Window on the World, an article adapted from his introduction to the publication of the new edition of Orientalism). Hitchens finds this a “fantastic allegation” though it has been attested by more than one reliable observer among them Robert Fisk. Stephen Smith has written an insightful analysis in which he gives long quotations from Fisk and other eyewitness observers who have gone on record testifying to the deliberate destruction of Iraqi cultural treasures by US forces. (See Art, Music, and Culture: Furious Envy–Baudrillard and the looting of Baghdad, 4 September 2003, electronicIraq.net)

Said says Orientalism was meant to be partisan, so Hitchens is right to say he takes sides. “I have called what I do humanism, a word I continue to use stubbornly despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated postmodern critics. By humanism, I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” so as to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding. Moreover humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods: strictly speaking therefore, there is no such thing as an isolated humanist.” (Edward Said in: Window on the World, Guardian Unlimited, August 2, 2003).

Rather than waste time over Hitchens’ pathetic effort to trivialize and seem to scold Edward Said for imagined shortcomings, it is important to recognize the positive thrust of all of Said’s work: he advocates the hard work of “patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.” In the same article, “The secular world is the world of history as made by human beings. Critical thought does not submit to commands to join the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy.” Said’s constant message continues to be what he asserts in Culture and Imperialism, “There is the possibility of a more generous and pluralistic vision of the world the opportunities for liberation are open’ (p. 230) Why don’t we all stand up and cheer and exchange the kiss of peace, rather than standing in line to give him the kiss of death. “I was with him in Cyprus”

CLARE BRANDABUR, at present on the Faculty of English Literature at Do’u’ University in Istanbul, holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, taught at Birzeit University in Occupied Palestine for three years, at Al-Ba’ath University in Syria as a Fulbright Lecturer, and in Bahrain and Jordan. She can be reached here: cbrandabur@dogus.edu.tr Endnotes [1] Christopher Hitchens, Where the Twain Should Have Met: The cosmopolitan Edward Said was ideally placed to explain East to West and West to East. What went wrong?, The Atlantic Monthly, September 2003.

 

 

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