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A Fierce Independent Against Despotisms of Every Sort

Thinking of Edward Said

by TARIQ ALI

I think of Edward Said often, especially, but not only, when I read of the sordid deals in which the PLO is engaged with Israel and its US backers. I miss Edward’s impetuosity and righteous indignation. He would have had no truck with the shrivelled little Bantustans that the PLO wants to accept and would have morally destroyed the apologists for such a scheme or those intellectual fellow-travellers who think that defending the idea of a secular Palestine means remaining silent on the US-EU embargo on Hamas and who, exhausted by years of struggle and the receipt of handsome cheques from some corrupt NGO, are yearning for an accommodation with the enemy on almost any terms.

Already in his last writings Edward Said had supported the idea of a single state in Israel-Palestine and a break with the corruption and bankruptcy of the PLO. He may not have agreed with every dot and comma in Mearsheimer and Walt’s magisterial work, ‘The Israel Lobby’, but he would have loudly applauded its publication for breaking a sacred taboo. His voice is greatly missed in these bad times.

That Said was an implacable opponent of the Zionist project and US imperial policies is not in doubt, but he was not a mindless opponent of all things American. He loved New York. It was his home and he knew it and it was no small matter. He would often talk about the city with great passion and humour.

Edward’s colleagues at Columbia used to refer to his large office as the ‘West Bank’ and he appreciated the humour. Visiting Britain or France he was both enthusiastic on some levels (French intellectual history, for instance) and detached. He was an inquisitive tourist, a bon vivant fitting well Edward Gibbon’s description of such a person who possesses a ‘virtue which borders on a vice; the flexible temper which can assimilate itself to every tone of society from the court to the cottage; the happy flow of spirits which can amuse and be amused in every company and situation.’

Edward engaged with contemporary ideas happily but unlike some of his fans he did not try and compensate for the hollowness of a hole by constructing a hollow dome over it to both frame and enlarge the original. At the same time he was not one of those who feel that the 20th century had erred in attaching too much importance to intellect and reason, conviction and character.

Horrible mistakes had been made by ‘our side’, crimes had been committed by Western civilization in the Congo and the judeocide of the Second World War which had made Western public opinion, belatedly regretting the genocide, now indifferent to Palestinian suffering. Sometimes in melancholic mood and feeling more insecure than usual he would need to be reassured that what he was doing was worthwhile. Posterity’s tributes would have pleased him greatly.

The best way to honour his memory is to preserve a fierce independence against despotisms of every variety regardless of whether they clothe themselves in the uniform of democracy or bludgeon people into submission with a field-marshal’s baton.

TARIQ ALI’s new book, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, is published by Verso. He can be reached at: tariq.ali3@btinternet.com