The Mighty Pen of Edward Said

In 1994, David Barsamian and Edward Said published a set of interviews Barsamian had conducted with Said in the years previous.  This collection was titled The Pen and the Sword and was recently republished by Haymarket.  I remember reading the book as soon as it came into the library I worked at then and being impressed by the clarity of thought contained therein.  The two men discuss many things: the role of culture in maintaining empires, the responsibility of intellectuals in modern society, the surrender of those intellectuals to the power structure, and the Oslo accords of 199?.  It was Said who made the clearest and most forceful critique of those accords, essentially calling them a capitulation on the part of Yasser Arafat.  This analysis did not endear him to any of the power structures involved–Washington, Tel Aviv, or the Palestinian Authority.

Re-reading Said today and then reading the news concerning the PA and its role in opposing Hamas and the release of the Goldstone report makes Said’s observation that the Oslo accords were nothing but capitulation that much truer.  It was Said’s contention that Israel needed a Palestinian partner to go along with its decision to continue its expansion into Palestinian lands.  Sadly, says Said, they found that partner in the person of Yasser Arafat.  Arafat’s death in 2004 (not long after Said’s) and subsequent placement in the pantheon of Palestinian heroes may have modified Said’s impressions of the latter day Arafat had he survived him.  However, it is unlikely that Said’s perception of the accords and their subsequent annihilation by Israel and Mr. Arafat’s successors would have improved.  In fact, the continued flouting of those accords by Israel and the capitulation of the Palestinian Authority to Tel Aviv’s snubbing have only proven Said’s original impressions.

Some of the most interesting conversation in these pages regards the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) transition from a liberation to one concerned only with creating a nation, no matter how that nation looked.  Said’s observations on the shortcomings opf nationalism as an idology or strategy are telling and apply acroos the board to all national liberation movements that trade in their desire for liberation for the simple fact of nationhood.  When this occurs, argues Said, the way is open for those only interested in profiteering and power to take control.  By discussing this, the two men break the ice on one of the modern world’s major quandaries: how does a people make the shift from a colonial state to one that doesn’t just merely replicate the colonial situation without the occupiers troops and administration?  As any student of history can see, the postcolonial world has not created a situation where equality exists between the former colonies and the former colonialists.  In fact, the disparities and systems of control are arguably greater now than they were in colonial times, at least in some circumstances.

These discussions make it clear that Said believes that the liberation of one’s land from the yoke of colonialism is not enough.  A people also need to liberate their minds from that yoke, too.  This is where Said’s thoughts on culture–both that of the oppressor and of the oppressed–become so important.  He was one of a very few modern leftists that put the role of culture in developing a people’s consciousness foremost among the elements that go into that development.  Conversely, Said also understood and wrote a lot about the use of culture by the imperial power to colonize the occupied peoples’ mind.  Like Frantz Fanon, he was not afraid to challenge the assumption of the occupiers mindset by some of the colonized.  Interestingly, religiously-inspired resistance groups like Hamas understand this only too well.  While Hamas certainly addresses the economic and political oppression of the Palestinians with programs that feed and educate them, they also celebrate an Islamic version of Palestine’s culture of resistance, thereby planting a relationship between Islam and Palestinian liberation.  It’s not that secular Palestinian culture does not exist, says Said, it’s that those intellectuals who should be encouraging its spread have abdicated their responsibility.  Like intellectuals in the West, they have either ceded to the power of politics, money or both.

Of course, Palestine has not thrown off the occupier’s authority and replaced it with their own.  The control Tel Aviv exerts over the people of the West Bank and Gaza today is more complete than it was before Oslo.  Nothing proves this more than the recent killings of Palestinians by IDF forces and the subsequent incursion of Israeli tanks into Gaza.  Furthermore, the current argument in the media between Washington and Tel Aviv over new settlements in East Jerusalem underline that truth.

Despite the overall sense of historical tragedy underlined by greater tragedies to come, Said manages to find some hope.  Like a flower rising from the dirt of a freshly dug grave or the phoenix rising from the ashes, the despair present in these interviews is brightened by the hope for a different future.  One wonders whether he would find a similar hope today.

As I write this review, rumors of the possibility of another Intifada appear in the media.  The arrogant insistence of the Netanyahu government that the international treasure that is Jerusalem belongs only to Israel and the consequent territorial invasion of the Arab quarter by Israelis may well exceed Palestinian patience once again.  If another uprising does occur, the plight of the Palestinians will once again be on the world’s front pages, as will the propaganda onslaught from Tel Aviv and Washington revising that story to their perspective.  Yet, when all is said and done, I wonder if anything will really change.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: