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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Review)

"You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." - Indira Gandhi

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Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (A review of that and Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid)

"Orientalism smears all Orientalists with the same black paint. Its ideological framework includes and gives equal weight to the writings of ignorant travellers, amateur journalists and learned scholars... Said could then write, in his often-quoted statement, that ‘it is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric’...

Said employed a highly selective and tendentious approach to Orientalist writings... Said’s treatment of Greek intellectual themes rests only on a reading of the play The Persians... Alas, if only understanding Western intellectual history was so simple...

Said’s understanding of Greek civilisation rests on the reading of one play. Had Said considered the writings of Herodotus, Warraq believes, he ‘would have encountered two features that were also characteristic of Western civilisation and that he is at pains to conceal and refuses to admit exist: the seeking after knowledge for its own sake, and the belief in the unity of mankind, or in other words its universalism.’ On Said’s understanding of Greek Orientalism, Varisco notes that the Greek animosity that was expressed towards Orientals was equally expressed towards the Picts, Celts and Etruscans. He also wonders whether it is correct to understand Ancient Greeks as European and to assume that the Western Orientalist discourse originates there...

Said’s essentialist argument about Western Orientalism does not hold up to close scrutiny. One such example includes Voltaire’s writings on the Orient. In Orientalism, Said fails to address these writings namely because they undermine his thesis...

The logical outcome of Orientalism’s theoretical premises [is that] every Western writer who wrote on the Orient is understood in an essentialist way... The list goes on of Western writers and scholars who have been maligned by Said and whose work has been misread to fit his particular theory...

Orientalism’s success rested on exactly what Said denied in Western thought – powerful intellectual cross-currents that made self-criticism a frequent and potent force. In particular, Warraq points out that one of the major cross-currents in the West that contributed to Said’s fame was the intellectual tradition of guilt:

Post-World War II Western intellectuals and leftists were consumed by guilt from the West’s colonial past and continuing colonial present, and they wholeheartedly embraced any theory or ideology that voiced or at least seemed to voice the putatively thwarted aspirated of the peoples of the third world. Orientalism came at the precise time when anti-Western rhetoric was at its most shrill and was already being taught at Western universities, and when third-worldism was at its most popular.

The Western tendency to be overly-self critical, to the point of adopting reductive politics, provided Orientalism with the audience it needed. It buttressed an antiimperialist worldview based entirely on the binary of Western wrongs and non- Western rights. The simplicity of this binary mode of thought was made seemingly more acceptable by Said’s sophisticated prose, polysyllabic words and that Orientalism gives off the impression of being a rigorously researched book written by a widely-read author. In the end, Said’s book did not create these ideological reductive tendencies but rather reinforced them. It is this reinforcement that has led many in the West to understand their own history as unworthy of a robust defense...

Said’s understanding of imperialism as an exclusively western practice and an entirely negative phenomenon is misleading and facile. Every civilisation has committed its fair share of crimes and atrocities and to argue that the West is uniquely imperialistic, and inherently so, is to be ignorant of history...

In illustrating the depressing universality of brutality, Warraq discusses slavery and makes two important points. First, he shows that slavery was not just a Western practice. Here some fascinating facts are presented such as the large degree of African complicity in the slave trade and instances when African chiefs petitioned Western leaders to resist pressure to abolish their slave trade industries. Warraq further points out that slavery in the non-Western world has resisted all pressure from western abolitionists... Warraq uses slavery to show the progressive outcomes that can stem from Western intellectual thought. The anti-slavery movement in Britain was a movement rooted in the Enlightenment – the very same era that Said understands as critically important in shaping and forging Orientalist racist attitudes of the Other... It is important to note that the final abolition of the slave trade was brought about by the military manoeuvres of the British Imperial Navy.

Also in his discussion of imperialism, Warraq points out the positives that Western imperialism has had on certain regions of the world. To argue this controversial and widely unpopular case, Warraq focuses on the British rule in India... Varisco states that Ghandi used the views of Orientalist scholars to resist British colonial rule. This fact buttresses Warraq’s primary political position that despite its numerous, flaws, crimes and errors, there are Western intellectual traditions and practices that are worthy of defense. As he wrote recently in the City Journal: ‘The great ideas of the West – rationalism, selfcriticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law and equality under the law, freedom of thought and expression, human rights, and liberal democracy – are superior to any others devised by humankind’...

Past Orientalism housed both progressive trends worthy of praise and regressive trends worthy of condemnation...

Said ignored Oriental voices in Orientalism... Said’s ignoring of the Oriental in Orientalism is manifested as well in his political positions. In his analysis of the Iranian Revolution, Said systematically failed to consider the ideas and political programme of the Ayatollah Khomeini. During the Gulf War, he made little mention of the plight of the Kuwaitis who were suffering under a brutal occupation as a result of Ba’athist imperialism. He also failed to speak out for the human rights of the Iraqi Kurds who were victims of the most brutal Iraqi state aggression. Instead, Said felt compelled to only speak of human rights abuses committed by America and Israel...

The paradox of Orientalism [is that] numerous scholars want to agree with Said’s findings even when their research says otherwise... Many, like Chaterjee, feel emotionally and ideologically attached to Said’s arguments despite the fact that his arguments lack sufficient evidence or logic"


Another review quotes a bit on why Orientalist painters didn't depict colonialism ("If you have ever visited the Taj Mahal... you were anxious not to include some fat Western tourist, in shorts, hat, and sunglasses with a camera slung around his neck, in the frame") and has the great quote: "relativism, like cholesterol, comes in two forms: good and bad … the good type of relativism was originally only a way of preaching tolerance to others—the Other."
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