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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #48 (November 25-December 1, 2003), page 13.

Edward W. Saidís insights better served in earlier books

Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said

Interviews by David Barsamian

South End Press, 2003

Paperback, 231 pages, $16.00

By Jeff Wenger

When Edward Said died of leukemia in September an important critical voice was silenced, though his body of work will continue to contribute to an understanding of the troubles in the Middle East.

Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 into an Anglican Palestinian family. He received a very British education and split time between Jerusalem and Cairo. He studied at Princeton and Harvard and lectured at Columbia. At the time of his most well-known work, 1978ís Orientalism, Said appeared uniquely situated to explain West to East and East to West. However, he ultimately will be remembered as an advocate for the Palestinian position and as a critic of American policy in the world, in the vein of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn ó though, by comparison, Said was more refined, a kinder, gentler critic.

Conspiracy afoot

In addition to Orientalism, his work includes Culture and Imperialism (1993) and a memoir, Out of Place (1999). Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said is a collection of interviews with David Barsamian. The interviews were done between February, 1999 and February, 2003. They were broadcast over Boulder, Coloradoís KGNU, a radio station similar to Portlandís KBOO.

Barsamian is the sort of person who uses the word "comrade" without irony, but he has done all right for himself with these collections of interviews, having previously published several with Chomsky. The form is flawed in that, though Said was a brilliant and articulate man, few of us, outside of baseball broadcasters, speak as well as we write when we have the luxury of deleting and beginning a sentence again. Too, itís given to the interviewer to set the pace and agenda.

To Barsamianís credit he steps aside and allows Said to have his say, even when Said disagrees with Barsamianís leading questions.

Said was right about many things, as when he said, "The selling of arms abroad, which is a major U.S. export, has now become a jobs issue, not a defense issue."

However, what is more in evidence throughout Culture and Resistance is a profound sense that conspiracy is afoot. Of course, Said had his university office burned by arsonists and received numerous death threats, which is bound to concentrate a sense of paranoia, but he leans on some awfully slender reeds.

For example, he said in 1999, "I remember appearing once on The Charlie Rose Show on PBS. He kept repeating the prevailing wisdom at me and didnít let me finish my sentences. What I was saying was so outrageous that he couldnít allow it to be said in a certain way."

Actually, had Said been able to finish a sentence on Charlie Rose, he would have been the first guest ever to do so. Casual viewers have pretty well sized up Chuck as a guy who thinks heís awfully brilliant and that each show should be an opportunity for him to demonstrate as much. That Said was interrupted is hardly proof "that he couldnít allow it to be said in a certain way" so much as proof that the star of the show had some golden nugget of an idea that he just couldnít wait to release.

In February of this year, the following exchange took place:

Barsamian: You must wince when you hear Colin Powell speaking about Iraq at the United Nations and saying "Sodom" repeatedly. Whatís that about? You donít have to know Arabic to be able to say "Saddam."

Said: Itís a form of arrogance and obviously of contempt. I think that thereís an attempt on the one hand to demonize, and trivialize him, and on the other hand to show that familiarity breeds contempt. That Iraq is really nothing more than this man, whose name is always mispronounced, as you said. Of course, he is an awful dictator, but in the class of dictators the world over, historically, letís say in the twentieth century, he is pretty small fish.

Barsamian: What weíre talking about extends way beyond Colin Powell, to multimillion-dollar paid news anchors who say I-raq, I-ran, muhdrassas, the shuhreeyah, the Mooslems, and Izlum.

Said: Yes, itís all part of the same Orientalist clichťs that are designed to alienate, distance, and dehumanize a people, which is what has happened to us. Thatís why most Arabs feel tremendous animosity toward the U.S. media and government. The prevailing public discourse is so ignorant and at the same time so familiar in its contempt for these central things in our lives that we see it as a kind of assault on our culture and our civilization.

Again, Said was a brilliant man, and he was so knowledgeable and eloquent about literature and poetry that it is difficult to listen to such hypersensitive whining. Americans have been paying good money for pizza at I-talian restaurants for a hundred years and, the Sopranos notwithstanding, no one is whinging about their provincial pronunciation being designed ó designed! ó to alienate, distance, and dehumanize a people. Really, Said gave people too much credit; ignorance and laziness and inertia go a long way in explaining this trouble.

What is more troublesome is the suggestion that, as twentieth-century dictators go, Saddam Hussein was "pretty small fish." As of this writing, mass graves are still being excavated throughout Iraq. It seems clear enough that if he was less of a "big fish" than Hitler or Stalin or Mao it was a matter of technological scale, not moral darkness. The Iraqi dictatorís wickedness was up to the task, if only heíd had more poison gas of the kind he used on the Kurds and the Iranians. And then the mind wanders around to "what if Pol Pot or Idi Amin had the gas that Saddam Hussein used?" What fish ranking would Said have given them?

Anyway, what kind of urinating contest is this, when the argument is that this dictator isnít so bad as that other one? That sounds like the sort of Inside Baseball people can afford to engage in when it wasnít their loved ones in the mass graves.

Ultimately, Culture and Resistance is of interest to Saidís readers in the same way the "MTV Unplugged" series was popular with the kids: you get to see your hero let his hair down a little, get a little mellow, rework some of the old hits. But it never becomes classic; it never tops the originals.

 

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