Middle East historian Edward Said became famous in the academic community when his book Orientalism was published in 1976. Since then, it has often been seen as a handbook of anti-Western thought for liberal college professors to sift through and assign to their mindless, moldable students. However,
It is easy for Said’s book to give professors’ own political agendas an air of credibility. Rather than show their class a CNN report about how American intervention will ruin the adorable poverty of Cuba, history professors cite and assign Said’s book, which brings with it a protection from accusations of bias and agenda simply because Edward Said is, well, Edward Said. He is a bona fide scholar who revolutionized the way in which the history of the Western world is viewed in modern academia.
Said’s main argument, broadly speaking, is the misrepresentation of the non-Western world throughout history. Dating back to the 18th Century, according to Said, Westerners have looked down on their Eastern counterparts and incorrectly viewed them as overtly uncivilized. Their women were exotic and mistreated; their men were impoverished and incapable of self-governance. Inherent inferiority also played a large role in the West’s supposed degradation of the East, according to Said. Eastern populations were exotic and uncivilized because of the fact that they weren’t European (they were “the other” as opposed to “us”), which therefore made them racially subordinate and distinctly different. As a result of this condescension, Western nations felt it necessary to “fix” the East, and there begins Western colonial and imperial expansion.
Said’s work can be considered a beginning of post-colonialism as an academic subject in its own right. It set the sage for countless future historians, sociologists, anthropologists, etc., to analyze Western colonialism and expose it as the atrocity it supposedly was rather than the heroic expedition motivated by benevolence and patriotism it was previously seen as. Regardless of political preferences, 19th and early 20th Century European colonialism has had both negative and positive effects, and I will not delve into either position here.
The problem with Said’s opinions and his influential book is that it seems to have translated into the idea that in order to be intellectually respected in Western academia, one must take part in consistent self-criticism and act as if the colonialism and imperialism of yesteryear is still in full-effect. It is almost as if one cannot be taken seriously without the insistence that modern America be punished for what one famous historian sees as historical Western crimes.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in full swing throughout my college career, and the study of women in the Middle East makes particularly frequent use of this mindset. Modern feminist historians who specialize in Middle Eastern studies (a surprisingly large group) all seem to agree on Said-rooted, anti-Western beliefs when looking at Middle Eastern women. The picture of what they call the “poor Muslim woman” has supposedly been painted by the West as a justification for their imperial endeavors in the region. In November of 2001, for example, First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address about the horrid condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the civilized world’s duty to change it:
Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us. All of us have an obligation to speak out. We may come from different backgrounds and faiths — but parents the world over love our children. We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity — a commitment shared by people of good will on every continent. Because our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.
For numerous liberal feminist historians, the First Lady’s words became nothing more than propaganda for America’s imperialist interest of invading Afghanistan. Any benevolence or sincerity in American concern for Afghan women was basically derided as implausible. For someone to believe in the claims that Middle Eastern women being terribly oppressed would land them the label of an anti-Islamic, anti-Arab, imperialist who believed the fiction of the Western media’s portrayal of Arab women. It’s important to remember that these are, ideologically speaking, the same feminists who supported the ridiculous ban on “manspreading” in NYC subways and get annoyed with males who open doors for females. This is the legacy of Edward Said.
This group of academics is just one example of this increasingly mainstream legacy of orientalism. It is a legacy that decries American patriotism and glorifies American criticism. The left believes that, in order to fit the label of “progressive,” ideals and characteristics of the past and present must be consistently removed to make room for new ones. Progression must be infinite. The American century, filled with military might and oriental attitudes towards the weaker nations of the world, must therefore make way for a century in which American patriotism is synonymous with racism and the orientalist legacy of anti-Westernism begins to successfully change our culture.
We have already begun to see the massive effects this legacy has had on American culture. We have political leaders who minimze the modern crimes committed in the name of one religion while simultaneously highlighting wars carried out 500 years ago in the name of another. We have college students attempting to ban the American flag, and we have politicians who apologize to our enemies and insult our friends. We have a system of higher education that propagates these ideals and labels American flag-waving Tea Partiers as racist.
As long as American academic criticism wishes to be seen as “intellectually dignified” and “socially chic,” the lasting legacy of Edward Said’s orientalism will continue to spread.