Most conservatives are quite familiar with that small, private melancholy, or bothersome anger, which descends upon us when we discover a good argument long-settled — and long lost. Indeed, because we tend to look to the past for answers, conservatism is in many ways the study of forked roads and paths-not-taken. Every day, I receive correspondence from young conservatives dismayed to realize only now that the New Deal or the income tax were largely unconstitutional, or that Galileo’s real enemies were more likely to be found among the ranks of his petty colleagues than in the Catholic Church. Indeed, many conservative backwaters are filled with smart men and women who cannot let go of lost causes and unwinnable arguments.
That’s how I feel about the battle over the word “Orientalism.”
A Little Background What is Orientalism? Well, that depends who you ask. Talk to almost anybody in academia or in “enlightened” journalistic circles and it means, roughly and broadly, an attempt by Western scholars to define Arab or Eastern cultures and history in a (negative) light consistent with Western notions of superiority. Whether that negative light is cast in primarily colonial, patriarchal, racist, Zionist, or capitalist hues depends on who is doing the casting, but you get the point.
It hasn’t always meant that, though. Orientalists used to be people who study the Orient, in much the same way “classicists” study the Greeks. The guy who almost single-handedly changed the meaning of the word is Edward Said. It all began in 1976, when Said wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books in which he defined contemporary Orientalist scholarship as “an unbroken tradition in European thought of profound hostility, even hatred, toward Islam.” In 1978, he followed up with his book Orientalism, which had a staggering impact on the way the Middle East is discussed. In fact, the whole field of “post-colonial theory” is largely an outgrowth of Said’s book.
Said’s arch-nemesis is a scholar named Bernard Lewis, perhaps the last of the great scholars of Islam to still call himself an Orientalist. A renowned scholar of medieval Islam, Lewis has written three dozen books and speaks — to name a few — Arabic, Aramaic, French, German, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, and Turkish. When you read his footnotes, you may not know what he’s talking about, but it’s fascinating to know that someone out there does. Lewis is British and Jewish. Said is Palestinian. Lewis is fond of Israel. Said isn’t.
Now, none of this is particularly controversial. Said’s critics concede that he’s been remarkably successful in redefining Orientalism. To the vast majority of the “high-brow” public, “Orientalism” simply means “anti-Arab” or “anti-Muslim.” Exactly why it means that is a mystery to many of those who use the word unselfconsciously.
Indeed, a much-discussed essay in the January 17 New York Review of Books, titled “Occidentalism,” simply takes for granted that Orientalism is an irrational, unjustified animus toward the East. The authors, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, use this definition in order to opine at typical TNYRB-length about Occidentalism, which is to say, the East’s version of Orientalism. If you’re unfairly bigoted against the East, you’re practicing Orientalism. If you’re an irrational hater of Western “decadence,” the authors assert, you are an Occidentalist. When NPR’s All Things Considered invited the authors to discuss it, host Robert Siegal matter-of-factly explained that Messrs. Buruma and Margalit “take the notion of Orientalism, Westerners diminishing Eastern civilizations, and stand it on its head.” Sigel seemed totally unaware or unconcerned that the meaning of Orientalism had already been turned on its head, by the likes of Said & co.
I bring all of this up for a simple reason: It’s all a bunch of crap.
If you read even a smattering of this hokum, you’ll note something funny: The bad guys on both sides of the civilizational divide are always conservatives of one kind or another. If you’re a Koran-thumping, uppity-wife-stoning, shoe-bombing barbarian, you don’t like the West because of its liberalism and tolerance. And, here in America, if you don’t buy into Said’s view of the Middle East as an oppressed polity, if you don’t bow to his iron-willed insistence that no Westerner’s perspective can trump the authentic voices of the oppressed — then you are a racist or imperialist or, of course, a Zionist. In other words, you’re an Orientalist. Conservatives here: Orientalist. Conservatives there: Occidentalist.
It’s All a Con In a recent column, “Facts and Firemen,” I attempted to explain what “postmodernism” is about. I mention it because I think I did a pretty good job, and because I don’t want to explain postmodernism all over again. But the important thing to remember here is that Orientalism is simply postmodernism served with Middle Eastern spices. Said is a hardcore left-winger and pro-Palestinian activist (he used to advise Arafat, until the chairman became too “pro-Israel”) who is deeply fluent — nay, gifted — at speaking the gibberish of “post-colonial theory,” i.e., postmodernism, i.e., nonsense.
Postmodernists hold it as their fundamental insight that there are no capital-T truths. Of course, this is actually not an insight (nor could it be) but just an assertion. After all, the declaration that there are no capital-T truths is, in and of itself, a claim to a universal, capital-T truth. And…
Oh, never mind all that lava-lamp stuff. I don’t really mind a little humility when it comes to figuring out what the capital-T truths are. What drives me nuts, however, is the moral and intellectual laziness this academic-sounding tinsel encourages. Once it’s asserted that all points of view are inherently equal, intellectual rigor and moral clarity go out the window. Suddenly, feeling is more important than evidence; authenticity trumps accuracy. America and the West aren’t better than anyone else, we just define the concept of “better” in such a way that it works for us. You can’t say the Arab world is backward or stagnant — not because that would be untrue, but because it would hurt the feelings of those whose self-esteem is dependent upon such things. And you certainly can’t say such things about these cultures if you’re not a member of them.
Consider a review of Bernard Lewis’s latest book, What Went Wrong, in the Washington Post. The reviewer is lavish in his praise of Lewis’s work and says he’s persuaded by Lewis’s well-supported arguments. But because a member of al Qaeda would disagree with Lewis, the book isn’t really satisfactory. Somehow, I doubt this reviewer would make the same allowances for the views of an SS officer or Klansman when considering a history of Nazism or the KKK.
But even this gives Said’s accomplishment too much credit. Orientalism was not intended to make Westerners more open-minded to other cultures; the West has always been receptive to new ideas. Rather, it was intended to selectively discredit those ideas Said found inconvenient — regardless of their veracity. Orientalism, the book that launched much of this buffoonery, ridiculed British and French Orientalists, yet ignored Soviet and other Marxist Orientalists — even though many of the Marxists were much more virulently anti-Islam. Said didn’t care, because his real gripe wasn’t with Marxists; it was with traditional scholarship. “Orientalism,” like its sibling postmodernisms, is simply about power. It is a highbrow version of screaming “racism” in order to stifle debate and bully scholarly dissenters into silence.
All of this is laid out in what may be the single most persuasive and elegant essay I’ve ever read on this general topic. It was written by, you guessed it, Bernard Lewis. “The Question of Orientalism,” published in 1992 in Islam and the West, is a devastating exposure of the fundamental dishonesty of both Orientalism, the word, and Orientalism, the book.
Lewis opens by asking the reader to imagine a situation “in which a group of patriots and radicals from Greece decides that the profession of classical studies is insulting to the great heritage of Hellas and that those engaged in these studies, known as classicists, are the latest manifestation of a deep and evil conspiracy, incubated for centuries, hatched in Western Europe, fledged in America, the purpose of which is to denigrate the Greek achievement and subjugate the Greek lands and peoples.” It’s a long sentence, but it’s an even longer hypothetical. To keep it short, Lewis persuasively argues that Said does the same thing to Orientalism as these hypothetical Greeks do to classicism. Swept up by contemporary political passions, the Saidians basically argue that anybody who concludes something that is “offensive” to authentic Arabs isn’t merely wrong, he’s subtly racist or imperialistic.
And — as you might expect from a school of thought that pooh-poohs the notion of facts — Said’s Orientalism is rife with factual errors, as Lewis demonstrates with relentless, surgical skill. Said even got major events in the Middle Eastern history wrong. For example, he stated that the Muslim conquest of Turkey preceded the spread of Islam in North Africa. In reality, not only was the order reversed, but Turkey actually didn’t become Muslim until centuries after the Arabs. Said’s version is sort of like saying that Europeans colonized America after the formation of NATO.
But hey, one might be able forgive this sort of heinous error, if Said’s book hadn’t been intended to delegitimize the work of lifelong, dedicated scholars. Oh, but wait, I’m practicing Orientalism by even thinking such things, since “facts” aren’t particularly relevant at all.