We continue with an occasional series of most and least popular reviews I have posted over the past 14 years on Amazon. Today we feature what for now I will call the ninth most unpopular -- a book by the famous critic of "Orientalism," the Palestinian scholar, Edward Said.
Culture and Imperialism, by Edward Said
"Grow up, Professor Said" (**)
Said has hit on an interesting idea, studying imperialism through literature. And the breadth of knowledge he brings to the discussion is often impressive. But he ultimately gives what seems to me not only a largely mistaken, but a shallow and even childish reading of history.
Politically, Said frankly lets us know where his sympathies lie, and where they do not lie. He seldom misses a chance to make a snide remark about American "Captain Ahab" adventures against foreign dictators. Desert Storm was "an imperial war against the Iraqi people." America fights such wars to put "lesser peoples, with lesser rights, morals, claims" in their places. Americans "love to think that whatever it wanted was just what the human race wanted." Said probably changed the channel when he saw Kabul residents cheering American intervention. While he qualifies his theories on details, one of his chief faults is to look the other way when evidence disconfirms them in big ways.
Said sees himself as fighting a lonely battle. He feels "outnumbered and outorganized," with all the wealthy universities and media outlets taking up "a strident chorus of right-wing tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-judeo-Christian from the acceptable." Anyone who reads the Western press as a vast, right-wing conspiracy may appreciate such jeremiads. The rest of us an only stare in awe.
Human beings are not angels, and Western history is certainly not all crumpets and tea. It is legitimate, though a bit late, to attack Western colonialism, and express disgust at pretensions that Great Powers acted solely for the benefit of those they conquered.
Said exagerates without shame or limit, though. "No one with any power to influence public discussion on policy demurred as to the basic superiority of the white European male, who should always retain the upper hand." This comes shortly after Said condemns Kipling (and Europeans) for over-generalizing about Indian character. And it is bunk. Loyalties of the 19th Century were not so neatly divided. There were public figures whose first loyalties were not to their own state, nor even to native peoples, but to God, for example. Christian leaders and thinkers like Wesley, Wilberforce, Booth, Carey, Farquhar, and WAP Martin often said and did all that should have been said and done, somestimes better than any armchair Marxist alive now does. In his deathbed letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley contrasted "civil, reasonable, industrious" Africans, with "villainous" slavetraders in a way that would make a modern liberal feel sorry for the slavetraders. ("Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. The Great God will deal with you as you have dealt with them!") Indian writer Mangalwadi notes that Wilberforce never seemed to act in England's best economic interests. Wesley and Wilberforce were two of the most influential men who ever lived.
The truth is, the period Said covers involved a long, complex battle for the soul of Western culture. Commercial self-interest usually had the upper hand, but within nominally Christian empires, the teachings of Jesus slowly conquered self-interest in many cases to bring reform, as Mangalwadi and Farquhar have described in India. Crusaders Against Opium tells a similiar story of how some Westerners (missionaries) unanimously fought against England's obvious commercial interests in China as well.
But Said, being influenced by Matthew Arnold, looks for "sweatness and light" in the world of letters, rather than among the followers of the light that really did make a difference. Said implies feminism sprang up in non-Western cultures out of thin air. The great Chinese skeptic, Hu Shi, said however, that missionaries "taught us to look at women as people." It was missionaries again who fought the first and most important battles for the elevation of women in India, China, and Japan. While Said's "leading lights" of Western civilization were piddling around on the margins, these people not only conceived of the "natives" taking charge, they empowered them to do so, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Said almost ignores these people, for the health of his theory. In general, Said reveals a naive and rather petulant understanding of human nature, (as opposed to really illuminating social critics like Solzhenitsyn and Rene Girard) and overlooks the true source of the light that brings liberation.
The book could also be better written. "Conrad's way of demonstrating this discrepancy between the orthodox and his own views of empire is to keep drawing attention to how ideas and values are constructed (and deconstructed) through dislocations in the narrator's language." This, from a fan of George Orwell?
31/68 (total score: - 75)