Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ninth "Worst Review:" Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

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)


Brian Barrington said...

Said is basically opposed to Imperialism, which is the correct position to hold, since Imperialism consists principally of the expoitation and oppression of the colonised by the more powerful coloniser. That is why the colonised overwhelmingly hate it and resent it. Said, like all good men, sides with the oppressed against the oppressor, with the powerless against the powerful, with the weak against the strong, with the bullied against the bullies, and with the exploited against the exploiter. Good for him!

“Said probably changed the channel when he saw Kabul residents cheering American intervention.”

Anyone who thinks the people of Kabul or Afghanistan support the violent American invasion and occupation of their country must have been changing their own TV channels quite frequently, or maybe just watching Fox News. I presume this sentence appears here because your review was written a some time ago – fair play to you for not editing it out in order to try and save yourself embarrassment!

Anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry are pervasive in Western media – they are so pervasive, casual and unquestioned that most people don’t really notice it. In the mainstream Western media people regualrly make comments about Muslims and Arabs that, if they were made about any other group of people, such as Jews or blacks, would cause total outrage. So Said is correct about that.

It seems that John Wesley, like Edward Said, was a good man who opposed Imperialism and slavery, so he deserves to be lauded for that. To the extent that some Christian missionaries were feminists, like Said, then they were also good people who deserve to be praised for taking a brave stand against the reactionaries of that era. Progressive Christians who fight for human rights, social justice and the equality of women deserve to be lauded. Christians who resist these things deserve to be condemned and rejected.

David B Marshall said...

I think Said opposed imperialism by the wrong people. I don't know how much he worried about imperialism by his own, Arab, peoples. Maybe he did some good things, but he certainly wasn't an equal-opportunity critic of imperialism. And imperialism is not the only evil or form of oppression -- don't you, as a liberal, think it a good thing that the Taliban was overthrown? (Even if Afghanistan is still a mess?)

Yes, the attempt to make Afghanistan into some sort of Switzerland East was doomed, though again, as a western liberal, I don't know which of the bad alternatives you prefer. I would have been happy with withdrawal a while ago, now, but I wouldn't expect anything better in Afghanistan than civil war, unfortunately.

I'm not sure what you mean by "anti-Muslim bigotry." It is a simple fact that "the borders of Islam are bloody," and that includes borders on other parts of the world than our own. I am a "bigot" against Islam in the same sense I am a "bigot" against commmunism, Naziism, and Aztec religion, though to a somewhat lesser degree, since Islam is not quite that oppressive. But I do think the essential teachings and example of the prophet are part of the problem. Islam is not as oppressive, even, as Brahmanism had become in India, but it may be less flexible.

Brian Barrington said...

To compare Islam with Communism and Nazsim is absurd. Islam is a great civilisation that contains about one in every four human beings on the planet and has done so for over a thousand years. The civilisational achievements of the Islamic world stand comparison with those of any other part of the world in terms of art, poetry, literature, philosophy, maths, science, medicine, architecture and longevity. None of this is remotely true of Nazism and Communism. Islam has stood the test of time, which should on the face of it recommend it to conservatives.

Islam will not be exterminated like Communism or Nazism. The only serious question is what type of Islam there is going to be, not whether there is going to be Islam or not. At best, you could perhaps try to compare Wahhabism with Communism or Nazism, in the sense that Wahhabism is a relatively recent phenomenon, very extreme, essentially tyrannical, that has not stood the test of time.

The essential teachings of the prophet state that “there is no compulsion in religion” and “you shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.” This is stated in the Koran and is therefore the word of God for Muslims. Did anyone before Muhammad articulate so clearly the principle of freedom of religion? We have gone over his best moral and ethical teachings before so there is no need to restate them here.

The fact that so many people have admired and found inspiration in Muhammad for so long is strong evidence that there is much to admire in him. Typically, those who are simply evil are not venerated for so long and by so many. And there is much to admire in Muhammad. He is probably the most influential single human being who has ever lived, a strong candidate for the title of the greatest human being who has ever lived. He is the chief prophet and teacher of Islam, he is the chief proselytiser of Islam, he is the chief author of the Islamic scripture, he is the chief founder of the Islamic empire, he is the author of its original consitution. When compared to Christianity, Muhammad is all the following personalities rolled into one: he is Jesus, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Caesar, Augustus and Constantine. He is all these people and he is more. From an Islamic perspective, he possesses all their virtues in one person and lacks nothing – thus, he is more complete than they.

David B Marshall said...

A religion is three things: (a) the life and teachings of its founder; (b) its sacred texts; and (c) its developed tradition.

I said Islam is not as bad as Nazism or Communism. But if you compare like to like, I don't think the difference between the latter and Islam is that great. Communist civilization was not all bad -- they did invent and create some useful things. Islamic civilization has the advantage of generally better art, I'll grant. Also, it usually allowed "dhimmis" to live their own lives, as Europe usually allowed Jews to do the same.

Stark argues that supernatural religions "stand the test of time" because their ultimate claims are harder to prove false. Maybe there's something to that, but of course, not all religions DO stand the test of time. And Islam seemed to be strongest when its most productive members were actually Christians, Jews, and heretics.

Stalin was venerated by the masses, too, as was Hitler. That doesn't mean Mohammed was as bad as either, but the fact that he is venerated, doesn't give the slightest evidence that he was a good man.

"No compulsion in religion" was hardly the central pillar of Islam. In fact, Mohammed used lots of compulsion. What do you think happened to paganism in the Arabian peninsula?

You have not, that I recall, described any great virtues of Mohammed yet, and your attempt to do so here seems rather anemic. No one denies he was powerful and influential, which is what most of your "praise" reduces to. One "tolerant" saying, conflicted by other "intolerant" sayings, and actions, is not that impressive. After all, as you surely know, a lack of compulsion in religion was the status quo in some great civilizations, not just in words, but usually in deeds, as well. A few weak words about tolerance are not much to weigh against starting wars, enslaving neighboring peoples, raping girls, hoarding women like gold, torturing and assassinating opponents, mass murder, and using terror as an instrument of state power.

I imagine these comments bring all kinds of Western and Christian evils to mind for you. Well and good. I don't ask you to say Columbus or the Grand Inquisitor were good men; please don't ask me to think Mohammed was, either.

Brian Barrington said...

“Stalin was venerated by the masses, too, as was Hitler.”
I doubt either Stalin or Hitler will be venerated by a quarter of the world’s population over 1000 years from now, as occurred with Muhammad.
For a great civilisation to be founded and to perpetuate itself requires both a Great Teaching AND a Political Founding. We may not like to confront this latter fact, but to pretend otherwise is hypocrisy. For example, the existence and perpetuation of Chinese civilisation required an Emperor Qin as well as a Confucius\Laozi; the existence and perpetuation of Indian civilisation required an Emperor Ashoka as well as a Buddha; the existence and perpetuation of Classical civilisation required an Alexander the Great as well as a Socrates; the existence and perpetuation of Christian civilisation required an Augustus and Constantine as well as a Jesus. And so on. The discomforting fact here that honest people need to confront is that the success of the great teachers ultimately depends decisively on the success of great politicians who themselves ignore (or even oppose) the moral and ethical teachings of the great teachers.
And Political Foundings are never, to put it mildly, pretty e.g. the Political Founding of Judaism was not pretty as the Old Testament recounts with admirable honesty - and the leading prophets of Judaism were political figures who acted in ways that by the standards of ordinary morality were utterly brutal and savage. To take another example, the Political Founding of the USA entailed the near-disappearance of the people who previously lived there.
Now, with the exception of Jewish civilisation, Islamic civilisation is unique in that the Great Teacher and the Great Political Founder were one and the same person. Muhammad originates a Great Teaching AND he founds a Great Empire. Like Moses, Muhammad is both prophet and politician, teacher and conqueror. He does not indulge in the hypocrisy of other teachers who pose as holier-than-thou while letting other people do the necessary dirty work – he manfully confronts the totality of reality in a way that other great teachers, apart from Moses, do not, and yet he still propounds a teaching that is morally admirable. And the religion Muhammad founded is not simply tribal, like Judaism, but available to all human beings. Thus, from an Islamic point of view, Muhammad possesses all virtues making him more complete than any other human. Of course, neither Moses nor Muhammad are regarded as Gods by their followers, in contrast to Christianity, so arguably they do not have to be above grubby political matters, in the way that Jesus was.

Brian Barrington said...

I repeat: the essential teachings of the prophet state that “there is no compulsion in religion” and “you shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.” This is stated in the Koran and is therefore the word of God for Muslims. Did anyone before Muhammad articulate so clearly the principle of freedom of religion?
Other admirable and commendable ethical and moral teachings of Muhammad include:
“Kindness is the mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.”

“All actions are built on intentions, and every man will be rewarded or punished according to his intentions. The only thing that is truly good is the good intention”.

“Destroying Holiest Temple stone by stone, is less evil than killing a single person”.

“Always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course whereby you will reach your target, Paradise”

“A prostitute was forgiven by God, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for the dog. So, God forgave her because of that.”

“Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully.”

“Do not turn away a poor man even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you then God will love you.”

“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.”

"Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue on the Way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded”

“The Holiest war is Speaking truth before a tyrannical ruler”.

“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

Also, not only is Muhammad’s moral teaching admirable, so is his theological teaching in many respects. By rejecting orthodox Christian beliefs like the Trinity and the Incarnation, Muhammad and Islam arguably come closer than Christianity to articulating the true nature of God – Islamic scripture is theologically more advanced than Christianity. Monotheism is most clearly elaborated and stated by Islam and by Islamic Scripture, and it is to a considerable extent thanks to Islam (and Muhammad) that God is widely regarded as the Truth, the One, the Unity, the Reality, the Absolute, the Way, the Good, the Perfect, the Wise, the Guide to the Right Path, the Light, the Loving, and the All-Knowing.

David B Marshall said...

The success of the great teachers ultimately depends decisively on the success of great politicians who themselves ignore (or even oppose) the moral and ethical teachings of the great teachers."

This is a serious objection, which I am inclined to treat with respect. But what this seems to mean in practice is, any cutthroat who kills millions of people will be acclaimed a hero, if he happens to found a nation or religion that succeeds. You seem to be going along with that, in an effort to rehabilitate Mohammed and deride his critics.

How far do you want to take that? If Hitler had succeeded, he would have been a founder. One can easily imagine him, or Stalin, Mao, etc. succeeding.

Indeed, the fact that you include Qin Shihuang in your list of founding heroes, ought to give you pause. Qin was about as bad as Hitler or Stalin. Does the fact that he is considered a unifier and founder, require us to respect and praise him for his mass murders?

I don't think so.

China's legendary founding involved nine tribes, as I recall, who chose to cooperate to control the Yellow River.

Some of the founders you mention were less cruel and murderous than Qin, Hitler, Stalin, or even Mohammed. And actual progress in China did not consist of grabbing more land, but in growing crops, inventing new methods of smelting, the Axial teachings, etc. The greatest dynasties -- like the Zhou, the Tang, the Song -- were not always founded by ruthless warlords, but in measured and reasonable response to outside pressures. (As was, indeed, the US, and King Alfred might fit in that category, too.)

So while I see your point, I also see it as ironic that you have moved from assailing imperialism, to defending it, so quickly. In your eagerness to defend Mohammed, you seem to be moving into an "ends justifies the means" mentality, that I think contradicts the original point you seemed to want to make in this thread.

I like the story about the prostitute and the dog, though. Where did you get that?

Brian Barrington said...

In at least one very decisive respect Qin can't really be compared to Muhammad since Muhammad founded a noble spiritual, moral, ethical, philosophical and religious teaching. Qin did nothing like that - the noble spiritual, moral, ethical, philosophical and religious teaching had to come from Confucius, Laozi etc. Really, the closest parallel to Muhammad might be Moses, who is regarded by Christians as a true prophet of God, and regarded by Jews as their main prophet, despite his advocacy of genocide and mass rape. Or what about that brute Joshua? If it had not been for him and his savage rampages, the state of Israel would never have been founded. So how are Jews and Christians supposed to regard Joshua and what he did? My guess is they are fairly conflicted about it. Now, I would not praise either Moses or Joshua for what they did, but neither would I try to condemn Jewish civilisation based on the fact that it was founded by Moses and Joshua. Nor would I condemn China because it was founded by Qin and named after him. The same goes for other civilisations, including Islamic civilisation. 

David B Marshall said...

I don't entirely disagree with any of that, at least only in degree, more than in kind. (Although I am not very sure of the historicity of Joshua or Moses.) So maybe we're moving towards a reasonable compromise, here.

Again, though -- where did you find the story of the prostitute and the dog?

Brian Barrington said...

It's one of the Hadiths

Diane W.L. said...

Hello Brian B. You're a brave soul to use your real name on the internet. I must ask. Have you not seen how this man you are speaking with is one of the rudest people? Do a Google search and you will find his nuggets of wisdom. On Debunking Christianity or Pharnygula or he has shown himself to be a foolish, boastful, bigoted, and dishonest person. Do you REALLY want to be seen hanging around him? People may begin to wonder about you too... Just a suggestion.

David B Marshall said...

What do you know. Another refugee from Pharyngula.

I respond to those who post like adults with respect. I respond to those who post vacuous slander (without a single quote or link to back it up), as fitting.

Anyone can see that on Pharyngula, I posted substantive critiques, to which the local yokels responded with reams of "Fuck Yous!", childish insults, and hardly a substantive comment among the lot of them. Few showed in any shame in ganging up 30 or 40 to one, in obscenity-laced vitriol, or in the sheer weight of invective, in lieu of a substative ideas. It was an enlightening experience for me -- like finding a broken sewer main under your garden.

PZ proved among the most timid. At first he simply claimed I was a "moron," but when even some of his disciples found that hard to buy, fell back on other excuses for silencing the lone heretic in the herd of good-thinkers. He never did try to actually answer my arguments, which may be the one bit of wisdom he showed.

I'd say welcome, Diane. But if you like that kind of thing, you probably really won't feel too much at home, here.

Diane W.L. said...

David, please spare me your attitude and your whining. I was addressing Brian only. I've also never commented on Pharyngula so I can hardly be called a refugee. Substantive critiques??? I don't know what you have been reading but I have never seen anything like you describe coming from your keyboard. You ask for examples so like Jesus I give you the following. Please give me an example of your substantive critiques. And where did anyone say "Fuck Yous!"? It looks to me that your haughty attitude, your lack of evidence, and YOUR own insults is what earned you those jeers in the first place. It looks to me like you are the immature one here not them.

But allow me to get back to my original question to Brian. I hope you will answer it Brian. Thank you.

David B Marshall said...

Diane: You have a lot of nerve. You come on my blog and accuse me of being "foolish, bigoted, and dishonest." I rebut your stupid lies, and I'm what -- "whining," and interrupting your conversation with Brian?

LOL. What a head case.

Actually, the "Fuck You" was repeated more than 100 times, as one would expect from inmate scrawling on the wall of a loony bin. And it was typical; I shrugged it off, as I shrugged off other such "rebuttals" on that site, and as I shrug off your vacuous slurs. Mature atheists learn to feel a healthy contempt for PZ's site, which Dr. Joseph Hoffman describes as follows:

"Over at the Freethought Blog Ghetto, Atheist blogger and part-time Jesus-denier Richard Carrier has recently been applauded by atheist blogger and full-time loudmouth P Z Myers for “coldcocking” New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. This suggests that the sewer of internet-facilitated nastiness that exists, among other places, in the US Congress is also fully flowing into what used to be called academic discussion."

Don't bring the sewer in here, please. We prefer to have adult conversations.

Diane W.L. said...

Lies? Hmmm. I ask you to show me where your responses are and you refuse. It looks like this is the usual silliness you engage in with critics which I just read more fully in the above link.

Yes. My conversation was with Brian not with you. I asked HIM a question about you. Talk about a head case! I ask someone else a question and you spew your shit at me. Fuck you jerk. The only sewer I see here in coming from your mouth.

Diane W.L. said...

I'm sorry David. I take back what I said at the end there. I tried to delete it or edit it but I did not see that feature. Not having a good day. My boss has been at my throat today and your attitude and evasions got under my skin. Judging from the conversation I read with you and the atheists on PZ's blog I can see why they got so upset with you. You can be a real jerk sometimes. If only you learned that not all atheists are out to get you and most just want to discuss your views and their merits as well as their faults. But you can't seem to take even the slightest criticism. I wonder if that's because you are insecure? That's fine if you are but it would explain your outbursts towards those who criticize your views. If that is the case I hope you can resolve it because it's not doing your reputation any good. I Googled your name and the same crap you pull here you pull in almost every single discussion you have with skeptics.

I will look more fully at your blog later tonight and hopefully we can get past this tiny scuffle from earlier. Hopefully we can discuss some things in a more civil tone later. I also hope you pony up some evidence if we do. If so I'm sure a discussion will be a enjoyable and constructive.

David B Marshall said...

Diane: I appreciate the apology. Feel free to post here, and challenge me, on substantive issues -- in this thread, we're mainly talking about Said and "Orientialism."

This is my house, though, so please play by my rules, not PZ's -- no need to shout, I will listen to serious questions, and respond honestly.

Please remind me again what your main question or challenge (s) are. As for criticism, I think I'll go over that thread you cited, in a subsequent blog, we'll take a close look at exactly what went down. I've been meaning to post on the strange phenomena called PZ Myers for a long time, just haven't gotten around to it.

Sure, I get criticism -- along with you, a really nasty shot from someone else today. I've also received nice notes, the past few days, from (a) a quantum physicist in Canada; (b) a philosopher in the Midwest; (c) an astronomer; (d) a biologist; (e) a reader in Ireland; (f) a college student. I have my share of virtues and vices, and don't claim to be a saint. If you read some of the other blogs, though, you'll see I'm sometimes sarcastic, but not usually vitriolic, and usually find something positive to say about most the people I criticize.