Middle East studies in the News
A Mixed Legacy
by Sara Sebrow and Alex Rolfe
When a controversial figure dies, there are different perspectives on how to write about that person. One perspective is that an editorial should be largely positive and should tread lightly on controversy. This is the approach our colleagues took in Friday's editorial in regard to the death of University Professor Edward Said ("Mourning a Scholar," Sept. 26, 2003). We respectfully dissent. We feel that it is not only proper, but in fact necessary, to accurately evaluate Said's legacy. Moreover, we believe that one cannot honestly discuss a person's death if one does not adequately discuss that person's life. Our goal in this editorial, above all, is to be fair. Doing so, however, will require us to critically asses Edward Said's life in order to learn what we can from this profoundly important and imperfect man.
Said's influence on this campus and in the world at large cannot be understated. Nevertheless, Said lived a deeply complex life and he leaves a deeply complex legacy. Said was a brilliant scholar in his chosen field of comparative literature, and he was a relentless advocate of his chosen cause: the Palestinians. His great flaw, of course, was striking the incorrect balance between his two passions.
Said's scholarship crossed over many disciplinary lines; his work influenced thought in a plethora of areas. It is telling that, though Said was a professor of English and Comparative Literature, many departments--including anthropology and MEALAC--sent out mass e-mails informing students of his passing.
Said was a giant of post-colonialist thought and was responsible, the New York Times obituary noted, for "introducing notions of culture and power into the American academy." Said's best-known work, Orientalism, had a tremendous impact on academia and changed the way the world saw the historical and continual interaction of cultures.
The conflicting reactions to Orientalism were representative of the kind of criticism that Said would receive throughout his life. Critics of Orientalism and other works, while acknowledging their importance, have accused Said of ignoring sources that ran contrary to his arguments, thereby engendering a body of scholarship that was simplistic and far from conclusive. According to the New York Times obituary, critics said Said's "assumption was that the Orientalists simply invented the East to satisfy the requirements of cultural superiority and Western imperialism and that [Said] ignored the vast body of scholarship that grappled with the East on its own terms." In a review of Orientalism, Malcolm H. Kerr states that the book was important because it brought to the forefront certain Western prejudices, but also that "Said seems to be struck with the residual argument that whatever the individual goodwill of the scholars, they are all prisoners of the establishment. ... At best, this is a preconceived argument, and a highly debatable one." Kerr then harshly criticizes Said's selection of scholars who had supposedly fallen victim to Western preconceptions.
Said's activist life was similarly imperfect and came under at least as much harsh criticism as his scholarly life. On one hand, Said strongly condemned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for supporting terrorism. On the other hand, according to Ha'aretz, upon meeting the leader of the terrorist organization Hezbollah, Said praised those who engaged in terror tactics against Israel for "mak[ing] them feel it in body bags."
Said's scholarly life hit its nadir in July 2000, when he hurled a rock over the Lebanese-Israeli border toward an Israeli guardhouse. He described this act, which was undoubtedly profoundly opposed to the responsibilities of an academic, as "a symbolic gesture of joy." But many others, including even the Beirut Daily Star, described it as an act of provocative violence.
Sadly, Said's political views and activities outside of the classroom often obscured and overshadowed his scholarship and academic accomplishments. While, as an academic, Said certainly left a compelling legacy, that legacy was eclipsed--both during Said's life and in the coverage of his death--by his decision to fight perceived discrimination with rocks and rhetoric, instead of scholarly works.
The way Edward Said lived his life raises important questions about the relationship between scholarship and activism. Said clearly deserves to be faulted for not striking the right balance, but still, we must thank him for demanding us to ask the question.
Columbia University, and the academic world as a whole, stands for and promotes a certain method of dealing with dissatisfactory aspects of the world--namely, to engage them with the mind, rather than the rock, fist or gun. Our approach to conflict resolution should be one informed by an open-minded search for truth--advocated, if not practiced, by Said the scholar--as opposed to one informed by a rock in hand.
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