by Edward Said
March 18, 2003
A small news item reported that Prince Walid Ibn Talal of Saudi Arabia had donated $10m to the American University of Cairo to establish a centre of American studies. The young billionaire had offered an unsolicited $10m to New York City soon after 11 September 2001, with a letter that described the gift as a tribute to New York and suggested that the United States might reconsider its policy towards the Middle East. He had in mind the total, unquestioning US support for Israel, but his polite proposition seemed also to cover the general policy of denigrating, or at least showing disrespect for, Islam.
In rage, Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York (which has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world), returned the cheque, with an extreme, and I would say racist, contempt, meant to be insulting. On behalf of a certain image of New York, he was upholding its bravery and principled resistance to outside interference. And pleasing, rather than trying to educate, a purportedly unified Jewish constituency.
His behaviour was in accord with his refusal in 1995, well after the Oslo signings, to admit Yasser Arafat to Philharmonic Hall for a concert to which everyone at the United Nations had been invited. So what he did in response to the gift of the young Saudi Arabian was predictable. Although the money was intended, and greatly needed, for humanitarian aid in a city wounded by a terrible atrocity, the US political system and its actors put Israel ahead of everything, whether or not Israel's amply endowed and well-mobilised lobbyists would have done the same thing.
No one knows what would have happened if Giuliani had not returned the money; but as things turned out, he had pre-empted the pro- Israeli lobby. As the novelist Joan Didion wrote in the New York Review of Books (1), it is a staple of US policy, as first articulated by FD Roosevelt, that America has tried against all logic to maintain both a contradictory support for the Saudi monarchy and for the state of Israel; so much so that "we have become unable to discuss anything that might be seen as touching on our relationship with the current government of Israel".
Those stories about Prince Walid show a continuity rare in Arab views of the US. For at least three generations, Arab leaders, politicians and their more-often-than-not US-trained advisers have formulated policies for their countries with, at basis, a near-fictional, fanciful idea of what the US is. The basic idea, far from coherent, is about how Americans run everything; the idea's details encompass a wide, jumbled range of opinions, from seeing the US as a conspiracy of Jews, to believing that it is a bottomless well of benign help for the downtrodden, or that it is utterly ruled by an unchallenged white man sitting, Olympian-like, in the White House.
I recall many times during the 20 years that I knew Arafat well trying to explain to him that the US was a complex society with many currents, interests, pressures, and histories in conflict within it. It was not ruled in the way that Syria was: a different model of power and authority needed to be studied. I enlisted a friend, the late scholar and political activist, Eqbal Ahmad, who had expert knowledge of US society (and was perhaps the world's finest theorist and historian of anti-colonial national liberation movements), to talk to Arafat and bring other experts to develop a more nuanced model for the Palestinians during preliminary contacts with the US government in the late 1980s. To no avail. Ahmad had studied the relationship of the Algerian FLN (Front de libération nationale) with France during the war of 1954-62, as well as the way in which the North Vietnamese had negotiated with Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. The contrast between the scrupulous, detailed knowledge of the metropolitan society which these Algerian and Vietnamese insurgents had, and the Palestinians' caricatured view of the US (based on hearsay and cursory readings of Time) was stark. Arafat's obsession was to go into the White House and talk to that whitest of white men, President Bill Clinton, which, Arafat thought, would be the equivalent of getting things done with Mubarak of Egypt or Hafez al-Assad of Syria.
If Clinton revealed himself as the master-creature of US politics, overwhelming and confusing the Palestinians with his charm and his manipulation of the system, so much the worse for Arafat and his men. Their simplified view of the US was unchanged, and it remains so today. As for resistance or knowing how to play the game of politics in a world with only one superpower, matters remain as they have done for more than half a century. Most people throw up their hands in despair - "the US is hopeless, and I don't ever want to go back there".
The more hopeful story is the one about Prince Walid's change of direction, about which I can only surmise. Apart from a few courses on US literature and politics throughout the universities of the Arab world, there has never been anything like an academic centre for the systematic, scientific analysis of the US, its people, society, and history. Not even in institutions like the American Universities of Cairo and Beirut. This may be true throughout the third world, and even in some European countries.
To live in a world gripped by such an unbound great power as the US there is a vital need for as much knowledge as possible about its swirling dynamics. And that includes an excellent command of the English language, something few Arab leaders possess. The US is the country of McDonald's, Hollywood, CNN, jeans and Coca-Cola, all available everywhere through globalisation, multinational corporations, and the world's appetite for articles of easy consumption. But we must be conscious of their source, and how the cultural and social processes from which they derive can be interpreted, especially since the danger of thinking about the US too simply and statically is obvious.
As I write, much of the world is being bludgeoned into a restive submission by (or, as with Italy and Spain, an opportunistic alliance with) the US, as it readies itself for a deeply unpopular war against Iraq. But for the demonstrations and protests that have erupted at popular level around the world, the war would be a brazen act of un opposed domination. The degree to which it is contested by those many Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who have taken to the streets suggests that at last some have awakened to the fact that the US, or rather the few Judeo-Christian white men who currently rule its government, is bent on world hegemony. What are we to do?
I want to sketch the extraordinary panorama of the US now, as I see it as an insider, an American who has lived there comfortably for years, but who, by virtue of his Palestinian origins, still retains his perspective as a comparative outsider. My interest is to suggest ways of understanding, intervening in, and resisting a country that is far from the monolith it is taken to be, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The difference between the US and the classic empires of the past is that, although each historical empire has asserted its determination not to repeat the overreaching ambitions of predecessors, this latest empire astonishingly affirms its sacrosanct altruism and well-meaning innocence. This alarming delusion of virtue is endorsed, even more alarmingly, by formerly leftwing or liberal intellectuals, who in the past opposed US wars abroad but who are now prepared to make the case for virtuous empire (the image of the lonely sentry is favoured), using styles from tub-thumping patriotism to cynicism.
The events of 11 September do play a role in this volte face. But it is surprising that the horrible Twin Towers-Pentagon attacks are treated as if they had come from nowhere, rather than from a world across the seas driven crazy by US intervention and presence. This is not to condone Islamic terrorism, which is hateful in every way. But in all the pious analyses of US responses to Afghanistan, and now Iraq, history and a sense of proportion have disappeared.
The liberal hawks do not refer to the Christian right (so similar to Islamic extremism in its fervour and righteousness) and its massive, decisive presence in the US. Its vision derives from mostly Old Testament sources, very like those of Israel, its close partner and analogue. There is a peculiar alliance between Israel's influential neo-conservative US supporters and the Chris tian extremists, who support Zionism as a way of bringing all the Jews to the Holy Land to prepare for the Messiah's second coming, when the Jews will either have to convert to Christianity or be annihilated. These rabidly antisemitic teleologies are rarely referred to, and certainly not by the pro-Israeli Jewish phalanx.
The US is the world's most avowedly religious country. References to God permeate national life, from coins to buildings to speech: in God we trust, God's country, God bless America. President George Bush's power base is made up of the 60-70 million fundamentalist Christians who, like him, believe that they have seen Jesus and that they are here to do God's work in God's country. Some commentators, including Francis Fukuyama, have argued that contemporary religion in the US is the result of a desire for community and a sense of stability, based on the fact that some 20% of the population moves from home to home all the time. But that is true only up to a point: what matters more is the nature of the religion - prophetic illumination, unshakeable conviction in an apocalyptic sense of mission, and a heedless disregard of small complications. The enormous physical distance of the US from the turbulent rest of the world is a factor, as is the fact that Canada and Mexico are neighbours without a capability to temper US enthusiasm.
All of these come together around a concept of US rightness, goodness, freedom, economic promise and social advancement so woven into daily life that it does not appear to be ideological but a fact of nature. The US equals goodness, and goodness requires total loyalty and love for the US. There is unconditional reverence for the founding fathers, and for the constitution - an amazing document, but a human creation. Early America is the anchor of authenticity.
In no other country I know does a waving flag play so central an iconographical role. You see it everywhere, on taxicabs, on jacket lapels, on the front, windows and roofs of houses. It is the main embodiment of the national image, signifying heroic endurance and a sense of being beleaguered by unworthy enemies. Patriotism remains the prime virtue, tied up with religion, belonging, and doing the right thing at home and all over the world. Patriotism is now represented, too, as consumer spending: Americans were enjoined after 9/11 to shop in defiance of evil terrorists.
Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft, have tapped into that patriotism to mobilise the military for a war 7,000 miles from home "to get Saddam". Underlying all this is the machinery of capitalism, now undergoing radical and destabilising change. The economist Julie Schor has shown that Americans now work far more hours than three decades ago, and make relatively less money (2). But there is no serious political challenge to the dogmas of "the opportunities of a free market". It is as if no one cares whether the corporate structure, in alliance with the federal government, which still has not been able to provide most Americans with decent health cover and a sound education, needs change. News of the stock market is more important than any re-examination of the system.
This is a crude summary of the American consensus, which politicians exploit and simplify into slogans and sound bites. But what one discovers about this complex society is how many currents flow counter to the consensus all the time. The growing resistance to war, which the president has minimised and pretended to ignore, derives from that other and less formal US that the mainstream media (newspapers of record such as the New York Times, the broadcast networks, the publishing and magazine industries) always tries to suppress. Never has there been such unashamed and scandalous complicity between broadcast news and the government: newsreaders on CNN or the networks talk excitedly about Saddam's evils and how "we" have to stop him before it is too late. The airwaves are filled with ex-military men, terrorism experts and Middle East policy analysts who know none of the relevant languages, may never have been to the Middle East, and are too poorly educated to be expert about anything, all arguing in a ritualised jargon about the need for "us" to do something about Iraq, while preparing our windows with duct tape against a poison gas attack.
Because it is managed, the consensus operates in a timeless present. History is anathema to it. In public discourse even the word history is a synonym for nothingness, as in the scornful phrase "you're history". History is what as Americans we are supposed to believe about the US (not about the rest of the world, which is "old" and therefore irrelevant) - uncritically, unhistorically. There is an amazing contradiction here. In the popular mind the US is supposed to stand above or beyond history. Yet there is an all- consuming general interest in the US in the history of everything, from small regional topics to world empires. Many cults in the US develop from these balanced opposites, from xenophobia to spiritualism and reincarnation. A decade ago a great intellectual battle was waged over what kind of history should be taught in schools in the US. The promoters of the idea of US history as a unified narrative with entirely positive resonances thought of history as essential to the ideological propriety of representations that would mould students into docile citizens, ready to accept certain basic themes as the constants in US relationships with itself and the world. From this essentialist view the elements of postmodernism and divisive history (minorities, women and slaves) were to be purged. But the result, interestingly, was a failure to impose such risible standards.
Linda Symcox wrote that the neoconservative "approach to cultural literacy was a thinly disguised attempt to inculcate students with a relatively conflict-free, consensual view of history. But the project ended up moving in a different direction. In the hands of social and world historians, who wrote the Standards with the teachers, the Standards became a vehicle for the pluralistic vision the government was trying to combat. Consensus history was challenged by those historians who felt that social justice and the redistribution of power demanded a more complex telling of the past" (3).
In the public sphere presided over by mass mainstream media there are what I will call "narrathemes" that structure, package and control discussion, despite an appearance of variety and diversity. I shall discuss those that strike me as pertinent now. One is that there is a collective "we", a national identity represented without demurral by president, secretary of state at the UN, armed forces in the desert, and "our" interests, seen as self-defensive, without ulterior motive, and "innocent", as a traditional woman is supposed to be innocent - pure and free of sin.
Another narratheme is the irrelevance of history, and the inadmissibility of illegitimate linkages: for example, any mention that the US once armed and encouraged Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, or that Vietnam was "bad" for the US or, as President Jimmy Carter once put it, "mutually self-destructive". Or a more staggering example, the institutional irrelevance of two important, indeed constitutive, US experiences, the slavery of African-Americans and the dispossession and quasi-extermination of native Americans. These have yet to be figured into the national consensus. There is a major Holocaust museum in Washington DC, but no such memorial exists for African-Americans or native Americans anywhere in the country.
Then there is the unexamined conviction that any opposition is anti-American, based on jealousy about "our" democracy, freedom, wealth and greatness or (as the obsession with French resistance to a US war against Iraq has it) foreign nastiness. Europeans are constantly reminded of how the US saved them twice in the 20th century, with the implication that Europeans sat back watching while US troops did the real fighting.
When it comes to places where the US has been entangled for at least 50 years, such as the Middle East or Latin America, the narratheme of the US as honest broker, impartial adjudicator and well-intentioned force for good has no serious competitor. This narratheme cannot deal with any of the issues of power, financial gain, resource grabbing, ethnic lobbying, or forcible or surreptitious regime change (as in Iran in 1953 or Chile in 1973); it remains undisturbed except when it occasionally attempts to recall the issues. The closest anybody gets to the reality of these issues is through the euphemistic idioms of the think tanks and government, idioms that discuss soft power, projection and US vision. Still less represented or alluded to are invidious policies for which the US is directly responsible: the Iraq sanctions that cause civilian casualties, the support for Ariel Sharon's campaign against Palestinian civilian life, the support for Turkish and Colombian regimes and their cruelties against citizens. These are out of bounds during serious discussions of policy.
There is, finally, the narratheme of unchallenged moral wisdom represented by figures of official authority (Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and every official of the current administration), which is repeated without any doubts. That two Richard Nixon-era convicted felons, Elliott Abrams and John Poindexter, have recently been given significant government positions attracts little comment, and much less objection. This blind deference to authority past or present, pure or sullied, is seen in the respectful, even abject, forms of address used by commentators, and in an unwillingness to notice anything about an authority figure but his or her polished appearance, unblemished by any incriminations on record.
Behind that behaviour is, I think, the US belief in pragmatism as the right philosophy to deal with reality - pragmatism that is anti-metaphysical, anti-historical and, curiously, anti-philosophical. Postmodern antinominalism, which reduces everything to sentence structure and linguistic context is allied with this; it is an influential style of thought alongside analytic philosophy in US universities. In my own university, Hegel and Heidegger are taught in literature or art history departments, rarely in philosophy. The newly organised US information effort (especially in the Islamic world) is designed to spread these persistent master stories. The obstinate dissenting traditions of the US - the unofficial counter-memory of an immigrant society - that flourish alongside or deep inside narrathemes are deliberately obscured. Few commentators abroad notice this forest of dissent. A trained observer can see in that forest links between the narrathemes that are not otherwise in evidence.
If we examine the components of the impressively strong resistance to the proposed war against Iraq, a very different picture of the US emerges, more amenable to foreign cooperation, dialogue and action. I shall leave aside those many who oppose the war because of its cost in blood and treasure, and disastrous effect on an already disturbed economy. I shall also not discuss rightwing opinion that regards the US as traduced by treacherous foreigners, the UN, and godless communists.
The libertarian and isolationist constituency, a strange combination of left and right, needs no comment. I also include among unexamined categories a large and idealistically inspired student population deeply suspicious of US foreign policy, especially of economic globalisation: this is a principled, sometimes quasi- anarchical, group that kept campuses alive to the war in Vietnam, South African apartheid, and civil rights at home.
This leaves several important and formidable constituencies of experience and conscience. These pertain, in European and Afro-Asian terms, to the left, although an organised parliamentary leftwing or socialist movement never really existed for long in the post second world war US, so powerful is the grip of the two-party apparatus. The Democratic Party is in a shambles from which it will not soon recover.
I would have to include the disaffected and fairly radical wing of the African-American community - those urban groups that agitate against police brutality, job discrimination, housing and educational neglect, and are led or represented by charismatic figures such as the Reverend Al Sharpton, Cornel West, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson (faded leader though he is) and others who see themselves as being in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.
Associated with this movement are other activist ethnic collectivities, including Latinos, native Americans, and Muslims. Each of these has devoted considerable energy to trying to slip into the mainstream, in pursuit of important political assignments in government, appearances on television talk shows, and membership of governing boards of foundations, colleges, and corporations. But most of these groups are still more activated by a sense of injustice and discrimination than by ambition, and are not ready to buy completely into the American (mostly white and middle-class) dream. The interesting thing about Sharpton, or Ralph Nader and his loyal supporters in the struggling Green party, is that though they may have visibility and a certain acceptability, they remain outsiders, intransigent, and insufficiently interested in the routine rewards of US society.
A major wing of the women's movement, active on behalf of abortion rights, abuse and harassment issues and professional equality, is also an asset to dissent in US society. Sectors of normally sedate, interest- and advancement-oriented professional groups (physicians, lawyers, scientists and academics, as well as some labour unions, and some of the environmental movement) feed the dynamic of counter-currents, even though as corporate bodies they retain a strong interest in the orderly functioning of society and the agendas that derive from that.
The organised churches can never be discounted as seedbeds of change and dissent. Their membership is to be distinguished from the fundamentalist and televangelist movements. Catholic Bishops, the laity and clergy of the Episcopalian church, the Quakers and the Presbyterian synod - despite travails that include sexual scandals among the Catholics and depleted memberships of most churches - have been surprisingly liberal on war and peace, and quite willing to speak out against human rights abuses, hyper-inflated military budgets, and neoliberal economic policies.
Historically there has always been a part of the organised Jewish community that was involved in progressive minority rights causes domestic ally and abroad. But since the Reagan era the ascendancy of the neo-conservative movement, the alliance between Israel and the US religious right, and Zionist-organised activity that equates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, have considerably reduced its positive agency.
Many other groups and individuals who joined rallies, protest marches, and peace demonstrations have resisted the mind-deadening patriotism post-9/11. They have clustered around civil liberties, including free speech, threatened by the USA Patriot Act. Protest against capital punishment and at the abuses represented by the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, plus a distrust of civilian authorities in the military, as well as a discomfort at the privatised US prison system that locks up the highest number of people per capita in the world - all these disturb the middle-class social order.
A correlative of this is the rough and tumble in cyberspace, fought by the US official and unofficial. In the current steep decline in the economy, disruptive themes such as the differences between rich and poor, the profligacy and corruption of the corporate higher echelons, and the danger to the social security system from rapacious schemes of privatisation, seriously damage the celebrated virtues of the uniquely American capitalist system.
Is the US united behind Bush, his bellicose foreign policy, and his dangerously simple-minded economic vision? Has US identity been fixed for ever, or is there, in a world that has to live with US military power, something other that the US represents which those parts of the world not prepared to be quiescent can deal with?
I have tried to suggest another way of seeing the US, as a troubled country with a contested reality. I think it is more accurate to apprehend the US as a nation that is undergoing a serious clash of identities, similar to other contests in the rest of the world. The US may have won the cold war, but the results of that victory within the US are far from clear and the struggle is not yet over. Too much of a focus on the US executive's centralising military and political power ignores the internal dialectics that continue, and are far from settlement. Abortion rights and the teaching of evolution are still unsettled issues.
The fallacy of Fukuyama's thesis about the end of history, or of Samuel Huntington's clash of civilisation theory, is that both wrongly assume that cultural history has clear boundaries, or beginnings, middles and ends, whereas the cultural-political field is a place of struggle over identity, self-definition and projection into the future. Both theorists are fundamentalist about fluid cultures in constant turbulence, and try to impose fixed boundaries and internal order where none can exist.
Cultures, and especially the immigrant culture of the US, overlap with others; one of the perhaps unintended consequences of globalisation is the appearance of transnational communities of global interests - the human rights, women's and anti-war movements. The US is not insulated from this, but we have to go behind the intimidatingly unified surface of the US to see the disputes to which many of the world's other people are party. There is hope and encouragement in that.
Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist. Among his books are The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996), and Out of Place: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999).
1) Joan Didion, “Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History,” The New York Review of Books, January 16, 2003: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15984
2) Schor, Juliet. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1993).