by Edward Said
March 22, 2003
A small item in the press a few days ago reported that Prince Ibn Al-Walid of Saudi Arabia had donated 10 million dollars to the American University in Cairo to establish a department or centre of American Studies there. It should be recalled that the young billionaire had contributed an unsolicited 10 million dollars to New York City shortly after the 11 September bombings, with an accompanying letter that, aside from describing the handsome sum as a tribute to New York, also suggested that the United States might reconsider its policy towards the Middle East. Obviously he had total and unquestioning American support for Israel in mind, but his politely stated proposition seemed also to cover the general American policy of denigrating, or at least showing disrespect, for Islam.
In a fit of petulant rage, the then Mayor of New York (which also has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world), Rudolph Guiliani, returned the check to Al-Walid, rather unceremoniously and with an extreme and I would say racist contempt that was meant to be insulting as well as gloating. On behalf of a certain image of New York, he personally was upholding the city's demonstrated bravery and its principled resistance to outside interference. And of course pleasing, rather than trying to educate, a purportedly unified Jewish constituency.
Guiliani's churlish behaviour was of a piece with his refusal several years before (in 1995, well after the Oslo signings) to admit Yasser Arafat to the Philharmonic Hall for a concert to which everyone at the UN had been invited. Typical of the cheap theatrics of the below average American big city politician, what New York's mayor did in response to the young Saudi Arabian's gift was completely predictable. Even though the money was intended, and greatly needed, for humanitarian use in a city wounded by a terrible atrocity, the American political system and its main actors put Israel ahead of everything, whether or not Israel's amply endowed and highly mobilised lobbyists would have done the same thing. In any case, no one knows what would have occurred if Guiliani didn't return the money; but as things turned out he had nicely preempted even the well- oiled pro-Israeli lobbying apparatus. As the celebrated novelist and essayist Joan Didion wrote in a recent New York Review of Books article, it has become a staple of US policy first articulated by FD Roosevelt that America has tried against all logic to maintain a hopelessly contradictory support for the Saudi monarchy on the one hand and, on the other, with the state of Israel, so much so, she adds, that "we have become unable to discuss anything that might be seen as touching on our relationship with the current government of Israel" (p56, Jan 16, 03).
The two stories about Prince Al-Walid dovetail nicely with each other, and show a continuity that has been quite rare so far as Arab views of America have been concerned. For at least three generations, Arab leaders, politicians, and their more often than not American-trained advisers have been formulating policies for their countries whose basis is an almost completely fictitious and quite fanciful idea of what America is. Far from coherent, this idea is at bottom all about how 'the Americans' really run everything, even though in its details the notion encompasses a wide, not to say jumbled, range of opinions, from on the one hand seeing America as a conspiracy of Jews, to theories on the other stipulating that America is either a bottomless well of benign good feeling and help for the downtrodden, or that it is ruled from A to Z by an unchallenged white man sitting like an Olympian figure in the White House.
I recall many times during the 20 years that I knew Yasser Arafat well, trying to explain to him that this was a complex society with all sorts of currents, interests, pressures, and histories in conflict within it and that far from being ruled the way Syria was, for instance, a different model of power and authority ought to be studied. I enlisted my late friend, the scholar and political activist, Eqbal Ahmed, who had an expert knowledge of American society but was also perhaps the finest theorist and historian of anti-colonial national liberation movements in the world, to talk to Arafat and bring along other experts so that a sharper, more nuanced model might develop for use by the Palestinians during their preliminary contacts with the US government in the late 1980s -- but all to no avail. Ahmed had carefully studied the Algerian FLN's relationship with France during the war of 1954-62 as well as the North Vietnamese while they were negotiating with Kissinger during the 1970s.
The contrast between a scrupulous, detailed knowledge of the metropolitan society with which these insurgents had been in conflict and the Palestinians' almost caricatural knowledge of America (based mainly on hearsay and cursory readings in Time magazine) was stark. Arafat's single-minded obsession was to make his way personally into the White House and talk to that whitest of white men Bill Clinton: in his view that would be the equivalent perhaps of getting things done with Mubarak of Egypt or Hafez Al-Assad of Syria. If in the meantime Clinton revealed himself to be the master- creature of American politics, completely 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 America was monumentally unchanged, as it still is today. As for resistance or knowing how to play the game of politics in a world with only one, all- conquering super-power in it, matters remain as they have for over half a century. Most people throw up their hands in despair like disappointed lovers: America is hopeless, and I don't ever want to go back there, they often say, though one also notices that green, permanent residence cards are much in demand, as are university admissions for the children.
The other, more hopeful side of the story concerns what seems to have been Prince Al-Walid's later change of direction, about which I can only surmise. But I do know that apart from a few courses and seminars on American literature and politics scattered throughout the universities of the Arab world, there has never been anything like an academic centre for the systematic and scientific analysis of America, its people, society, and history, at all. Not even in American institutions like the American Universities of Cairo and Beirut. This lack may also be true throughout the Third World, and maybe even in some European countries. The point I am making is that to live in a world that is held in the grip of an extraordinarily unbound great power there is a vital need for knowing as much about its swirling dynamics as is humanly possible. And that, I believe, also includes commanding an excellent working command of the language, something few Arab leaders (as a case in point) possess. Yes, America is the country of McDonald's, Hollywood, blue jeans, Coca-Cola and CNN, all of them products exported and available everywhere by virtue of globalisation, multinational corporations, and what seems to be the world's appetite for articles of easy, convenient consumption. But we must also be conscious of from what source these come and in what ways the cultural and social processes from which they ultimately derive can be interpreted, especially since the danger of thinking about America too simply or reductively and statically is so obvious.
Even as I write these lines much of the world is being bludgeoned into a restive submission by (or, as are the cases of Italy and Spain, an utterly opportunistic alliance with) America as it readies itself for a deeply unpopular war against Iraq. But for the ongoing global demonstrations and protests that have erupted entirely at the popular level, the war would simply be a brazen act of unopposed cynical domination. Yet contested as it is by so many Americans as well as Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who have taken to the streets and to their local newspapers at least suggests that at last there is an awakening to the fact that the United States, or rather the small handful of Judeo-Christian white men who currently rule its government, is bent on world hegemony. What to do then?
In what follows I shall offer a rapid sketch of the extraordinary panorama presented by today's America, as seen by someone who is American and has lived comfortably in it for years and years, but who by virtue of his Palestinian origins, still retains his perspective as a comparative outsider, but a kind of insider also. My interest is simply to suggest ways of understanding, intervening in, and if the word isn't too inappropriate, resisting a country that is far from the monolith it is usually taken to be, specially in the Arab and Muslim worlds. What is there to be seen?
The difference between America and the classic empires of the past is that, even though each empire asserted its utter originality and its determination not to repeat the overreaching ambitions of imperial predecessors, this one does so with an astonishing affirmation of its nearly sancrosanct altruism and well-meaning innocence. For this alarming delusion there is, even more alarmingly, a new squadron of formerly Left or liberal intellectuals alike who had historically opposed American wars abroad but who are now prepared to make the case for virtuous empire (the figure of the lonely sentry has been used) using a variety of styles, from tub-thumping patriotism to sly cynicism. The events of 11 September play a role in this volte face, but what is surprising is that the Twin Towers-Pentagon bombings, horrible though they were, retreated as if they came from nowhere, rather than in fact from a world across the seas driven crazy by American intervention and ubiquitous American presence. This is of course not to condone Islamic terrorism, which is a hateful thing in every way. But it is to remark that in all the pious analyses of America's responses to Afghanistan and now Iraq, history and proportionality have simply dropped out of the picture entirely.
What the liberal hawks specially don't refer to, however, is the Christian Right (so similar to Islamic extremism in fervor and righteousness) and its massive, indeed decisive presence in America today. The qualities of that vision derive from mostly Old Testament sources, very much of a piece with those of Israel, its close partner and analogue. A peculiar alliance between Israel's influential neoconservative American supporters and the Christian extremists is that the latter support Zionism as a way of bringing all the Jews to the Hold y Land to prepare the way for the Messiah's Second Coming; at which point Jews will either have to convert to Christianity or be annihilated. The bloody and rabidly anti-Semitic teleologies are rarely referred to, certainly not by the pro-Israeli Jewish phalanx.
America is the world's most avowedly religious country. References to God permeate the national life, from coins to buildings to common forms of speech: in God we trust, God's country, God bless America, and on and on. George Bush's power base is made up of the 60-70 million fundamentalist Christians who, like him, believe they have seen Jesus and are here to do God's work in God's country. Some sociologists and journalists (including Francis Fukuyuma and David Brooks) have argued that contemporary American religion is the result of a desire for community and a long-gone sense of stability, given the fact that approximately 20 per cent of the population is moving from home to home all the time. But the evidence for that desire is true only up to a point: what matters more is religion by prophetic illumination, unshakeable conviction in a sometimes apocalyptic sense of mission, and a heedless disregard of small-scale facts and complications. The enormous geographical distance of the country from the turbulent world is another factor, as is the fact that Canada and Mexico are continental neighbours with little capability of tempering American enthusiasm.
All of those things converge around an idea of American rightness, goodness, freedom, economic promise, social advancement that is so ideologically woven into the fabric of daily life that it doesn't even appear to be ideological, but rather a fact of nature. America=good=total loyalty and love. Similarly there is an unconditional reverence for the Founding Fathers, and for the Constitution, an amazing document, it is true, but a human one nevertheless. Early America is the anchor of American authenticity. In no country that I know does a waving flag play so central an iconographical role. You see it everywhere, on taxicabs, on men's jacket lapels, on the front windows and roofs of houses everywhere. It is the main embodiment of the national image, signifying heroic endurance and a beleaguered sense of fighting of unworthy enemies. Patriotism is still the prime American virtue, tied up as it is with religion, belonging, and doing the right thing not just at home but all over the world. Patriotism is also represented in retail consumer spending, as when Americans were enjoined after the events of 9/11 to do a lot of shopping in defiance of evil terrorists. Bush and employees of his like Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice and Ashcroft have tapped into all of that to mobilise the military for war 7000 miles away in order 'to get' Saddam, as he is referred to universally. Underlying all this is the machinery of capitalism, now undergoing radical and, I think, destabilising change. The economist Julie Schor has shown that Americans now work far more hours than they did three decades ago, and are making relatively less money for their efforts. But still there is no serious, systematic political challenge to the dogmas of what are referred to as the opportunities of a free market. It's as if no one cares whether the corporate structure in alliance with the federal government, which still hasn't been able to provide most Americans with decent universal health coverage and a sound education, has to be changed. News of the stock market is more important than re-examining the system.
This is a crude summary of the American consensus, which in fact politicians exploit and try endlessly to simplify into slogans and sound bites. But what one discovers about this amazingly complex society is how many counter- currents and alternatives run across and around this consensus all the time. The growing resistance to war that the president has been essentially minimising and pretending to ignore, derives from the other less formal America that the mainstream media (newspapers of record such as The New York Times, the main networks, the publishing and magazine industries in large measure) always tries to paper over and keep down. Never has there been so unashamed, if not scandalous, complicity between TV news and the government's rush to war: even the average newsreader that turns up on CNN or one of the major networks talks excitedly about Saddam's evils and how 'we' have to stop him before it's too late. And if that is not bad enough, 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 seen any part of the Middle East, and are too poorly educated to be expert at anything, all of them arguing in a memorised jargon about the need for 'us' to do something about Iraq, while preparing our windows and cars for an impending poison gas attack.
Because it is a managed and constructed thing the consensus operates in a sort of timeless present. History is anathema to it, and in accepted public discourse even the word 'history' is a synonym for nothingness or non-entity, as in the scornful, typically dismissive American phrase, 'you're history.' Otherwise history is what as Americans we are supposed to believe about America (not about the rest of the world, which is 'old' and generally left behind, hence irrelevant) uncritically, loyally, unhistorically. There is an amazing polarity at work here. In the popular mind America is supposed to stand above or beyond history. On the other hand, there is an all-consuming general interest that one encounters across the country in the history of everything, from small regional topics, to the vaster reaches of world empires. Many cults develop out of both these carefully balanced opposites, which encompass the road from xenophobic patriotism to other-worldly spiritualism and reincarnation.
One rather more worldly example of the struggle about history is worth recalling here. A decade ago a great intellectual battle was waged in the public sphere over what kind of history should be taught in schools. What was clear about the va-et-vient that occurred over many weeks was that the promoters of the idea of American history as a heroically unified national narrative with entirely positive resonances for young minds, thought of history as essential not only for the truth, but for the ideological propriety of representations that would mould students into essentially docile citizens, ready to accept a set of basic themes as the constants in America's relationships with itself and the rest of the world. Purged from this essentialist view were to be the elements of what was called postmodernism and divisive history (that of minorities, women, slavery, etc) but the result, interestingly enough, was a failure so far as the imposition of such risible standards was concerned. As Linda Symcox sums it up, "Certainly one would argue, as I do, that...[the neoconservative] approach to cultural literacy is 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 altogether. In the hands of social and world historians, who actually wrote the Standards with the K-12 teachers, the Standards became a vehicle for the pluralistic vision the government was trying to combat. In the end, consensus history, or cultural reproduction... was challenged by those historians who felt that social justice and the redistribution of power demanded a more complex telling of the past."
In the public sphere over which in so many ways the mass mainstream media preside there are thus a series of what one might call narrathemes that structure, package and control discussion, despite the appearance of variety and diversity. I shall discuss only a small number of them that strike me as acutely pertinent at this time. One of course is that there is a collective 'we', a national identity represented without apparent demurral by our president, our secretary of state at the UN, our armed forces in the desert, and our interests, which are routinely seen as self-defensive, without ulterior motive, and in an overall way, innocent in the way that a traditional woman is supposed to be innocent, pure, free of sin, etc. Another narratheme is the irrelevance of history, and the inadmissibility of illegitimate 'linkage', for example, the facts that the US once had armed and encouraged Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, or that Vietnam (when it is mentioned at all) and its particular form of devastation was 'bad' for the country or, as Jimmy Carter once put it memorably, that it was a form of "mutual" self-destruction. Or even more staggering, the ongoing and even institutional irrelevance of two immensely important and constitutively American experiences, the slavery of the African-American people and the dispossession and quasi-extermination of the native American population. These have yet to be figured into the national consensus in any serious way. (Whereas there is a major Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, no such memorial exists either for African-Americans or native Americans, anywhere in the country).
A third is the unexamined conviction that opposition to our policies is 'anti-Americanism' which is based on jealousy about 'our' democracy, freedom, wealth and greatness or, as the current obsession with French resistance to an American war against Iraq has it, plain and ordinary foreign nastiness. In this context Europeans are constantly reminded of how America saved them twice in the past century, with the subsidiary implication that most Europeans simply sat back watching while American troops did all the real fighting. And when it comes to places where the US has been extraordinarily entangled for at least 50 years like the Middle East or Latin America, the narratheme of America as the honest broker, the impartial adjudicator, the entirely well-intentioned international force for good, has no serious competitor to it; what we have therefore is a strand of thought that has little place in it for issues relating to power, or financial gain, or resource grabbing, or ethnic lobbying, or forcible and/or surreptitious regime change (as in Iran and Chile, for instance), and as a result remains quite undisturbed except for occasional efforts to recall them. The closest one gets to that kind of realism is in the abhorrently euphemistic idiom of the thinktanks and the government, idioms that discuss soft power and projection and American vision. Still less represented (or even alluded to) are policies of extraordinary cruelty or invidiousness for which America is directly responsible like support for the Sharonian campaign against Palestinian civilian life, or the terrible civilian casualties incurred by Iraqi sanctions, or the support given the Turkish and Columbian regimes for horrendously inhuman punishments against ordinary citizens. These are considered out of bounds during serious discussions of 'policy'.
Finally, the narratheme of unchallenged moral wisdom as represented in figures with official authority (eg Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, plus every present official of the current administration) is reproduced over and over without very much of a twinge of doubt. The fact, for instance, that two Nixon-era convicted felons (Elliott Abrams and John Poindexter) have recently been endowed with significant government positions attracts little comment, much less objection. This sort of blind appreciation of authority past or present, pure or sullied, occurs in many different forms, all the way from the respectful, even abject forms of address used by commentators and pundits, to a total unwillingness to see anything in the authority figure except his or her polished appearance (for instance, the de rigueur dark suit, white shirt, and red tie), unscarred by anything in the past record that might be incriminating to a serious degree. Buttressing that is, I believe, the American belief in pragmatism as a philosophic system of dealing with reality that is anti-metaphysical, anti- historical and, curiously, even anti-philosophical. Postmodern anti-nominalism of the kind that reduces everything to sentence structure and linguistic context is allied with this, and is a very influential style of thought existing alongside analytic philosophy in the American university. In my own university, figures such as Hegel and Heidegger, for example, are taught in literature or art history departments, rarely in philosophy.
It is this amazingly persistent set of master stories that the newly organised and mobilised American information effort (especially in the Arab and Islamic worlds) is designed by hook or crook to spread. What gets deliberately obscured in the process are the stunningly obstinate dissenting traditions -- America's unofficial counter-memory that stem in large part from the fact that this is an immigrant society -- that flourish alongside, or at the interior of this handful of narrathemes. Few commentators abroad take much notice of this forest of dissent, alas. These clumps of both the progressive or regressive kind provide and to a trained observer make visible linkages between the master narrathemes that are normally not in evidence. If one were to examine the components of the impressively strong resistance to the proposed Bush war against Iraq, for example, a very different, highly mobile picture of America emerges, one that is much more amenable to foreign cooperation, dialogue and significant action. I shall leave aside the considerable number of people who oppose the war on grounds having to do with its human cost in blood and treasure as well as its disastrous effect on an already badly disturbed economy. I shall also not discuss the great swirl of Right-wing opinion that sees America as traduced by treacherous foreigners, the United Nations, and godless communists. In addition, the libertarian and isolationist constituency, which is a strange combination of Left and Right, needs no further comment here. I would also include among these categories that must be left unexamined here a very large and idealistically inspired university student population that is deeply suspicious of American foreign policy in almost all of its forms, especially economic globalisation: this is a principled and sometimes quasi-anarchical group that has kept American university and college campuses alive to such issues in the past as the war in Vietnam, South African apartheid, and civil rights at home.
This leaves several important and in many ways formidable constituencies of experience and conscience for me to survey very rapidly here. These generally pertain, in European and Afro-Asian terms, to the Left, given that anything like an organised parliamentary Left-wing or socialist movement has never really existed for any length of time in post-World War Two America, so powerful is the grip of the two-party apparatus. As for the Democratic Party today, it is in a shambles from which it will not soon recover. One would have to include for a start the positively disaffected and still fairly radical wing of the African-American community, that is, those urban groups who agitate against police brutality, job discrimination, housing and educational neglect, and are led or represented by iconic or charismatic figures such as Rev Al Sharpton, Cornel West, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson (faded as a leader though he is) and several others who see themselves as continuing in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. Associated with this movement are numerous other activist ethnic collectivities, including Latinos, Native Americans, and Muslims, each of which of course has devoted considerable energy to trying to slip into the mainstream, in pursuit of important political assignments in local and national governments, appearance on prestigious television talk shows, and membership on governing boards of foundations, colleges, and corporations. But in the main, however, most of those groups are still more activated by a sense of injustice and discrimination than they are by ambition, and therefore aren't ready to enlist completely in the American (mostly white and middle-class) dream. The interesting thing about someone like Sharpton, for example, or say Ralph Nader and his loyal supporters in the protesting but still struggling Green Party, is that though they may have visibility and a certain degree of acceptability they remain outsiders, basically uncoopted, too intransigent, and not sufficiently interested in the routine rewards that the society offers.
One huge wing of the women's movement, active on behalf of abortion rights, abuse and harassment issues, professional equality is also a major asset to the dissenting current in American society. Similarly, sectors of the normally sedate, interest- and advancement-oriented professional groups (physicians, lawyers, scientists, academics in particular, as well as a number of labor unions, and a sector of the environmental movement) feed into the dynamic of counter- currents I am listing here, even though of course as corporate bodies they retain a major interest in the orderly functioning of society and the agendas that derive from them.
Then too the organised churches themselves can never be discounted as seedbeds of change and dissent. Their membership is to be clearly distinguished from the fundamentalist and televangelist movements I mentioned above. Catholic Bishops, for example, the laity and clergy of the Episcopal Church, in addition to the Quakers and the Presbyterian synod -- despite the various travails that include sexual scandals in the first and depleted memberships in most of the others -- have been surprisingly liberal on war and peace questions, and quite willing to speak out against international human rights abuses, the hyper-inflated military budgets, and neo-liberal economic policies that have mutilated the public sphere since the early 1980s. Historically there was always a segment of the organised Jewish community involved in progressive minority rights causes domestically and abroad, but since the Reagan period the ascendancy of the neo-conservative movement, the alliance between Israel and the religious Right in this country, and feverish Zionist- organised activity equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and even fear of a new American Auschwitz, have reduced the positive agency of that force quite considerably.
Finally, a large number of groups and individuals sought out for rallies, protest marches, and peaceful demonstrations has stood out of the mind-deadening patriotism in the post-9/11 period. These have clustered around civil liberties (including free speech and constitutional guarantees) that have been threatened by the Terrorist and Patriot Acts. Agitation against capital punishment, occasional protests at the abuses represented by the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, a general distrust of civilian authorities in the military, as well as an increasing discomfort at the increasingly privatised carceral system that has locked up the highest number of people per capita in the world (a disproportionate number of them men and women of color), all these radiate like so many perpetual disturbances inside the prevailing middle class social order. A correlative of this is of course the rough and tumble of cyberspace, fought over unrelentingly by both the official and unofficial Americas. In the current malaise produced by an unmistakably steep decline in the country's economy, disruptive themes like the growing difference between rich and poor, the extraordinary profligacy and corruption of the corporate higher echelons, and the manifest danger to the social security system through various audaciously rapacious schemes of privatisation, continue to take a heavy toll out of the firmly held and much celebrated virtues of the capitalist system that is uniquely American.
Is America indeed united behind this president, his bellicose foreign policy, and his dangerously simple-minded economic vision? This is another way of asking whether American identity has been settled once and for all and whether for a world that has to live with its far- reaching military power (there are American troops now in dozens of countries) there is something monolithic that the rest of the world that isn't willing to be quiescent can deal with as a sort of fixed entity lurching all over the place with the full support of all 'Americans'. I have tried to suggest another way of seeing America as indeed a troubled country with a more contested actuality than is usually ascribed to it. I think it is more accurate to apprehend America as embroiled in a serious clash of identities whose counterparts are visible as similar contests throughout the rest of the world. America may have won the Cold War, as the popular phrase has it, but the actual results of that victory within America are very far from clear, the struggle not yet over. Too much of a focus on the American executive's centralising military and political power ignores the internal dialectics that continue and are nowhere near being settled. Abortion rights and the teaching of natural evolution are still issues of unsettled contentiousness.
The great fallacy of Fukuyama's thesis about the end of history, or for that matter Huntington's clash of civilisation theory, is that both wrongly assume that cultural history is a matter of clear-cut boundaries or of beginnings, middles and ends, whereas in fact, the cultural- political field is much more an arena of struggle over identity, self-definition and projection into the future. They are fundamentalists when it comes to fluid, turbulent cultures in constant process, trying to impose fixed boundaries and internal rules of order where none really can exist. Cultures, specially America's, which is in effect an immigrant culture, overlap with others, and one of the perhaps unintended consequences of globalisation is the appearance of transnational communities of global interests, as in the human rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-war movement and so on. America is not at all insulated from any of this, but one has to excavate beyond the intimidatingly unified surface to see what lies beneath, so as to be able to join in that set of disputes, to which many of the people of the world are a party. There is hope and encouragement to be gained from that view.
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).