G-File: The Libertarian Lie.

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Remaking the INS

DeWayne’s World

Is Chuck Schumer on Crack?

Just “Like the Taliban”

Killing Cloning

Disarming America, Part II

Kumbaya Watch: The Feminine Complaint

Looking Beyond Choice

The AG’s Other War

Kumbaya Watch: Debunking the “Hero” Myth

Kumbaya Watch: Rich Hysteria

Kumbaya Watch: Mr. Begala, Are You Listening?

Kumbaya Watch: Scheer Nonsense

Kumbaya Watch: Sontag, Neocon

How Somebodies Cope

Kumbaya Watch: Conspiracy Cockburn

Anthrax Hits Home

Kumbaya Watch: Oliver!

Kumbaya Watch: Kingsolver, Again

Kumbaya Watch: Wright’s Not

Kumbaya Watch: Said What?

Green Day?

Kumbaya Watch: Feminists for the Taliban

Kumbaya Watch: All We Need Is Love

Hillary’s Terror

Kumbaya Watch: More Anti-Americanism


Kumbaya Watch: Said What?
The latest in foolish commentary.

By Ross Douthat
October 11, 2001 5:25 p.m.


riting in The Nation (where else?), Edward Said hammers away at Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, which has been invoked frequently in recent days to explain the rise of radical, bin Laden-style Islam. Said, doubtless preferring his own theories of American imperialism, Zionism-as-racism, and Muslim martyrdom, accuses Huntington of being "an ideologist, someone who wants to make 'civilizations' and 'identities' into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history." Those who accept Huntington's paradigm of the "West versus the rest" (a rhyme worthy of Jesse Jackson!) are paying "scant attention to complex histories that defy such reductiveness and have seeped from one territory into another, in the process overriding the boundaries that are supposed to separate us all into divided armed camps."

For Said, of course, there are no "civilizations" at all, and so any attempt to see Osama bin Laden and his cohorts as representative of a broader "Islamic" world is as foolish as taking "cults like the Branch Davidians or the disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones at Guyana" as representatives of the West. One might point out, of course, that David Koresh and Jim Jones were never abetted by Western governments — nor were they hailed as heroes by mainstream Western clerics — nor did their crimes prompt cheering New Yorkers or Bostonians to take to the streets, as many of Said's precious Palestinians did on September 11. But the Columbia professor is having none of it. To Huntington's claim that many Muslims are "convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power," Said sneers "did he canvas 100 Indonesians, 200 Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and fifty Bosnians? Even if he did, what sort of sample is that?" Well, a pretty significant one, some might say. But for Said, it's all or nothing — either every Muslim backs bin Laden and hates the West, or "Islamic civilization" does not exist.

In place of the Huntington thesis, though, Said offers nothing of substance. He accuses Huntington of peddling "vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis," but then offers only "vast abstractions" himself. There is no insight in Said's essay, no argument, only wind and platitudes. "Primitive passions," he writes, "and sophisticated know-how converge in ways that give the lie to a fortified boundary not only between 'West' and 'Islam' but also between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts of identity and nationality about which there is unending disagreement and debate." In other words, nobody knows anything about anything. And once we understand that, we can begin "to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, 'ours' as well as 'theirs' ... [and] to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice." But no "vast abstractions," please.

There is something sad, truth be told, and a little desperate about Said's essay: It reads like the flailings of an intellectual who realizes, too late, that history is passing him by. He lashes out indecorously, calling Huntington "a clumsy writer and inelegant thinker" — an odd accusation from a essayist whose prose often reads like something badly translated from an obscure Eastern European tongue (A typically unsuccessful Said sentence: "Uncountable are the editorials in every American and European newspaper and magazine of note adding to this vocabulary of gigantism and apocalypse, each use of which is plainly designed not to edify but to inflame the reader's indignant passion as a member of the 'West,' and what we need to do.")

Later, he takes a swipe at Bernard Lewis, author of the prescient 1991 essay "The Roots of Muslim Rage," calling him a "veteran Orientalist" whose "ideological colors" are obvious — "Orientalist" being, of course, the term that Said himself invented to tar any westerner with the temerity to study the Near East. Meanwhile, lacking any actual evidence to prove his points, he fumbles for bizarre anecdotes, citing Dante's placement of Mohammed in "the very heart of his Inferno" to prove that Islam is somehow "inside" western civilization. Someone, apparently, has neglected to explain to Prof. Said that Dante's Mohammed is damned.

In the end, he falls back on vapid cliches — "we are all swimming in those waters," he writes, "Westerners and Muslims and others alike. And since the waters are part of the ocean of history, trying to plow or divide them with barriers is futile." His arguments, boil down to Disney: It's a small world, after all ...

This, apparently, is what passes for intellectual rigor and "informed analysis" on the American Left.


The Libertarian Lie
Responding to Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel. By Jonah Goldberg. 12/18/01 3:10 p.m.
The president doesn’t need a bill. By John J. Miller & Ramesh Ponnuru. 12/18/01 2:10 p.m.
Remaking the INS
Immigrants aren’t “customers” and citizenship isn’t a “service.” By John J. Miller. 12/18/01 1:20 p.m.
The Most Dangerous Man at State
John Bolton and arms control. By Rich Lowry. 12/18/01 12:20 p.m.
Pentagon’s Bad Move
Congress should undo it. By Henry F. Cooper. 12/18/01 10:35 a.m.
Jeffries Redux
Same old world at City College. By Mark Goldblatt. 12/18/01 9:10 a.m.
The Pointe of It All
Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ’s the way to go! By John Derbyshire. 12/18/01 8:40 a.m.
Unnecessary Threats to Freedom
Greens misread national-security needs. By Kenneth Adelman. 12/18/01 8:35 a.m.
Odd Couple Out
Leftovers in a new civilization. By Victor Davis Hanson. 12/18/01 8:25 a.m.
ABM, R.I.P.!
At last. By James S. Robbins. 12/18/01 8:15 a.m.

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