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Polemics

Publicly, Said was best known for his engagement with the history of the Israeli state, its multiple displacements of Palestinians, and the still-ongoing occupation. And within the domain of public polemics that emerged in response, he was often characterized in ways that seem to have no actual relationship to the person and scholar he was. Attacked relentlessly by Daniel Pipes and his organization Campus Watch, referred to as a man of violence in a eulogy written for Columbia University’s Spectator, in which his life is summed up by the act of throwing a stone at Israeli soldiers along Lebanon’s southern border, Said was often depicted as a Palestinian radical and an angry man.120 According to an article in the conservative Middle East Quarterly, rather than ever providing a “serious alternative” to that which he critiqued, Said displayed “a kind of floating overidentification with political causes like Palestine, Arab nationalism and Muslim anti-imperialism”,121 a characterization of Said’s political commitments that completely ignores his sustained criticism of both Palestinian and Arab nationalisms and, of course, his deep suspicion if not downright hostility toward radical Islamist movements.122 As was often claimed in attacks on Said, “Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition”.123 Reduced to his “Palestinian identity”—or, more accurately, to other people’s reading of it—Said could not have known the Western canon, his political critique could only have been that of an angry (emotional) postcolonial intellectual “writing back”.124

Such attacks on Said and his work have, in recent years, extended well beyond a general public domain. They have entered the realm of public policy.

In congressional hearings on “International Programs in Higher Education and Questions about Bias” (Title VI-funded programs), Stanley Kurtz (a research fellow at the Hoover Institution with strong ties to Pipes, among others) testified that postcolonial studies, a field supposedly fathered by Said and one that purportedly dominates Middle East studies in the academy (as well as South Asian studies, among other area fields), is staffed by “bitter critics” of U.S. foreign policy.125 In Kurtz’s words, “The core premise of postcolonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power”.126 Seeing Said’s influence everywhere, even among those who do not “directly quote him”, Kurtz called for “balance”, thus, asking Congress to set up a supervisory board for Title VI programs (which would put pressure on provosts and deans to achieve “balance” on college and university faculties) and to switch the funding of foreign language study (for which Title VI is largely responsible) from universities to the Defense Language Institute.127 Congresspersons, Kurtz, and various other representatives of Title VI centers then proceeded to debate the issue—an almost amusing exchange, as one reads the transcript of this debate, with members of Congress discussing postcolonial theory and, occasionally, Foucault.128

Assuming that Kurtz’s characterization of both Foucault and postcolonial theory was accurate, members of Congress asked whether it is true that postcolonial theory really dominates area-studies disciplines—in particular, Middle East studies—in the academy. To quote Congressman Tim Ryan (Democrat of Ohio), “We’ve talked a lot about postcolonial theory. Obviously it has a lot of interest. In your opinion is there a counterpoint that is being taught and if so is it being taught with as much interest, or as much energy as postcolonial theory?”129 For Kurtz the answer was no; for others testifying before the committee the answer was yes, Said’s influence has been waning in Middle East studies, although they never named a specific counterpoint. And as this battle continues—via Title VI funding, universities that fear congressional pressure, and an ongoing public campaign against Said and the so-called Saidians—what is at stake is whether or not his intellectual legacy should and will be reversed. Said—along with his continued influence (here seen in a growing faculty of postcolonial critics)—is being battled posthumously. He has become a sign of the problem of a liberal, multicultural United States, one epitomized by the presence of postcolonial scholars in the academy whose commitments both to U.S. national security and to a defense of Israel, to which U.S. foreign policy is increasingly tied, are deeply suspect.

 
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