A review of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, by Edward W. Said

In November 1993, the New York Times Magazine featured a remarkably unprescient essay by Edward Said titled "The Phony Islamic Threat." He charged the media, government bureaucrats, and Middle East experts with conjuring an Islamic bogeyman to demonize at home and abroad. Coming only a few months after the first attack on the World Trade Center, the piece dismissed all talk of an Islamist threat as a reflection of American prejudice and insecurity. Then, in the 1997 revised edition of his book Covering Islam, Said ridiculed "speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airlines," as inventions of racist Westerners. 

Since the publication of Orientalism in 1978, Said's theories on the interaction of Islam and the West have become dominant—one might say hegemonic—in the academy. He refashioned postmodernism into something called postcolonialism. Armed with the nebulous "deconstruction" theory of Michel Foucault, he seized a narrow canon of literature and enlisted it in the service of political advocacy; in his case, on the Palestinians' behalf. For over two decades he identified with this group, championing its cause at every turn, flacking it in every paper, ceaselessly hewing to Yasser Arafat's line, even serving as a Palestinian governor-in-exile in New York.

Before cancer took his life in September 2003, the University Professor in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University fired some parting shots; Humanism and Democratic Criticism is one of them. For the most part, it is not an enjoyable read. The volume recasts four lectures given at Cambridge University in October and November 2002 (not 2003 as the book says), and an earlier essay on "The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals." Yet for a précis of Said's thought and style, one could do worse. At only 154 pages, it is remarkably dense, packed with the literary criticism, petty self-pity, grandstanding, and the quick-tempered excoriation of enemies that made the "dispossessed" professor a favored guest on "The Charlie Rose Show," NPR, and media throughout the world. If the results are uneven and repetitive, one must make some allowances—this was a book produced on borrowed time.

Said's fame and infamy stem from his insistence on transmuting scholarship into political activism. In his foreword, Akeel Bilgrami admits that the literature professor's "intellectual legacy will be primarily political…. This is inevitable and it is perhaps how it should be." Said was the willful antithesis of the disinterested scholar, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this book. Humanism and Democratic Criticism is not about Israelis and Palestinians, or Islam and the West, or "the humanities" in any serious sense. It is Said's blueprint for a new pedagogy, the likes of which could not have been imagined by the Columbia scholars he invokes—Mark van Doren, Jacques Barzun, F.W. Dupee, Meyer Shapiro, and Lionel Trilling. Post-9/11, politics have become total. This is Said's exhortation from beyond the grave: Develop a form of humanism that amounts to "stubborn, and secular, intellectual resistance." Read: politicize. The classroom is the battleground, the lectern is the soapbox, and the instructor is a committed agent of social change. This is the responsibility of the engaged intellectual.

There are incredibly tedious moments in this book, which begins with Said's ritual invocation: "I grew up in a non-Western culture, and, as someone who is amphibious or bicultural, I am especially aware, I think, of perspectives and traditions other than those commonly thought of as uniquely American or 'Western.'" The implication, of course, is that this qualification furnishes him with unique insight superior to that of the prejudiced Western scholars he made a career of denouncing.

Score-settling was high on Said's to-do list. Lynne Cheney, Dinesh D'Souza, and Roger Kimball are blasted as "irate traditionalists or callow polemicists." Allan Bloom suffers from "dyspepsia of tone." Harold Bloom makes "tiresome vatic trumpetings." William Bennett employs "thumping oratory." Samuel Huntington developed a "deplorably vulgar and reductive thesis of the clash of civilizations." Bernard Lewis is a "discredited old Orientalist." Saul Bellow is racist, evidenced by a passage from Mr. Sammler's Planet. The hitlist extends to T.S. Eliot, the Agrarians, The New Critics, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and Matthew Arnold, the progenitor of what Said calls "Arnoldianism."

Not even his privileged upbringing, fame, television appearances, an endowed professorship at Columbia, and years of accolades and publications succeeded in giving the lie to Said's own identification as "dispossessed." Christopher Hitchens, an old friend and co-author of Blaming the Victims (1998), confessed in Slate soon after Said's death that "Edward had a slight tendency to self-pity, and the same chord was struck even in the best of his literary work, which often expressed a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood."

To many readers, these contradictions only made Said's public persona more attractive. This book is packed with odd moments, and often Said's exile-on-Main Street grows downright comical. Here is one example: "True, it is a considerable disadvantage to realize that one is unlikely to get asked on to PBS's NewsHour or ABC's Nightline or, if one is in fact asked, only an isolated fugitive minute will be offered." In another strange moment, Said writes, "In far too many years of appearing on television or being interviewed by journalists, I have never not been asked the question, 'what do you think the United States should do about such and such an issue?'…It has been a point of principle for me not ever to reply to the question." This, despite a lifetime of telling the U.S. what to do in op-ed pages, radio programs, and television talk shows.

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Some of Said's detractors on the Left were outraged by his support for the "Great Books" and Columbia's "core curriculum." But for Said, the classics need not be avoided, just reinterpreted. This is the secret message of his humanism and "return to philology." He says flatly: "Humanism is not about withdrawal and exclusion. Quite the reverse: its purpose is to make more things available to critical scrutiny as the product of human labor, human energies for emancipation and enlightenment, and, just as importantly, human misreadings and misinterpretations of the collective past and present. There was never a misinterpretation that could not be revised, improved, or overturned."

Said's concept of a "new humanistic practice" is not original. For over a decade, students have been grappling with the mandarin mores of studying great literature in the academy. He is correct when he writes that "the new generation of humanist scholars is more attuned than any before it to the non-European, genderized, decolonized, and decentered energies and currents of our time." They have little choice. One reads Jane Austen, for example, to comprehend her legitimization of colonialism—an argument Said put forward in his book Culture and Imperialism. I can imagine an analogous situation fifty years ago in the storerooms of the Hermitage Museum: "What colors. What elegance. What a capitalist trickster, this Matisse!"

Said's efforts to unify instruction and advocacy have borne fruit. In spring 2002, a UC Berkeley instructor inserted in the description of his English class, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," the following caveat: "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." Far from being an anomaly, this sort of activist intolerance is common practice in classrooms countrywide. The Berkeley instructor's mistake was simply to make the unsaid explicit, exposing it to the protests of university trustees and the "conservative media." Both sides were hardened by the exchange.

Said writes that "reading involves the contemporary humanist in two very crucial notions that I shall call reception and resistance." Undoubtedly, reception and resistance are the codewords for the next round of the culture wars, part and parcel of the legacy of Edward Said.