Edward Said and the Modern Language Association

By Alexander, Edward | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview
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Edward Said and the Modern Language Association

Alexander, Edward, Midstream

In Memoriam: KAREN SHABETAI Teacher, Scholar, Woman of Valor May Her Memory Be for a Blessing

In the spring of 1989, when the intifada was at its height, Professor Edward Said, who holds an endowed chair in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, published an essay in defense of the actions of the PLO, which had been murdering people at a higher than usual rate at the time. The essay included the following passage:

   When Farouk Kaddumi or Abu Iyad [PLO leaders] say that collaborators would
   be shot or that "our people in the interior recognize their
   responsibilities" -- passages quoted by Griffin [Robert Griffin of Tel-Aviv
   University, who had criticized an earlier article by Said on the subject of
   Zionism] -- surely even he must be aware that the UN Charter and every
   other known document or protocol entitles a people under foreign occupation
   not only to resist but also by extension to deal severely with
   collaborators. Why is it somehow OK for white people ... to punish
   collaborators during periods of military occupation, and not OK for
   Palestinians to do the same?

This farrago of nonsense in defense of the PLO's legally sanctioned right to murder its opponents was not surprising, given the well-known character of its author and his political position at the time. Said by 1989 already had a well-established reputation for confidently reciting the most preposterous falsehoods, especially when he wrote about matters touching Jews and Israel. "The historical duration of a Jewish state [in Palestine] ," he had written, "was a sixty-year period two millennia ago"; the Holocaust, he had insisted, served to "protect" Palestinian Jews "with the world's compassion"; the Jews, he had asserted, are not really a people because their identity in the Diaspora has been wholly a function of persecution; and so on ad nauseam, ad absurdum. Said was also in 1989 still a member of the Palestine National Council and a close advisor to Yasir Arafat (whom he would later, after the Oslo accords, repudiate for being "soft" on Israel), and so he might have been expected to defend the PLO's "right" to murder political opponents.

What was surprising was not the content or the truculent and abusive style of the essay, but its location. It was published not in The Nation or Al Ahram or The New York Times, where his political manifestoes usually appeared, but in the spring issue of Critical Inquiry, a journal of literary theory published by the University of Chicago Press.

Here, amidst the moldy futilities that typically fill the pages of this quarterly magazine, was Said's simmering incendiary charge. People not familiar with the drift of literary criticism in this country during the last twenty years might well have wondered just what place Said's advocacy of the short and ready way of dealing with "collaborators" had in an ostensibly literary journal. Had the literary theorists who write for and read Critical Inquiry laid aside not only their old copies of I. A. Richards's How to Read a Page but also the old understanding we once tried to impart to our students of literature as an art meant to encourage moral awareness and humane understanding? After all, it was one thing to allow an official of an international terrorist organization to discourse (as Said had in the past done) on strictly literary subjects, but another to publish his apologia for political murder, an apologia buttressed by "factual" assertions about the UN Charter and "every other known document or protocol" whose absurdity would have been spotted by a normally attentive sixth-grader, but apparently did not perturb the editors of Critical Inquiry.

When I published in Commentary a short essay lamenting the fact that Said's "double career as literary scholar and ideologue of terrorism is a potent argument against those who believe in the corrective power of humanistic values," I was bombarded with acrimonious letters of outrage from Said's belletristic defenders, and especially those Irving Howe used to call "guerrillas with tenure.

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