The Mighty Pen of Edward Said

In 1994, David Barsamian and Edward Said published a set of interviews Barsamian had conducted with Said in the years previous. This collection was titled The Pen and the Sword and was recently republished by Haymarket. I remember reading the book as soon as it came into the library I worked at then and being impressed by the clarity of thought contained therein. The two men discuss many things: the role of culture in maintaining empires, the responsibility of intellectuals in modern society, the surrender of those intellectuals to the power structure, and the Oslo accords of 1993. It was Said who made the clearest and most forceful critique of those accords, essentially calling them a capitulation on the part of Yasser Arafat. This analysis did not endear him to any of the power structures involved–Washington, Tel Aviv, or the Palestinian Authority.

Re-reading Said today, then reading the news concerning the PA and its role in opposing Hamas and the release of the Goldstone report makes Said’s observation that the Oslo accords were nothing but capitulation that much truer. It was Said’s contention that Israel needed a Palestinian partner to go along with its decision to continue its expansion into Palestinian lands. Sadly, says Said, they found that partner in the person of Yasser Arafat. Arafat’s death in 2004 (not long after Said’s) and subsequent placement in the pantheon of Palestinian heroes may have modified Said’s impressions of the latter day Arafat had he survived him. However, it is unlikely that Said’s perception of the accords and their subsequent annihilation by Israel and Mr. Arafat’s successors would have improved. In fact, the continued flouting of those accords by Israel and the capitulation of the Palestinian Authority to Tel Aviv’s snubbing have only proven Said’s original impressions.

Some of the most interesting conversation in these pages regards the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) transition from a liberation group to one concerned only with creating a nation, no matter how that nation looked. Said’s observations on the shortcomings of nationalism as an ideology or strategy are telling and apply across the board to all national liberation movements that trade in their desire for liberation for the simple fact of nationhood. When this occurs, argues Said, the way is open for those only interested in profiteering and power to take control. By discussing this, the two men break the ice on one of the modern world’s major quandaries: how does a people make the shift from a colonial state to one that doesn’t just merely replicate the colonial situation without the occupiers troops and administration? As any student of history can see, the postcolonial world has not created a situation where equality exists between the former colonies and the former colonialists. In fact, the disparities and systems of control are arguably greater now than they were in colonial times, at least in some circumstances.

These discussions make it clear that Said believes that the liberation of one’s land from the yoke of colonialism is not enough. A people also need to liberate their minds from that yoke, too. This is where Said’s thoughts on culture–both that of the oppressor and of the oppressed–become so important. He was one of a very few modern leftists that put the role of culture in developing a people’s consciousness foremost among the elements that go into that development. Conversely, Said also understood and wrote a lot about the use of culture by the imperial power to colonize the occupied peoples’ mind. Like Frantz Fanon, he was not afraid to challenge the assumption of the occupiers mindset by some of the colonized. Interestingly, religiously-inspired resistance groups like Hamas understand this only too well. While Hamas certainly addresses the economic and political oppression of the Palestinians with programs that feed and educate them, they also celebrate an Islamic version of Palestine’s culture of resistance, thereby planting a relationship between Islam and Palestinian liberation. It’s not that secular Palestinian culture does not exist, says Said, it’s that those intellectuals who should be encouraging its spread have abdicated their responsibility. Like intellectuals in the West, they have either ceded to the power of politics, money or both.

Of course, Palestine has not thrown off the occupier’s authority and replaced it with their own. The control Tel Aviv exerts over the people of the West Bank and Gaza today is more complete than it was before Oslo. Nothing proves this more than the recent killings of Palestinians by IDF forces and the subsequent incursion of Israeli tanks into Gaza. Furthermore, the current argument in the media between Washington and Tel Aviv over new settlements in East Jerusalem underlines that truth.

Despite the overall sense of historical tragedy underlined by greater tragedies to come, Said manages to find some hope. Like a flower rising from the dirt of a freshly dug grave or the phoenix rising from the ashes, the despair present in these interviews is brightened by the hope for a different future. One wonders whether he would find a similar hope today.

As I write this review, rumors of the possibility of another Intifada appear in the media. The arrogant insistence of the Netanyahu government that the international treasure that is Jerusalem belongs only to Israel and the consequent territorial invasion of the Arab quarter by Israelis may well exceed Palestinian patience once again. If another uprising does occur, the plight of the Palestinians will once again be on the world’s front pages, as will the propaganda onslaught from Tel Aviv and Washington revising that story to their perspective. Yet, when all is said and done, I wonder if anything will really change.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on April 3rd, 2010 at 9:55am #

    Late professor Edward Said (a Christian Arab by faith) was an “Orientalist” in the true sense. He was odd with the Zionist media projected “Oreientalists” like Arab-hating Dr. Bernard Lewis. Dr. Edward Said summed-up the US-Middle East political reality when he wrote: “Arabs will get their freedom only when the Americans get theirs”.

    “The whole system (US) functions essentially as a system of control rather than democratic participation.We shall never know how many abuses tokk place in the past. Two percent of US population owns 80 per cent of the wealth, and to continue maintaining this disproportionality, the majority has either to kept under control ideologically or kept out of the system, preferably both. No more than 35-40 per cent of eligible citizen vote, because the remainder senses, correctly, that their vote doesn’t mean what it should……” – Professor Edward Said, December 25, 2000

  2. bozh said on April 3rd, 2010 at 10:11am #

    It cld be noted that nato-US-israel wld not deal or talk to any pal`ns they cldn`t buy.
    Occupiers choose their puppets well: quisling, petain, pavelich, nedich, karzai, abbas, al-miliki. Arafat did say: Look, we are not stupid! Was he aware of this fact?
    From this point of view, it doesn`t matter a bit who is in ‘charge’ of the disconnected counties. Arafat may have known that `jews` got him by the balls.
    Arafat cld have, tho, tried crying a lot more to the uncle. He loves praise! tnx

  3. Jonas Rand said on April 3rd, 2010 at 4:42pm #

    Rehmat, what do you mean when you say “Said…was an Orientalist in the true sense”? I would think that was an insult, were it not for the fact that you complimented him on his comments about the US governance system. I do not understand your comment.

    Said was a brilliant philosopher and an intelligent person whose ideas about imperialism can be applied to many nations currently or formerly under occupation; Palestine, yes, but also Papua, Timor, etc. Many “leaders” are just as oppressive as the original colonizer, and the mentality of oppression has the tendency to turn those seeking liberation into oppressors themselves.

  4. Don Hawkins said on April 3rd, 2010 at 4:55pm #

    Then of course this minor little problem.

    Yet recent years have seen a dramatic decline in stocks. Before 2005, 295 tons of St Peter’s Fish were caught annually. In 2009, the total was only eight tons.

    Regarding desalination, there was no doubt it was critical for ensuring the water supply, Bein and his colleagues wrote. However, they warned that Israel could not continue building desalination plants ad infinitum. The plants were environmentally unfriendly because of the massive amounts of polluting electricity they required. They also took up lots of scarce and valuable coastal real estate. The report also cautioned that if Israel desalinated water on a very large scale it could cause a diplomatic issue, as its neighbors might begin to press for Israel to give up access to natural water reservoirs. The Jerusalem Post

  5. Rehmat said on April 3rd, 2010 at 8:01pm #

    Jonas Rand – Who occupies East Timor now? Was not it “liberated” from Indonesian Muslims by the US and Israel?

    Do you know the meaning of “Orientalist”?

    Edward Said, in “Orientalism” , has described this (Bernard Lewis) Orientalist tiger’s stripes and his cunning ploys at concealment. Edward Said gets to the nub of Lewis’s Orientalist project when he writes that his “work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material.” Lewis’s work is “aggressively ideological.” He has dedicated his entire career, spanning more than five decades, to a “project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam.” Said writes:

  6. Jonas Rand said on April 3rd, 2010 at 8:32pm #

    Rehmat: I did say “nations currently or formerly under occupation”, “formerly” includes East Timor. No, East Timor was liberated following a 24-year struggle by the Timorese against occupation. Israel had little, if anything, to do with supporting the East Timorese. The United States, with the help of Australia, supported Indonesia in its occupation of East Timor, wherein the dictatorship led by Suharto actively committed genocide against 200,000 East Timorese. Do you side with the Indonesians because they are Muslim?

    No, I do not know the meaning of the word. I have occasionally heard the term (and of the book) before, but not a precise definition. I thought that it was someone who exploited “Oriental” culture. What is it, and how did Said fit the definition?

  7. Rehmat said on April 4th, 2010 at 7:30am #

    Gee Jonas Rand – When you think Palestine would be liberated from Jewishfacsim?

    East Timor is back to Dutch colonialism from which it was liberated in the first place by the natives with help their kith and kins in the neighboring Indonesia.

    It seems that you either did not click on the link I provided or dumb enough not to understand the contents of the article. Dr. Edward Said wrote a book on “Orientalism” and any Zionist idiot who claim to be an “expert” on Islam and Middle East region is called an “Orientalist” in the Jewish-controlled Western mainstream media.

  8. Jonas Rand said on April 4th, 2010 at 2:16pm #

    I just read the article, and I understand what you have been saying about the Orientalism issue and Lewis’ prejudices. Thank you for the link, Rehmat.

    Palestine will be liberated from fascism when the United States cuts off all aid to Israel and imposes sanctions on it, and takes a stand against the brutal Israeli occupation. The US is basically in control of Israel, and supports anything and everything it does, financially and militarily. This integral support for war crimes is why an Israeli war crime is, at the same time, an American one.

    East Timor was never under Dutch colonialism. That is why the East Timorese did not speak Dutch, and why, when Indonesia liberated itself from Dutch colonialism, East Timor did not become a part of it. The fascist Portuguese, who colonized it in the first place, did not care about the Timorese past whether they stayed complacent as victims of colonialism.

  9. Rehmat said on April 4th, 2010 at 8:33pm #

    That’s a funny analogy Jonas Rand. British and French colonialist ruled the Middle East for over 150 years – but the vast majority of that region still speak Arabic.

    “The unity of Muslim Ummah is the most dangerous factor, which must be disrupted by isolating various parts of the Ummah from one another and by the suppression of the religious leadership,” – Snouck Huurgronje, the chief Islamic advisor to the Dutch colonialists.

    Indonesia: De-Islamization of Muslim majority