Now that the immediate news of Edward Said’s death has been absorbed, attention is turning, contentiously, to his legacy.
The renowned critic, scholar and advocate for the Palestinian cause died of leukemia last Wednesday after a 12-year battle with the disease. From New York to New Delhi to Tel Aviv, newspapers paid him homage — but not without mentioning that, while he had his admirers, Said didn’t lack for enemies.
Said was one of Columbia University’s star professors, and as well as being an influential literary scholar and cultural critic, he was a talented pianist and music critic. But it was as a political activist that Said gained wide notice, and the obituaries centered on this side of his life. He was a tireless critic of the Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and an ardent defender of Palestinian rights, and he wrote a number of books on the conflict. Malise Ruthven of the Guardian describes him as “the most articulate and visible advocate of the Palestinian cause in the United States” — a distinction that earned him plenty of detractors.
Alexander Cockburn, a close friend of Said’s, writes:
“I do think of [him] as a promontory, a physical bulk on the intellectual and political landscape that forced people, however disinclined they may have been, to confront the Palestinian experience.”
During the 1980s, Said became a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile. In 1991, he left the council in protest at the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which began in Madrid and continued in Oslo. Said quickly established himself as a leading critic of the Oslo peace process, and he dedicated much of his writing pointing out its flaws. Najm Jarrah of the BBC explains Said’s opposition to Oslo:
“He charged that by accepting the terms [of the Oslo peace accords] the leadership was compromising fundamental Palestinian rights and putting self-preservation above both principle and the practical requirements of a workable peace. Negotiations held on that basis would merely reflect the massive disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, and result either in an unjust settlement or none at all.”
The latter marked the beginning of the rift between Said and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whom he relentlessly criticized for the “illiberal climate of intolerance and corruption surrounding [his] regime.” (Arafat hit back by banning Said’s books from the West Bank and Gaza.)
As a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Said ultimately advocated a single bi-national state based on the notion of equal citizenship for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. “I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, and sharing it in a truly democratic ways, with equal rights for each citizen,” he wrote in the New York Times magazine in 1999. “There can be no reconciliation unless both peoples, two communities of suffering, resolve that their existence is a secular fact, and that it has to be dealt with as such.”
In a minute (albeit courageous) step in that direction, Said, in collaboration with Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, founded an orchestra consisting of Israeli and Palestinian musicians named “East-West Divan.” However, Said was certainly not without his critics.
Not even among his friends. Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate says that “if Edward’s personality had been the human and moral pattern or example, there would be no “Middle East” problem to begin with.” He goes on:
“His feeling for the injustice done to Palestine was, in the best sense of this overused term, a visceral one. He simply could not reconcile himself to the dispossession of a people or to the lies and evasions that were used to cover up this offense. He was by no means simple-minded or one-sided about this: In a public dialogue with Salman Rushdie 15 years ago, he described the Palestinians as “victims of the victims,” an ironic formulation that hasn’t been improved upon.”
But though Hitchens praises Said’s “moral energy,” he says it “wasn’t always matched by equivalent political judgment.”
“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.”
Describing Said as too thin-skinned, Hitchens says this:
“But it can be admirable in a way to go through life with one skin too few, to be easily agonized and upset and offended. Too many people survive, or imagine that they do, by coarsening themselves and by protectively dulling their sensitivity to the point of acceptance. This would never be Edward’s way. His emotional strength — one has to resort to cliche sometimes — was nonetheless also a weakness.”
Robert Fisk, writing in London’s Independent gives a similarly nuanced appreciation:
“He was not a flawless man. He could be arrogant, he could be ruthless in his criticism. He could be repetitive. He could be angry to the point of irradiation. But he had much to be angry about… He was both an icon and an iconoclast.”
Hitchens’ and Fisk’s criticisms are mild compared to some. Right wingers disliked Said for his criticism of Israel and the United States, indeed “the West” in general. (He was dubbed “professor of terror” by the rightwing American magazine Commentary.) The conservative commentator, Mark Steyn, in part quoting Said, writes that “[The United States] even offers freedom to come here and become a wealthy, influential, famous cultural figure attacking the very notion of ‘the west’ and ‘democracy’ and their opposing bogeymen, ‘rogue states’ and ‘terrorism,’ as ‘counterfeit’ ‘confections’ concocted by a dark ‘unseen power’ to ‘create content and tacit approval.’ … For a counterfeit confection, the west [provided] Said with a pretty nice living.”
Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph, brings up an old charge against Said, that he embellished elements of his biography (he denied it); and then goes on to an assessment of his work, describing his book, “The Question of Palestine,” for example, as ” a highly cogent, if tendentious, exposition of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” alleging that such “partisanship earned Said notoriety.”
Which indeed it did, in right-wing circles. But for many, Said’s dinstinction was as an “intellectual superstar” who leaves a legacy of deep moral commitment. Again, Hitchens:
“[F]or Edward, injustice was to be rectified, not rationalized. I think that it was, for him, surpassingly a matter of dignity. People may lose a war or a struggle or be badly led or poorly advised, but they must not be humiliated or treated as alien or less than human. It was the downgrading of the Palestinians to the status of a “problem” (and this insult visited upon them in their own homeland) that aroused his indignation. That moral energy, I am certain, will outlive him.”