Edward Said Anti-Americanism

After watching a video in class on Edward Said and his idea of “Orientalism” I was shocked. The accusations toward American society was outrageous to begin with – but the reasoning behind them made very little sense to me. His main argument is that the way we acquire knowledge of the Middle East is “not innocent or objected .. but highly motivated”, “the way [the west] looks at the countries and people of the Middle East is through a lens that distorts the actual reality of those places and those people.” But, is it really distorted?

To begin with, he says Arab characters are always 2 things: they’re always villains and they’re always being killed. He gives the movie Aladdin as an example. Well, first of all, Aladdin is a children’s movie – all characters in children’s movies are stereotypical, exaggerated and “magical” because of the audience it’s geared toward. And, how is Aladdin a villain? In fact, wasn’t it one of the first films of it’s time to feature an Arab hero and heroine? To me, it seems like they could do no right – no matter how Arab characters were portrayed Said would always find fault. If they aren’t portrayed in relevance to their historical culture, Said would say they were being “Americanized.” Said even uses The Simpsons as support an example of racism in American television. The Simpsons makes fun of EVERYONE! Every single episode is offensive to some group of people – its no more offensive to the Arab world than it is to anyone else.

He then criticizes investigative reporting in western society arguing that it is just “repeating the lines of the government.. repeating the lines of people who Islam is a useful foreign demon to turn attention away from the inequities and problems in our own society,” specifically giving reporting on the World Trade Center Attack as an example. It is absolutely not true that in Western society the government controls the media or news stations so to accuse reporters of only repeating “government lines” is ridiculous. Then, reporting on terrorist attacks is an attempt to turn attention away from the inequities and problems in our society? It does the absolute opposite – it highlights a need for security against terrorism in our society. Plus, to insult Western society, accusing it of avoiding its inequities and problems, when they are only reporting on an attack against the country, is ludicrous. Not to mention how extremely hypocritical it is – the terrorism attacks are from the Arab World… clearly they should be dealing with that problem. Plus, especially years ago, it was the Middle East whose media was completely controlled by government. I mean, what exactly does Said want of investigative reporters? Does he think they shouldn’t have reported on the World Trade Center terrorist attack?

Said says in his interview that Americans are making Arabs out to be terrorists and horrible people, “the enemy”, “victimizing” “threatening”, etc. He was even quoted saying Americans only want to “plunder and control.” When Said first came out with these ideas, people in the Arab World didn’t have the access to American Media they do today. So, they could only take his word for it. Reading or listening to these kind of statements promotes a stereotype of Westerners, making all Americans out to be intolerant, racist, monsters looking to “plunder and control” everything in their path. In reality, aren’t we the melting pot? Aren’t we built on diversity? Don’t we have more gender and race tolerant laws than any country in the Arab World? The rhetoric language Said uses and the ideas he promotes with little evidence breeds anti-americanism.

Said says the Middle Eastern World is always depicted with protests and chaos. But, are Americans to blame? It’s there a lot of truth to that depiction? For example, the news has been covering the protests and riots in Egypt – is that wrong? Its not a stable place, the government isn’t stable, and thats being conveyed in the media. If the Arab World doesn’t want to be defined by instability – they should work toward stability.

Said doesn’t like the depiction of Arab suicide bombers – but Americans don’t do that. There have been little to none American suicide bombers in history. It seems crazy to us, which is why it makes for good movies. Why is it wrong to make films about it? He even goes on to compare the 9/11 terrorists to the Columbine shooters accusing the US media of portraying them differently. The audacity to accuse the US media of being too easy on the Columbine Shooters is unbelievable. They were portrayed as the monsters they were – what is he talking about?

Said was apparently offended that major networks called him after a terrorist attack occurred that was consistent with Middle Eastern style bombing. It was, first of all, in no way wrong for investigators to suspect the attack may be Middle Eastern considering, according to Yale University, “Between 1981 and 2006, 1200 terrorist attacks occurred around the world, constituting 32% (14,599 people) of all terrorism related deaths. 90% of these attacks occurred in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sri Lanka.” Its not a generalization that the majority of terrorism attacks are Middle Eastern – its fact. Secondly, in the video, Said makes it seem as though those who contacted him from the media assumed that he would have some insight on the event just because he was Arab. That’s not why they contacted him. They contacted him because he claims to be an expert on the subject.

I could go on and on about Edward Said and how the ideas he promotes are anti-American and insulting to Western society, as many have. I was surprised in class when it seemed as though I was the only one who found Said’s interview absurd and offensive. So, my main point is that what he said in the interview we viewed and discussed in class is not obvious and it’s not absolute – its extremely controversial and has been challenged by many. Both the integrity and logic of his ideas has bred scholarly books and articles all over the world countering his arguments.

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One thought on “Edward Said Anti-Americanism

  1. Christina, this is an interesting post that opens up many areas for interesting discussion. Here is my quick $.02.

    There is much to criticize in Said’s work, most notably methodological and the overly simplistic dichotomy of occident-orient. He is also using the worst form of critical theory (before it was called critical theory) but that is a discussion for another day.

    However, in your emphasis on Said’s supposed anti-Americanism, I think you miss the subtleties of Said’s argument. Is there bias in coverage of the Middle East? Of course. Are portrayals of the Middle East stereotypical? Of course (and the same could be said of Middle Eastern portrayals of Westerners/Americans). Stereotyping is easy but it is also inaccurate. The bigger question is whether or not stereotyping creates an environment where dialogue is impossible because neither side can see through the veneer. Jack Shaheen wrote a book The TV Arab and followed it with another book Reel Bad Arabs (also a documentary at http://www.reelbadarabs.com/) that addresses some of the dangers of coverage.

    Said’s argument that the media mimics government lines is not a suggestion that the media is controlled by government but is instead a more subtle phenomenon. The US government labels a group of people evil (as it has with Palestinians, for example) and the media emphasizes this. Where is the balance? There are many in Congress (now and historically) that have argued that all Muslims are evil because of the acts of a few. Is this accurate? Of course not but the media often oversimplifies because it is easier (and they are lazy). If you look at the history of Hollywood villains one can see that in the 1960s-1980s it was the Communists of the Soviet Union; in the 1980s-now, it was the Arabs/Muslims. If one goes back further, it was Native Americans. This is the problem that Said is lamenting that we tend to oversimplify and the result is that social norms begin to develop that castigate a group of people as villainous. Surveys support the idea that there are many who accept the common story as the truth (see for example, http://www.aaiusa.org/reports/the-american-divide-how-we-view-arabs-and-muslims). The reality is that the truth is a whole lot more complicated and it is much more difficult to cover.

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