Thoughts about America, by Edward Said
Source Dave Anderson
Date 02/03/14/14:53

Thoughts about America
Published Friday March 08, 2002

By Edward Said

I don't know a single Arab or Muslim American who does not now feel that he
or she belongs to the enemy camp, and that being in the United States at
this moment provides us with an especially unpleasant experience of
alienation and widespread, quite specifically targeted hostility. For
despite the occasional official statements saying that Islam and Muslims
and Arabs are not enemies of the United States, everything else about the
current situation argues the exact opposite. Hundreds of young Arab and
Muslim men have been picked up for questioning and, in far too many cases,
detained by the police or the FBI. Anyone with an Arab or Muslim name is
usually made to stand aside for special attention during airport security
checks. There have been many reported instances of discriminatory behavior
against Arabs, so that speaking Arabic or even reading an Arabic document
in public is likely to draw unwelcome attention. And of course, the media
have run far too many "experts" and "commentators" on terrorism, Islam, and
the Arabs whose endlessly repetitious and reductive line is so hostile and
so misrepresents our history, society and culture that the media itself has
become little more than an arm of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and
elsewhere, as now seems to be the case with the projected attack to "end"
Iraq. There are US forces already in several countries with important
Muslim populations like the Philippines and Somalia, the buildup against
Iraq continues, and Israel prolongs its sadistic collective punishment of
the Palestinian people, all with what seems like great public approval in
the United States.

While true in some respects, this is quite misleading. America is more than
what Bush and Rumsfeld and the others say it is. I have come to deeply
resent the notion that I must accept the picture of America as being
involved in a "just war" against something unilaterally labeled as
terrorism by Bush and his advisers, a war that has assigned us the role of
either silent witnesses or defensive immigrants who should be grateful to
be allowed residence in the US. The historical realities are different:
America is an immigrant republic and has always been one. It is a nation of
laws passed not by God but by its citizens. Except for the mostly
exterminated native Americans, the original Indians, everyone who now lives
here as an American citizen originally came to these shores as an immigrant
from somewhere else, even Bush and Rumsfeld. The Constitution does not
provide for different levels of American ness, nor for approved or
disapproved forms of "American behavior," including things that have come
to be called "un-" or "anti- American" statements or attitudes. That is the
invention of American Taliban who wants to regulate speech and behavior in
ways that remind one eerily of the unregretted former rulers of
Afghanistan. And even if Mr. Bush insists on the importance of religion in
America, he is not authorized to enforce such views on the citizenry or to
speak for everyone when he makes proclamations in China and elsewhere about
God and America and himself. The Constitution expressly separates church
and state.

There is worse. By passing the Patriot Act last November, Bush and his
compliant Congress have suppressed or abrogated or abridged whole sections
of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments, instituted legal
procedures that give individuals no recourse either to a proper defense or
a fair trial, that allow secret searches, eavesdropping, detention without
limit, and, given the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, that
allow the US executive branch to abduct prisoners, detain them
indefinitely, decide unilaterally whether or not they are prisoners of war
and whether or not the Geneva Conventions apply to them -- which is not a
decision to be taken by individual countries. Moreover, as Congressman
Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) said in a magnificent speech given on 17
February, the president and his men were not authorized to declare war
(Operation Enduring Freedom) against the world without limit or reason,
were not authorized to increase military spending to over $400 billion per
year, were not authorized to repeal the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, he
added -- the first such statement by a prominent, publicly elected official
-- "we did not ask that the blood of innocent people, who perished on
September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in
Afghanistan." I strongly recommend that Rep. Kucinich's speech, which was
made with the best of American principles and values in mind, be published
in full in Arabic so that people in our part of the world can understand
that America is not a monolith for the use of George Bush and Dick Cheney,
but in fact contains many voices and currents of opinion which this
government is trying to silence or make irrelevant.

The problem for the world today is how to deal with the unparalleled and
unprecedented power of the United States, which in effect has made no
secret of the fact that it does not need coordination with or approval of
others in the pursuit of what a small circle of men and women around Bush
believe are its interests. So far as the Middle East is concerned, it does
seem that since 11 September there has been almost an Israelisation of US
policy: and in effect Ariel Sharon and his associates have cynically
exploited the single-minded attention to "terrorism" by George Bush and
have used that as a cover for their continued failed policy against the
Palestinians. The point here is that Israel is not the US and, mercifully,
the US is not Israel: thus, even though Israel commands Bush's support for
the moment, Israel is a small country whose continued survival as an
ethnocentric state in the midst of an Arab-Islamic sea depends not just on
an expedient if not infinite dependence on the US, but rather on
accommodation with its environment, not the other way round. That is why I
think Sharon's policy has finally been revealed to a significant number of
Israelis as suicidal, and why more and more Israelis are taking the reserve
officers' position against serving the military occupation as a model for
their approach and resistance. This is the best thing to have emerged from
the Intifada. It proves that Palestinian courage and defiance in resisting
occupation have finally brought fruit

What has not changed, however, is the US position, which has been
escalating towards a more and more metaphysical sphere, in which Bush and
his people identify themselves (as in the very name of the military
campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom) with righteousness, purity, the good,
and manifest destiny, its external enemies with an equally absolute evil.
Anyone reading the world press in the past few weeks can ascertain that
people outside the US are both mystified by and aghast at the vagueness of
US policy, which claims for itself the right to imagine and create enemies
on a world scale, then prosecute wars on them without much regard for
accuracy of definition, specificity of aim, concreteness of goal, or, worst
of all, the legality of such actions. What does it mean to defeat "evil
terrorism" in a world like ours? It cannot mean eradicating everyone who
opposes the US, an infinite and strangely pointless task; nor can it mean
changing the world map to suit the US, substituting people we think are
"good guys" for evil creatures like Saddam Hussein. The radical simplicity
of all this is attractive to Washington bureaucrats whose domain is either
purely theoretical or who, because they sit behind desks in the Pentagon,
tend to see the world as a distant target for the US's very real and
virtually unopposed power. For if you live 10,000 miles away from any known
evil state and you have at your disposal acres of warplanes, 19 aircraft
carriers, and dozens of submarines, plus a million and a half people under
arms, all of them willing to serve their country idealistically in the
pursuit of what Bush and Condoleezza Rice keep referring to as evil, the
chances are that you will be willing to use all that power sometime,
somewhere, especially if the administration keeps asking for (and getting)
billions of dollars to be added to the already swollen defense budget.

From my point of view, the most shocking thing of all is that with few
exceptions most prominent intellectuals and commentators in this country
have tolerated the Bush programme, tolerated and in some flagrant cases,
tried to go beyond it, toward more self-righteous sophistry, more
uncritical self-flattery, more specious argument. What they will not accept
is that the world we live in, the historical world of nations and peoples,
is moved and can be understood by politics, not by huge general absolutes
like good and evil, with America always on the side of good, its enemies on
the side of evil. When Thomas Friedman tiresomely sermonizes to Arabs that
they have to be more self-critical, missing in anything he says is the
slightest tone of self-criticism. Somehow, he thinks, the atrocities of 11
September entitle him to preach at others, as if only the US had suffered
such terrible losses, and as if lives lost elsewhere in the world were not
worth lamenting quite as much or drawing as large moral conclusions from.

One notices the same discrepancies and blindness when Israeli intellectuals
concentrate on their own tragedies and leave out of the equation the much
greater suffering of a dispossessed people without a state, or an army, or
an air force, or a proper leadership, that is, Palestinians whose suffering
at the hands of Israel continues minute by minute, hour by hour. This sort
of moral blindness, this inability to evaluate and weigh the comparative
evidence of sinner and sinned against (to use a moralistic language that I
normally avoid and detest) is very much the order of the day, and it must
be the critical intellectual's job not to fall into -- indeed, actively to
campaign against falling into -- the trap. It is not enough to say blandly
that all human suffering is equal, then to go on basically bewailing one's
own miseries: it is far more important to see what the strongest party
does, and to question rather than justify that. The intellectual's is a
voice in opposition to and critical of great power, which is consistently
in need of a restraining and clarifying conscience and a comparative
perspective, so that the victim will not, as is often the case, be blamed
and real power encouraged to do its will.

A week ago I was stunned when a European friend asked me what I thought of
a declaration by 60 American intellectuals that was published in all the
major French, German, Italian and other continental papers but which did
not appear in the US at all, except on the Internet where few people took
notice of it. This declaration took the form of a pompous sermon about the
American war against evil and terrorism being "just" and in keeping with
American values, as defined by these self-appointed interpreters of our
country. Paid for and sponsored by something called the Institute for
American Values, whose main (and financially well-endowed) aim is to
propagate ideas in favor of families, "fathering" and "mothering," and God,
the declaration was signed by Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Daniel
Patrick Moynihan among many others, but basically written by a conservative
feminist academic, Jean Bethke Elshtain. Its main arguments about a "just"
war were inspired by Professor Michael Walzer, a supposed socialist who is
allied with the pro-Israel lobby in this country, and whose role is to
justify everything Israel does by recourse to vaguely leftist principles.
In signing this declaration, Walzer has given up all pretension to leftism
and, like Sharon, allies himself with an interpretation (and a questionable
one at that) of America as a righteous warrior against terror and evil, the
more to make it appear that Israel and the US are similar countries with
similar aims.

Nothing could be further from the truth, since Israel is not the state of
its citizens but of all the Jewish people, while the US is most assuredly
only the state of its citizens. Moreover, Walzer never has the courage to
state boldly that in supporting Israel he is supporting a state structured
by ethno-religious principles, which (with typical hypocrisy) he would
oppose in the United States if this country were declared to be white and

Walzer's inconsistencies and hypocrisies aside, the document is really
addressed to "our Muslim brethren" who are supposed to understand that
America's war is not against Islam but against those who oppose all sorts
of principles, which it would be hard to disagree with. Who could oppose
the principle that all human beings are equal, that killing in the name of
God is a bad thing, that freedom of conscience is excellent, and that "the
basic subject of society is the human person, and the legitimate role of
government is to protect and help to foster the conditions for human
flourishing"? In what follows, however, America turns out to be the
aggrieved party and, even though some of its mistakes in policy are
acknowledged very briefly (and without mentioning anything specific in
detail), it is depicted as hewing to principles unique to the United
States, such as that all people possess inherent moral dignity and status,
that universal moral truths exist and are available to everyone, or that
civility is important where there is disagreement, and that freedom of
conscience and religion are a reflection of basic human dignity and are
universally recognized. Fine. For although the authors of this sermon say
it is often the case that such great principles are contravened, no
sustained attempt is made to say where and when those contraventions
actually occur (as they do all the time), or whether they have been more
contravened than followed, or anything as concrete as that. Yet in a long
footnote, Walzer and his colleagues set forth a list of how many American
"murders" have occurred at Muslim and Arab hands, including those of the
Marines in Beirut in 1983, as well as other military combatants. Somehow
making a list of that kind is worth making for these militant defenders of
America, whereas the murder of Arabs and Muslims -- including the hundreds
of thousands killed with American weapons by Israel with US support, or the
hundreds of thousands killed by US-maintained sanctions against the
innocent civilian population of Iraq -- need be neither mentioned nor
tabulated. What sort of dignity is there in humiliating Palestinians by
Israel, with American complicity and even cooperation, and where is the
nobility and moral conscience of saying nothing as Palestinian children are
killed, millions besieged, and millions more kept as stateless refugees? Or
for that matter, the millions killed in Vietnam, Columbia, Turkey, and
Indonesia with American support and acquiescence?

All in all, this declaration of principles and complaint addressed by
American intellectuals to their Muslim brethren seems like neither a
statement of real conscience nor of true intellectual criticism against the
arrogant use of power, but rather is the opening salvo in a new cold war
declared by the US in full ironic cooperation, it would seem, with those
Islamists who have argued that "our" war is with the West and with America.
Speaking as someone with a claim on America and the Arabs, I find this sort
of hijacking rhetoric profoundly objectionable. While it pretends to the
elucidation of principles and the declaration of values, it is in fact
exactly the opposite, an exercise in not knowing, in blinding readers with
a patriotic rhetoric that encourages ignorance as it overrides real
politics, real history, and real moral issues. Despite its vulgar
trafficking in great "principles and values," it does none of that, ,except
to wave them around in a bullying way designed to cow foreign readers into
submission. I have a feeling that this document wasn't published here for
two reasons: one is that it would be so severely criticized by American
readers that it would be laughed out of court and two, that it was designed
as part of a recently announced, extremely well-funded Pentagon scheme to
put out propaganda as part of the war effort, and therefore intended for
foreign consumption.

Whatever the case, the publication of "What are American Values?" augurs a
new and degraded era in the production of intellectual discourse. For when
the intellectuals of the most powerful country in the history of the world
align themselves so flagrantly with that power, pressing that power's case
instead of urging restraint, reflection, genuine communication and
understanding, we are back to the bad old days of the intellectual war
against communism, which we now know brought far too many compromises,
collaborations and fabrications on the part of intellectuals and artists
who should have played an altogether different role. Subsidized and
underwritten by the government (the CIA especially, which went as far as
providing for the subvention of magazines like Encounter, underwrote
scholarly research, travel and concerts as well as artistic exhibitions),
those militantly unreflective and uncritical intellectuals and artists in
the 1950s and 1960s brought to the whole notion of intellectual honesty and
complicity a new and disastrous dimension. For along with that effort went
also the domestic campaign to stifle debate, intimidate critics, and
restrict thought. For many Americans, like myself, this is a shameful
episode in our history, and we must be on our guard against and resist its

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