I have learned the words of bloodstained courts in order to break the rules.
I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a singe one:
-Mahmoud Darwish, “I am from There”
Last week, a peculiar, if not weird, event took place. The city was Patan, a centre of urban civilisation for over two millennia. The setting was an oblong hall remodeled from a garage of horse-drawn carriages—a baggikhana—that was built over half a century ago for a prince. People attending the ceremony formed an eclectic mix—an academic, three editors, three teachers, a few journalists, couple of students, some activists, and a human-rights activist turned international bureaucrat. People of diverse background, with practically nothing in common except a surfeit of enthusiasm for nothing in particular, congregating to discuss something that very few of them knew well; such an intellectual adventure is possible only in Kathmandu. Mountains do something to the spirit that makes you believe that anything is possible.
The purpose of the meeting was no less strange. The group had gathered there for a reading in honour of Edward Said, the iconic figure of post-colonialism. Said had practically established the creed with his book Orientalism, first published in 1978. A group of amateurs analysing the icon of post-colonialism in the capital city of a country that was never colonised—this too could happen only in Kathmandu. Amateurs, as Said himself had observed in a different context, are free of fragile egos. Recklessness of the ignorant is emminently suitable for all adventures, including intellectual explorations.
The stage looked set for some arcane ritual with a khada-draped picture of the Arab-American professor solemnly placed on a pedestal. Idol worship is taboo in Arab culture, but then in addition to being born a Christian, Said was more of an American than an Arab. Therefore, the idolatry perhaps did not matter. The late professor would have approved of the mazma-like atmosphere of the majlis too. After all, he had been a prominent non-conformist himself. Once he even penned a moving paean in memory of an Egyptian belly dancer.
As the shadow lengthened outside, portions from an obituary written by Malise Ruthven and published in The Guardian of London (reproduced in the New Delhi edition of The Hindu) were dutifully read out. Then the obligatory ‘moments silence’ in memory of the departed soul was observed. Two readings of Said’s work, one about his observation on the role of intellectual and the other from the obituary that he had written for his friend and mentor Eqbal Ahmad followed. A lively discussion then ensued over the role of a rebel, an activist and a dissenter. This too could take place only in Kathmandu—capital city of a kingdom in which rebels, activists, and dissenters are enmeshed in an all-consuming civil war. There is some merit in the logic that we remember the dead to celebrate how lucky we are to be alive.
Even a low-key affair of remembering a life-long dissenter can take place only in places that know their place in the affairs of the world. Moreover, reflections on the works of an exile are best done by people who are at home, wherever they happen to be. Were Edward Said alive, he would have been amused to know that he was being read, and remembered, in a country next to Tibet, the other homeland lost to the twentieth century. However, he would have approved. Said believed in the universality of ideas even as he understood the importance of a location for their application. Said’s Orientalism was not merely an intellectual framework; it became a tool for him to fight the injustice of victims of the Holocaust victimising innocent inhabitants of an ancient land.
By virtue of being one of the crown jewels of the US academia, Said could have chosen to mystify the struggles of Palestinians in academic jargon, and be admired by his fawning peers for being yet another master of a universal theory. But he broke the box of the academic calling, and opted to risk crossing the boundaries of theory and practice as often as he willed. It earned him more critics than admirers, but the ones whose respect he valued respected him: the homeless of Palestine, the people who were, like Mahmoud Darwish, from there. He championed the cause of a country that has been, and would certainly be again, but is not here now. Those who denounced Said as “Professor of Terror” deny its existence, but their vehement denial itself is a testimony to its continuous being.
Edward Said’s real importance, however, lies in his persona. Even though he did throw a pebble in the general direction of Israel once, Said was more of a dissenter than a rebel. His act of stone throwing was a form of communication, expressing the hopelessness of an orphaned cause—his homeland. His employers, Columbia University, recognised that gesture of delivering a message as part of his academic freedom. On his part, Said was as critical of Palestinian violence as that of the Israelis. To remain engaged and yet maintain equanimity is the mark of a dissenter that separates her from die-hard activists. It’s much easier to choose a side—for or against—but to be for and against at the same time is no way of earning friends and influencing people.
Said’s unambiguous condemnation of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran (for his call on his followers to assassinate the writer Salman Rushdie) alienated him from the Muslim clergy. He called the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “an appalling and dreadful despot” and made similar statements at times about the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, two influential Arab rulers important to the Palestinian leadership. Said went further than that, he dismissed the Oslo Accord as a sell out. However, his dissent did not diminish his importance as the premier spokesperson of the Palestinian cause in the West. He was the only prominent Arab who had access to the inner recesses of the American Mind through his privileged position at a highly reputed centre of learning. He spoke to them with an authority that Yaseer Arafat could envy but never have.
Ridiculed by waspish Bostonians for having a “waspish demeanour and preppy dress-sense of a native-born Bostonian,” Said was an outsider who knew the Empire inside out. Its phrases and its rituals were his own because he belonged to the very priesthood that ran it. Thus, he was in a unique position of influencing it from inside even while he had his hand on the pulse of the events outside. Perhaps this was what that made intellectuals of post-colonial societies admire him more than even Noam Chomsky, the doyen of dissent in American academia.
Dissent and resistance
Back in 1967, Noam Chomsky had observed, “The slogan ‘from dissent to resistance’ makes sense, I think, but I hope that it is not taken to imply that dissent should cease. Dissent and resistance are not alternatives but activities that should reinforce each other.” His prophetic observation is truer now than ever before. It may be possible to contemplate dissent without overt resistance, but the vice-versa is impossible to imagine: there can be no resistance without dissent. Many movements have failed because they refused to see the logic inherent in the “manufacture of consent” ideology—to counter the Empire, there is no choice but to “manufacture dissent”.
Mahatma Gandhi had coined a catchy phrase to express the unity of terminological contradictions, “Not ‘Opposition’ to, but ‘Active non-cooperation’, with the British Empire”. Gandhi went on the Dandi march, Said hurled pebbles, but both these symbolic acts carried larger messages. They questioned the very premise on which their acts were thought to be illegal rather than contesting the illegality of their deeds. Perhaps this is another important difference between the approaches of dissent and resistance. Moreover, it offers a dissenter more freedom than the ones who chose to resist the Empire.
Resistance demands a price that very few can pay—the Empire simply bombs them into oblivion, be they Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hanoi, Kabul or Baghdad. The ones resisting from within—Noam Chomsky’s is the default-name that comes to mind—are even more ruthlessly appropriated. After half-a-century of resistance, Professor Chomsky suddenly finds that he has become an American icon of sorts, but not in the way he would have liked.
The Empire has transformed Noam Chomsky into a name that gives neocons the “legitimacy by negation”, the logic being that if the good old professor is against something, anything; it is that much easier to mobilise a phalanx of conservatives, neo-liberals, and all kinds of wannabes for the cause. Howsoever Chomsky may oppose the ‘War of Occupation’ in Iraq; it is funded in part from the direct and indirect taxes that he pays to the US treasury. Due to this, Chomsky is not merely tolerated; he is touted as a symbol of the independence of American academics.
The neocon cabal could never play this trick so openly with Edward Said. Despite his American citizenship, Said’s very presence was a message to the American public that their government was complicit in the injustice being perpetrated against Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, in West Asia. Said could sip a cola in Cairo without suffering the guilt pangs of contributing to the Arab war-chest of neocon cabal back in Boston, because the value of his vocal criticism of Bushism was far higher than the royalties flowing back to the United States through the transnationals’ bottles of wines served at the swank bars of capital cities of the Third World.
Washington could ignore the presiding deity of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with patronising tolerance; after all, the ‘cantankerous’ old don was one of their own. But the professor of comparative literature at Columbia was made from a different mettle. His ring echoed in far-away lands. Hence the vehemence in the vilification of Said by the mainstream media of the United States. One need not scratch too deep to find traces of biological racism below the veneer of sophistication that the Boston Brahmins wear.
Resistance may have been an option available to the concerned citizens like Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Franz Schurmann, Susan Sontag, Arthur Waskow, and Howard Zinn during the Vietnam War, but the Fall of Saigon changed that climate of confrontational scholarship forever. Now, if Arjun Appadurai, Gayatri Spivak, or Homi Bhabha so much as critique the conventional Washington wisdom—by definition conservative—they better be prepared for the alienation that comes from championing lost causes. For many others like them, the Said model of dissent is the only practical option of resisting the Empire.
The Empire of Propaganda
Once again, the propaganda model of running an empire is a concept that owes its origin to the imagination of Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky. In their book Manufacturing Consent, the authors unravel the layers of lie manufactured to conceal the truth that the media and military of the United States of America act in unison on crucial issues of war and foreign policy. However, the five “filters” that they had identified are no longer needed. These days, the media looks forward to being “embedded”. Perhaps media moguls do not have much choice when faced with the Bushy bluster of “either/or” war doctrine. No wonder, after Gulf War II, even CNN has come to stand for Centcom News Network.
In the Age of Murdoch—that is the title of a long essay in the August issue of the Atlantic Monthly—forget resistance, there is very little space left even for the voices of dissent. Relaxation in media concentration rules means that now “Rupert is the first one to have put together an Army, an Air Force, a Navy, and a Marine Corps” of the media. So Noam Chomsky may be the one who speaks most eloquently about Pentagon’s adventures and misadventures abroad, but the mainstream media in the United States is not ready to host him any more. The space for dissent is shrinking so fast that unless innovative approaches are not employed, the voice of the margins will stop getting even a perfunctory hearing.
This is where the absence of the restrained emotions and polished delivery of Edward Said will be strongly felt. You need to be a professor yourself to make sense of Appadurai, Bhabha or Spivak. Reading the pamphlets of Arundhati Roy is an emotionally draining experience—at the end of her tirade, the audience is too bewildered and exhausted to contemplate a response. Said gave the language of dissent clarity and respectability that will be difficult to match. Perhaps his mastery over music made Said craft texts of supreme coherence and clarity. Even a bad sentence can make some sense to some of the people, but a single bad note is nothing less than a catastrophe in any orchestra. In the final analysis, it is the cadence of Said’s sentences that makes his call so arresting.
Said’s waspish demeanour may have offended the true-blue Western Anglo-Saxon professionals, but his respect for “dress and address” gave him a personality that Irfan Habib and Aijaz Ahmad in their bandhgallahs and bungalows will find hard to acquire. Haute culture made Said acceptable in circles that take decisions on our behalf. It is to Said’s credit that he did not lose his moorings despite the opulence of his life. He has been quoted as exclaiming in an exasperated tone after a political debate: “I don’t understand these people! Why doesn’t anybody speak about truth and justice any more?” Naïve perhaps, but in life, as in music, one should never aspire for anything less than perfection.
Both Rule and Resistance lie in the domain of compromises. It is the destiny of a dissenter to remain in exile forever. In Said’s own words, “The exile therefore exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting not fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or a secret outcast on another”. What a delicious life, of Edward Said, the archetypal exile! He is forced by destiny to be at home everywhere, because there is only longing for a lost homeland.
Towards his end, Said had begun to imagine Palestinians and Jews living in harmony in their ancestral land. He wrote in a 1999 essay in The New York Times: “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”. Perhaps that is a lesson that Said should be remembered for in South Asia.