September 14, 2003

A Year Ago Today: Orientalism

A year ago today I took exception to Edward Said's childlike, naive, alien, mysterious, and magical insistence that Palestinian suicide bombers committed their atrocities because Ariel Sharon had consciously set out to and succeeded in programming their minds to do so:

Orientalism: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal: Edward Said's views of the root causes of Palestinian suicide bombings: it's all an Israeli plot. Mossad has deliberately and consciously "programmed" Palestinians to be suicide bombers:

Edward Said: Punishment By Detail: ...Suicide bombing is reprehensible but it is a direct and, in my opinion, a consciously programmed result of years of abuse, powerlessness and despair. It has as little to do with the Arab or Muslim supposed propensity for violence as the man in the moon...

Is it just me, or is there something strange, alien, mysterious, and childlike about this mode of thinking--that because something bad (in this case, the suicide bombings) has happened, it must have been the result of a sophisticated plot by those extremely clever and malevolent people in Jerusalem (and Washington)?

Posted by DeLong at September 14, 2003 12:18 AM | TrackBack


I've read the article--twice--and it does not seem to me that "consciously programmed" necessarily refers to the idea of mind control. And now I am even hearing from Jewish Americans who are careful watchers of Israel that Sharon will never allow a Palestinian state, will do anything to sabotage it, and that the Mossad may be involved in some provocations. Forget that Israel sees itself defending against implacable Arab opposition from its founding. Forget that the Arabs are furious at the Western imposition of the state, where there were hardly any Jews before, say, 1880. Both sides are beyond it now, lost in cycles of retribution. They are killing each other's children, for God's sake--that should tell you that anything is possible. Edward Said may come across as a bit of an aesthete, but "mysterious" or "magical"? Now THAT is naive!

Posted by: Lee A. on September 13, 2003 10:34 PM

Edward Said is what John McWhorter calls a victimologist. Like most Arabs he believes that the Arab countries would be a sea of peace and prosperity were it not for the machinations of the Jews and the Americans. Its not too big a stretch to call this magical thinking.

That sort of thinking pervades the entire Islamic world. The great historian of Islamic civilization Bernard Lewis said it best. Seeing the wretched condition of most of that world, Muslims don't ask "What did we do wrong?" but instead ask "Who did this to us?"

What if the Arabs and other Muslims had invested half the energy they have exerted in trying to destroy Israel in striving for democracy, the rule of law, and economic development in their own countries. What if Arab governments had helped the Palestinians instead of cynically using them as pawns to divert their peoples from their own corruption and ineptitude? About half the worlds' problems could have been solved.

Posted by: Joe Willingham on September 14, 2003 12:45 AM

if you substitute the word "provoqued" for "programmed" i think said's point becomes clearer and is at least arguably reasonable, given the character and program of sharon et alia.
i think there is a residue of foucault here and provoqued/conditioned is what is meant by "programmed". sad to say, suicide bombing has become a kind of adolescent fashion and we all know how adolescents are prone to imitative behaviours. ( is it spelled " provoked"; if so, sorry.) said is not an idiot and is not prone to magical thinking, which is not a causally necessessitated outcome of melancholy desperation.
furthermore, said is of christian origin- as are about 15% of palestinian arabs- (episcopalian no less!)- and is thus not subsumable under the vast rubric of the "islamic world". to be sure, he is playing a low hand from a stacked deck, as are all palestinians. but i think what we have here is precisely a backhanded exemplification of what said means by the "orientalist" reductionism.

Posted by: john c. halasz on September 14, 2003 02:52 AM

just to add to the point about "sharon et alia", defeat is to be "burned into the consciousness" of the palestinians according to the current idf chief yigal alon. i read this about a year ago on the ha'arezt website, an excellent newspaper, judging by their cyber-print. would we had such journalism!

Posted by: john c. halasz on September 14, 2003 05:21 AM

Most conspiracy theories are pretty unimpressive, & so is this one - although Said's language was loose enough that he could argue that he wasn't really pushing the idea of a conscious plot.

Undeniably, Sharon gets political mileage out of each suicide bombing (after all it's what brought him to power), which gives him little incentive to attack the root causes of Palestinian despair. But this is not the same as saying he has deliberately planned to bring about that murderous despair.

It does suggest, though, that the oft-made Israeli claim that Arafat controls it all just doesn't make sense. Why would he help his oldest and bitterest enemy?

Posted by: derrida derider on September 14, 2003 05:47 AM

>>f you substitute the word "provoked" for "programmed" i think Said's point becomes clearer and is at least arguably reasonable, given the character and program of sharon et alia.<<

Ah. But Said didn't use "provoked": he used "programmed." The idea behind using "programmed" is to remove all trace of human agency from the suicide bombers themselves, and to put it on Sharon.

Had Said said "provoked," he would have a case and an argument. But he didn't.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on September 14, 2003 07:10 AM


"...Ariel Sharon, an outspoken proponent of “Greater Israel” was quoted as saying, “Arabs may have the oil, but we have the matches...”


From: "Greater Israel--What Does It Really Mean?"

"...Are Arabs and other Muslims really "crazy" to believe that the War on Iraq may be part of an Israeli and American "Zionist" plot to dominate the entire Middle East?..."


From: "Blood Money"; William Rivers Pitt, February 27 2003

"George W. Bush gave a speech Wednesday night before the Godfather of conservative Washington think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute. In his speech, Bush quantified his coming war with Iraq as part of a larger struggle to bring pro-western governments into power in the Middle East. Couched in hopeful language describing peace and freedom for all, the speech was in fact the closest articulation of the actual plan for Iraq that has yet been heard from the administration.

In a previous truthout article from February 21, the ideological connections between an extremist right-wing Washington think tank and the foreign policy aspirations of the Bush administration were detailed.

The Project for a New American Century, or PNAC, is a group founded in 1997 that has been agitating since its inception for a war with Iraq. PNAC was the driving force behind the drafting and passage of the Iraqi Liberation Act, a bill that painted a veneer of legality over the ultimate designs behind such a conflict. The names of every prominent PNAC member were on a letter delivered to President Clinton in 1998 which castigated him for not implementing the Act by driving troops into Baghdad.

PNAC has funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to a Hussein opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress, and to Iraq's heir-apparent, Ahmed Chalabi..."

Posted by: Mike on September 14, 2003 09:11 AM

i think those who see Said's meaning as "provoked" have the semantics right.
the central fact of Said's claim is the sucide bombers serve the interests of Israelis who want to incorporate the west bank into the Israeli future, "facts on the ground". If the bombers stopped and a real peace process began the Israelis would have to face that. Israeli actions do not give lie to this claim. Settlement activity continues to "provoke" the palestinians even as we speak. If an aggressive reversal of that policy did not have a corrollary effect on palestinian suicides then we might have a case for arab madness theories.

Posted by: Honza on September 14, 2003 09:48 AM

As I said, "provoked" leaves the moral responsibility for their response on the suicide bombers. "Programmed" moves moral responsibility to Ariel Sharon. Said is an english teacher. He knew what he was doing.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on September 14, 2003 12:08 PM

Logic seems to be turning on its head here.

Let's see. Sharon follows policies the Palestinians dislike, and their response is to help Sharon. This is because of abuse and despair etc. Thus what seems to be an utterly irrational, not to say murderous, Palestinian policy is somehow Sharon's fault.

This is bizarre enough in itself. But it also assumes implicitly that the bombings are the impulsive acts of angry individual Palestinians. Of course that's false. They are carefully planned and part of a conscious policy being carried out by Palestinian leaders. the bombers are recruited and trained, and targets are carefully chosen.

In other words, the policy is rational and carefully thought out, given the objectives of the planners. But it is impossible for Said to admit this, because it amounts to admitting that the Palestinan leaders are murderers.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov on September 14, 2003 12:23 PM

How touchily people dance around the question of whether Israel might be sometimes to blame! As if any understanding of human psychology in a situation like this would suppose it to be otherwise! As if it puts you against Israel!

Let’s flip it around, and list some major, yet curiously unexamined, premises of our policies on this whole Arab mess:

1) “They hate us because they envy us, because they are failures”-- (Bernard Lewis’ mantra, bellowed forth just after 9/11, and repeated occasionally, indeed just a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal op-eds.)

2) “If we make them fear us, they will respect us, and that will stop them”--(Perhaps last operational in medieval times? This is also Daniel Pipes explicit prescription to the Israelis for dealing with the Palestinians.)

3) “We can make a democracy in Iraq.”

4) “When we make a democracy in Iraq, that will engender change elsewhere in the region.”

And perhaps there are a few others? (Please add to the list.) Are ANY of them true? Certainly on any one of them, you could write a book. We are dealing with a post-colonial multi-country bloc wherein the ex-imperialists (and that would include us) went right back in and made deals almost indiscriminately with the chiefs and kings, to exchange guns and money--enforcing their power over the populace--for a certain lucrative commodity. It’s not over--we gave money to Karimov in Uzbekistan to be allowed to base the invasion of Afganistan, and the Washington Post reported two months ago that $70 million of it went to Karimov’s security forces who BOIL PEOPLE ALIVE. You read that right. And, well, golly, we all just turned our eyes away again! With all due respect, if I were an Arab or a Palestinian, I would not start with “What did we do wrong?” I would in fact start with “Who did this to us?”

Or is the question about the human agency of murder-suicide religious martyrdom? Here the knot cannot begin to be untangled within the current general ignorance about the “mystical path”--which is ever ongoing, but which started to lose institutional understanding in the early modern period. To make a long story short, introspection plus comparative study has affirmed to millenia of adepts that a period of despairing eschatological thoughts and feelings (also called ”hell,” “apocalypse,” “demons”) comes after the first being-change (subject-object fusion) and precipitates the second being-change (ego-extinction, leading to deiformity). It’s all interior, but it’s COMPLETELY PROJECTED ONTO the external world. For an essay on the final exam: what is the status of human agency in this situation?

And in certain periods, when there are no knowing, strong spiritual leaders to guide it through to its proper outcome, every major religion (with the exception of Buddhism?) has countenanced the transformation of these strong feelings into both martyrdom and the killing of infidels, enacting the path wrongly in the external world. That this misunderstanding fits into “events on the ground” only helps. For historical reasons, Muslims simply combine martyrdom and murder. It seems more ghastly, sure. And in the way it's countered us tactically, it's also been politically adept.

(Meanwhile in the denatured West, where “scientistic” explanations of mysticism prevail when it is not simply dismissed, we meliorate our middle-of-the-night apocalypses with Prozac, and miss the big change in another way.)

So the “human agency” of the suicide bombers is a complex story. Imputing it either to impulsive acts or conscious policy is simply wrong. Certainly some are distraught teenagers (but that is when the mystical path often surfaces). And when some have gone before, it’s perhaps easier for another to follow after. It’s been alleged by the likes of Time magazine that a few others have been drugged (although in this complex etiology, “glassy-eyed” is hardly a diagnostic indicator). Finally there can be no doubt that cynical terrorist groups are happy to recruit, cheerlead, equip and enable these people to find glory for their own vicious ends.

Will it continue? We can count on it! Will cynical types on both sides figure it into calculations? You bet! Is Edward Said foolish to take up only one side of this argument? Undoubtedly!

But unless we too get beyond our one side of the argument--in essence, that a simple policy of killing some people will cause this situation to end--someday somebody's going to walk a suitcase nuke into Tel Aviv.

Posted by: Lee A. on September 14, 2003 02:04 PM

The debate seems to be futile. On the on side we have people committed to supposedly provincial western values like freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. (I don't claim that any government always lives up to these values. I'm talking about the debate between pro-western and anti-western intellectuals.) On the other side we have the European and American left and Islamist, Ba'athist, and Palestinian fanatics who believe that vengeance for the real and alleged wrongs of western colonialism trumps all other considerations.

We had a similar debate during the Cold War between pro-western and pro-Soviet liberals.

Posted by: Joe Willingham on September 14, 2003 02:39 PM

prof. delong:
yes, "programmed" does mean "provoked/conditioned" here and the conceptual trope is of foucaultian vintage. philological nitpicking is fine by me, a valid method, but it must be accompanied by hermeneutic adequacy. in matters of political judgment, of which moral considerations are just a component part, consideration of the intrication of power and responsibility is a fundamental principal, almost a grammatical rule. yes, suicide bombings are abhorrent. i'm sure prof. said thinks so, too.
in fact, most palestinians are disturbed and sickened by them, if you believe the reporting in ha'aretz. there is no good reason to tar prof. said with them, as a stalking horse for the palestinian cause/point of view. explanation and justification are conceptually distinct operations. yes, suicide bombings are an organized tactic on the part of hamas and other rejectionists, with the twin aim of disrupting any
(inadequate?) settlement and of gaining power within the palestinian "public". in this conflict, the opposed extremists have always colluded. but, as well, it should be clear by now that sharon's principle aim is to destroy the palestinian authority and with it all prospect for a peace settlement for at least a generation.
his response to the "hudna" was simply stunning. and his model is, in fact, south african aparteheid: ha'aretz has reported that he has been
inquiring about south africa from anyone in a position to know since the early 1970's. and all israeli leaders during the olso period expanded the settlements while presuming to negociate with the palestinians, as was pointed out in ha'aretz yesterday by a peacenik columnist remarking on the 10 year anniversery of the oslo agreement. for the rest, the only thing the "al aqsa intifada" has accomplished is to decrease the ratio of israeli to palestinian corpses from 10 to 1 to 3 to 1. what is too little remarked upon is the apparent incapacity of the israelis to understand the hyperaggressive/paranoid nature of their own behavior and recognize its consequences.
i think the only thing you have managed to demonstate by your remark, is that you are attached to an abstract and unreflected concept of human agency, "free will", which allows you to self-complacently assign moral judgments which detach you from real conflicts. their are large perplexities here. "unconditional free will" only exists in the mind of kant, whereas all real human agency is fundamentally conditioned. rational discourse, from which we get our idea of the unconditional and which is a possible remedy, most take account of this. yes, this is all cold. very cold.

Posted by: john c. halasz on September 14, 2003 02:40 PM

"...But Said didn't use "provoked": he used "programmed..."

"As I said, "provoked" leaves the moral responsibility for their response on the suicide bombers. "Programmed" moves moral responsibility to Ariel Sharon. Said is an english teacher. He knew what he was doing."

Brad doesn't want to talk about (or take) moral for responsibility the 'problem' in the Middle East, he wants to talk about Edward Said and what Said said.

Brad's a 'professional Democrat' political economist. He probably thinks he knows what he's doing too.....

Posted by: Mike on September 14, 2003 03:56 PM

It isn't, I fear, only Israel that is to blame; most of Western Europe, Russia, and the USA has had a hand in this. This is what I wrote on this the last time I had something to say about it, back in April or so:
Between World War I and World War II, most borders in the region were drawn by the West and Russia, and all were drawn under Western and Russian influence. Thereafter the politics of the region was shaped by the Cold War, which was plenty hot in the Middle East, and the oil industry. I don't know much of the Cold War history, but generally the West and especially the USA allied itself with Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, while the Soviets allied themselves with Egypt and Syria. The Iraqi and Afghan governments changed and changed again as the US and the Soviets played their global chess game. Some Middle Eastern states (notably Saudi Arabia) were able to play the two superpowers against each other, parlaying their oil into real wealth, but there never was any doubt that all successes ultimately were the result of persuading foreign powers--none of the major states in the area had power independent of the superpowers.

So since the fall of the Ottoman empire to the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia), Middle Eastern history has been shaped by the West, the Russians, and the Soviet Union. Of course they feel powerless. They were powerless for three generations. The Palestinians in particular were uprooted by the Israelis and ended up on the losing side of the Cold War.

It is completely consistent with this that many Arabs have decided that peaceful methods will win them nothing and are willing to send young men and women to bitter deaths.
By the way, I think Saïd is using "programmed" in the British sense, rather than the US.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on September 14, 2003 06:27 PM

Remains that recent suicide bombings by Hamas carefully provoked by Sharon's assassinations of Hamas leaders during a hard-earned truce (on which the EU, Egypt and other had worked for months I believe) fits the hyper-zionist pro-setlers goals of this right-ultra-right government like a glove. If they could program Hamas zealots they wouldn't do any different. Perhaps just like many Hamas leaders would program Israelis to fear the two-state solution if they could.

When all is said and done and we all recognize the importance of moral responsability, it is perhaps natural to ask whether this concept of moral responsability applies to Israeli troops as well. Is it morally okay to shoot down kids because they throw stones at a tank? Is it okay to systematically risk serious collateral damage for the sake of assassinationating one Hamas leader. And is it morally cool for Israel to let settlers get away with rooting out olive trees that are the tradional livelihood of Palestian neighbours?

Lest not forget that Palestinian civilian casualties vastly outnumber those of Israel, contrary to what following media in the US would lead to believe... Don't get me wrong I am no suicide-bombing revisionist (like perhaps E. Said is) but my point is that it's not even half of the story, nor the most cruel half.

Yes, I know, gna-gna-gna, anti-semitic European, gna gna gna, moral relativism, gna gna gna, etc.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 14, 2003 06:31 PM

Oh those wicked Israelis.

Cet animal est mechant. Quand on l'attaque, il se defend.

Posted by: Joe Willingham on September 14, 2003 06:48 PM

Joe said:
Oh those wicked Israelis.
Cet animal est mechant. Quand on l'attaque, il se defend.

Why don't they get the settlers out of Palestine?

Si l'animal est dans ma cour, j'attaque pour proteger mes enfants.

Posted by: Mario on September 15, 2003 07:33 AM

What is your definition of "Palestine"?

Posted by: Joe Willingham on September 15, 2003 10:04 AM

A quizz for those who know the history of the region

Which country helped Hamas at its beginning in order to create a competitor to the PLO and weaken it?

Hint: It begins with an I and is ruled by a prime minister who is a "man of peace".

Posted by: fb on September 15, 2003 01:01 PM

The Israelis made a terrible mistake when they did that. They also made a mistake when they didn't blow away that Nazi psychopath Yassir Arafat thirty years ago.

Like the Germans in the 1930's, the Palestinians have chosen the path of evil, hatred, and destruction. Their motto is the necrophiliac cry of the Spanish fascist general Millan Astray: Long live death! It is one the great human tragedies of our time.

Posted by: Joe Willingham on September 15, 2003 11:30 PM
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