Grumpy Old Men


New at Reason: Fouad Ajami and the late Edward Said hated each other, but how much of their rivalry was about different styles of being an immigrant? Michael Young examines their passports.


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  1. Ajami … implies that embracing America means saying “yes.” Said, in turn, believed it meant saying “no.”

    Perfect. Michael Young got it exactly right. I speak as someone whose father, maternal grandfather, and wife came to America as fast as their feet could carry them, all three of them saying “yes” as proudly and often as possible, even before they even got here.

  2. Was Said ever a U.S. citizen? I seem to remember that at one time he was simultaneously teaching at, IIRC, Columbia, and serving as a member of the Palestinian National Congress. Acting as a legislator of a would-be state might be seen as contradictory to the oath new citizens take, with all that “foreswearing allegiances” to other powers.

    That said, I don’t agree that it should be illegal to work for a non-hostile* foreign government, as a rule. But Said’s maintaining a political presence in “the old country” is a contrast with Ajami’s attitude.


    *PNC=non-hostile? YMMV.

  3. All immigrants who succeed as Americans sooner or later turn their backs on the places from which they came. The wrenching changes required by moving to a place with such a unique culture and history can only be justified by thinking of it as something better, not just as something different.

    This has never meant that immigrants renounce everything of their native culture, religion or language, but it does mean that they see the future as lying here, not there. I have no difficulty understanding people who are exiled in America and plan to return to their own countries when conditions permit. It was never clear to me that Said was one of these; he chose to live and work in America, yet ceaselessly proclaimed a Palestinian cause that at the end of the day matters only to Palestinians. Surely whatever unhappiness or futility he found here were the products of his own choices.

  4. America is as unique as any other country. And immigrants to any new countrye, whether it is the US or not, face the same “wrenching choices.” I’ve known my fair share of Algerians who came to France who’ve faced those choices.

  5. Zathras,

    “Surely whatever unhappiness or futility he found here were the products of his own choices”

    It’s even worse than that. He actively derided those who chose to assimilate or viewed the “west” positively. As when he called V.S. Naipaul a “native informer”. He was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but frankly i reserve my sympathy for those “Others” who would like to participate in the life of the west but can’t partly because guys like Said provide a theroetical justification for their remaining separate.

  6. SM,

    Its a bit of a caricature to imply that Said hated the West; or that he argued that one must remain wholly seperate from it. Said appreciated the West, but, at least of the portions of his ouvre I’ve read, he did not look upon it uncritically. And whether we like to admit it, though West Asia has created much of its own problems, the West wasn’t always the best friend of the region either – and here I speak specifically of British and French imperialism in the region, which only exacerbated many of the negative trends there.

  7. JB,

    I am all for looking at this or that critically.
    1. You seem to think that anybody who takes issue with Said’s work can only be doing so because they cant stomach any criticism of the west. I fundementally disagree with his world-view, arrived at by way of Foucault (whose work, by the way, i quite like).
    2. As above, for someone who examined the west “critically”, he sure was thin skinned about people (Naipaul) looking at the “east” critically.
    Care to tell me why ?

  8. SM,

    (1) Well, I do think that some are of that persuasion; they have the Lynne Cheney “history as hagiography” syndrome. As to his worldview, I’d like for you to give me a definition of what you think it was, so I can compare it to my own thoughts. As to Foucault, well he is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. 🙂 I can’t recall at this point whether Foucault wrote about Said’s work; though Orientalism was published in 1978, well before Foucault’s death in 1983.

    (2) Said was likely thin-skinned about it because the mantra of the “lazy Arab” was something that he had to deal with a lot; perhaps he swung too far to the other direction.

  9. JB,

    1. Well, I disagree with his central theses that those 18nth century savants in funny hats who studied the east were engaged in some conspiratorial variety of cultural imperialism. Many of those guys, like Sir Mortimer Wheeler ( and i dont remember if Said takes on him) are fairly well respected in the countries & cultures they studied. It beem a while now – i have read only one book of his viz “Culture & Imperialism” & while the style was fascinating, the substance was less so. I absolutely could not understand how anyone could accuse Flaubert of anything more than exoticism for his romantic description of an egyptian courtesan. But Said carries on & on in this vein.

    2. Naipaul certainly didn’t do any “lazy arab” in his books.

  10. SM,

    Well, my take has always been that its not so much a conspiracy, as it is simply the way cultures treat the “other,” whether that treatment is from the West or not. I think of Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” and its use of middle eastern culture as a means to criticize his own culture as an example of this.

    As to the “lazy arab” statement, my point was not to say Naipaul had used such terminology, but that whatever prejudice Said had seen apparently corrupted his view of the world and led to excessive lumping.

  11. JB,

    Interesting article about France & contemporary french intellectuals. What do you think ?

  12. SM,

    I would argue that it is part of the same argument we’ve been having since June 18, 1940. The article states that this is the first time that establishment figures have made such criticisms, but I would argue that this is not the case. So I’ve been hearing about French decline all my life. And to a certain extent this is correct; France will never be the nation it was under Napoleon, or even after WWI – we simply lack the ability to be a world power, and there is no need for it to be frank.

    However, the problem is that what these authors appear to propose, and what they really want, is a return to French glory via the EU – which to be frank has been the Gaullist agenda all along (de Gaulle, before he gave up on Algeria, had visions when he returned to political life in 1958 of a joint European and African civilization to counter-balance the US). What these authors appear to be angered about is not so much that France is doing horribly now, but that its heights of past grandeur are not met. To be frank, those heights were always more trouble for France than they were worth and its stupid to try to repeat them (and I think they are in the end more trouble than they are worth for any country). I hope this is a reasoned enough response to you query.

  13. BTW, if anyone is looking for a book about France in English, my favorite is:

    “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French” by Jean-Benoit Nadeau, Julie Barlow (they are Canadians)

    I also find that one of the best news outlets for French news in English is:

  14. Jean Bart,

    I guess if you think Foucault the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (at the expense of Heidegger, Sarte, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, Rawls etc etc etc hell may as well throw Niezsche in there too) I guess you can believe anything at all, including that Arnold S. is an neo-Nazi. Apropos of Orientalism, I forgot to mention Keith Windschuttle’s great recent piece in the New Criterion.

  15. How anyone can refer to Foucault as the 20th century’s greatest philosopher is well beyond me. That said, Said was trashed by several of his Marx- and Foucault-worshipping contemporaries both for the holes in his underlying thesis and his numerous factual mistakes; even Le Monde panned Orientalism in 1979. From the “right” of the academy, Lewis’ thoroughgoing 1982 critique in the NY review of books deserves a gander, as does Said’s petulant rejoinder.

  16. JB, your post yesterday prompts a question: to what extent are Gaullists faithful to Gaullism?

    I ask this because de Gaulle himself was so obviously a French nationalist first. To the extent Gaullism version 1.0 was a political philosophy de Gaulle brought it into being as a response to developments in France: the disaster of 1940, the massive subsequent collaboration with the Nazis, and the painful (to de Gaulle) fact that much of the internal French resistance to the Nazis was by Frenchmen taking orders from Moscow. The idea of a wider group of nations led by France flowed from this; the idea of its being a “counter-balance to the US” could not have been more than coincidental to de Gaulle, for whom American and French vital interests (outside of the organization of Europe) rarely conflicted.

    By contrast current French policy seems driven more than anything by a pervasive though somewhat nebulous fear of American hegemony. France has traditionally dominated the making of foreign policy in the EU, but surely a genuine traditional Gaullist would see that as the Union grows ever closer and more integrated this will change, and EU policy become ever more heavily influenced by the Union’s strongest member: Germany.

    It isn’t hard to imagine what Charles de Gaulle would have thought of that. When he outlined his ideas for a united Europe to Henry Kissinger in 1969 Kissinger asked him how he proposed to keep Germany (then still divided) from dominating the Europe he had just described. De Gaulle’s response (“par le guerre”) reflected his sentiment but not his strategy, which was to rely on American power to guard against a German challenge to French leadership in Europe.

    De Gaulle placed his considerable talents as a statesman at the service of a very specific and very clear view of French interests. It is true that his view of the possibilities open to French policy tended toward optimism in a bipolar world, but to me it is arguable whether the policies being pursued by his successors deserve to be called Gaullism at all, focused as they are not on furthering French interests but on thwarting American policy. It is very difficult for me to imagine de Gaulle initiating and dragging out the futile quarrel with America over Iraq, for example.

    Any thoughts?

  17. Alex,

    Ahh, it was meant as a joke jackass. Don’t you notice the :)’s when they are put at the end of sentences? I don’t that there is “a” greatest philosopher at all; partly because the work of the aforementioned and others is so varied.

  18. Zathras,

    Well, with regard to de Gaulle challenging US policy, what comes to mind immediately is his speech in Thailand regarding US involvement in Viet Nam – he predicted that it would end up a disaster and that the US should pull out soon. As I recall this caused a boycott of French products – and so the cycle continues.

    Of course it should also be noted the heavy involvement the US had in getting de Gaulle back into power in 1958; though I am not familiar with the specifics I know the CIA played a heavy hand in it – of course he might have come to power without CIA help, given his popularity. The price of this aid was the dismemberment of Algeria from France. Anyway, I think you paint de Gaulle’s attitude toward America in far too friendly of terms – for example, the reason why he kicked US troops out of France, as well closing bases there, was due to a desire of creating a European only defense network; he was also quite willing to undermine US anti-communist efforts in Africa if said were possible, and aid the Soviets if need be – Russia will always be a nation that we will court as an ally.

    As to the business of “massive collaboration,” well, I would say that you overstate the case a bit; though Robert Paxton was right to illustrate the level of collaboration in France, he was incorrect as to its depth. You should read Jackson’s “France – The Dark Years, 1940-1944.” I myself am a historian of the period, which is the hottest field of historical research in French universities right now – it has been on the verge of displacing revolutionary studies for about five years or so.

    Now, regarding German leadership in Europe, well, that’s easy – do what France has always tried to do – keep Russia and Germany at each other’s thraots – which is why France is so desirous of incorporating Eastern Europe, and next Russia.

    Anyway, Gaullists, as I am one, are as faithful as any person can be to a political ideology. And to be frank, I do not think that Chirac, et. al. and their efforts regarding Iraq to be futile; in fact, we appear to be exactly where Chirac wanted us to be before the war broke out – with the US negotiating with the UN (meaning France, Russia and Germany) about the future political structure of Iraq.

  19. Alex,

    Its sort of funny when the petulant, such as yourself, complaint about the petulance of others. That you try to subtlely link Marx and Foucault is also rather humorous, and illustrates both your ignorance of Foucault’s dislike of Marxism, and of structuralism and post-structuralism in general.

  20. Hit n’ Run might like to post this story:

    Time running out for France’s 35-hour week

  21. Joe,

    You said –
    “Said did the same with the reificaiton of western views into the definition of eastern cultures.”

    That is strictly a matter of opinion. I think that he made it possible to deflect sensible comparisons between “east” and “west” or even just plain spoken examination of the east by aid of stylish theories & nonsense about “power relations”.

    And please – no more comparisons between Said and Einstein.

  22. You don’t think uneven power relations affact how groups of people perceive each other?

  23. btw JB, the “subtle link” b/w Marx and Foucault was so subtle even I missed it. That Said, alongside various of his sharpest critics admires both Marx and Foucault is hardly controversial. I am uninterested in Foucault’s opinions regarding Marx or anything else; relevant only considering a thread on Edward Said and Fouad Ajami has somehow become a masturbatory exposition on Gaullism.

  24. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  25. Joe,

    Probably does. But the fatal flaw in Said’s analysis of “power relations”, and those of his acolytes (even more so their case), is he pretends that history starts approximately around 1500 AD. Now I wonder what was happening in Europe vis-a vis the rest of the world starting around then. And what were “power relations” like in the world prior to this. Hmmm ….

  26. Said wrote exclusively about the modern era. What the Saxons thought about the Persians in 970 is irrelevant to the subject of British descriptions and attitudes towards Persia in the 1800s.

    The issue of power relations is not about making people feel bad. The point is, an Enghlish officer in India could get along quite well with an inaccurate, shallow understanding of Indians. An Indian during that period, however, had better well know what the English are like. Who do you think would come out on top in the case of a misunderstanding?

  27. What you are now saying is completely unexceptionable.
    Except –
    1. Said rather explicitly argues that Western scholars were (and are ?, i dont know ) engaged in some sort imperial project. And that western hegemony is partly due to this project. Disagree.
    2. For someone who “wrote exclusively about the modern era”, he made plenty of references to the islamic roots of european thought & the like. His works are predictabley littered with references to “many islams” etc. In other words, he brings up rather old hat, historically speaking, when it serves his argument. So yes, if he’s going to examine colonialism then lets get into it in a little more depth, shall we ?
    3. And finally – “What the Saxons thought about the Persians in 970 is irrelevant to the subject of British descriptions and attitudes towards Persia in the 1800s.”
    Thats’s very flip. Considering the various ethinc conflcts around the world you would think that such things are indeed relevant today. Much as we’d like them not to be.

  28. Alex,

    No more mastubatory than anything else we discuss here. 🙂

    As to Marx & Foucault, well, I often find that the unknowledgeable try to lump them together as a means to slam the latter. It tends to piss me off because it is so wrongheaded.

  29. SM – the point is not the western thinkers saw eastern people and societies as exotic. It is that they viewed that exoticism as the defining characteristic of those people and cultures. Think of the application of the word “inscrutable” to east Asians. I’m sure Japanese people were perfectly able to understand each other. Yet the common view was not that westerners have troubled understanding what they’re up to, but that being difficult to understand is a defining characteristic of Japanese people.

    Einstein got a lot wrong, too, but his genius was to create the field of relativity where it didn’t exist before, allowing others to perfect it. Said did the same with the reificaiton of western views into the definition of eastern cultures.

  30. Well, JB, the fact is that de Gaulle was right about Vietnam, even though he probably ignored the risks to America’s world position of the precipitate withdrawal he favored. He thought, as the Truman administration had thought, that the vital threats to the West were in Europe, not Southeast Asia. It rather flatters Chirac to place his long effort first to undermine sanctions against Saddam Hussein, then to block efforts to remove him, and finally to complicate postwar reconstruction in the same category as de Gaulle’s objections to the Vietnam adventure.

    Also, while I realize the point about France Germany and Russia has some historical resonance, in the present day it makes no sense. Germany, not France, will wield preponderant economic and political influence in Central Europe. Germany, not France, is the most valuable partner in all of Russia’s internal development. There is little reason for Germany and Russia to be “at each other’s throats” however much Paris might gain from this outcome, and there is little sign of any such thing happening now or in the near future.

    Gaullist France was, and continued to be under later governments, reliably anti-Communist in the vast area of West Africa, an area that therefore required little American attention. It did this not as a favor to America, but to further its own interests, of course. But this is my point about de Gaulle, and the source of the dissonance I see between his policy and that of Chirac. Chirac’s policy toward Iraq does create difficulties for the United States (and obviously for Iraq as well), but aside from winning some cheap applause in the General Assembly what does it do for France? Ironically, you know, if the Bush administration were not so focused on winning the support of rural voters in the next election it could have turned the souring of relations with France into a real crisis, by vetoing the irresponsible farm bill passed last year and siding openly with the Group of 21’s efforts to undermine the Common Agricultural Policy at Cancun last month. So to the extent Franco-American relations are not much worse it is largely because of actions taken in Washington, not Paris.

    We can take up France’s de Gaulle era status as one of Israel’s major arms suppliers and subsequent French governments’ abject appeasement of every Muslim terrorist not actually carrying out attacks within France proper another time.

  31. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/20/2004 07:48:26
    Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

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