The Palestinians and the Roots of Decolonization

The Palestinians and the Roots of Decolonization

On November 13, 1974, Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations and spoke at length about the plight of the Palestinian people and their oppression at the hands of “colonizers”:

Our peoples are now beginning to feel that change. Along with them, the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America also feel the change. As a result, the United Nations acquires greater esteem both in our people’s view and in the view of other peoples. Our hope is thereby strengthened that the United Nations can contribute actively to the pursuit and triumph of the causes of peace, justice, freedom and independence. Our resolve to build a new world is fortified — a world free of colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism and racism in each of its instances, including zionism.

Our world aspires to peace, justice, equality and freedom. It wishes that oppressed nations, bent under the weight of imperialism, might gain their freedom and their right to self-determination. It hopes to place the relations between nations on a basis of equality, peaceful coexistence, mutual respect for each other’s internal affairs, secure national sovereignty, independence and territorial unity on the basis of justice and mutual benefit. This world resolves that the economic ties binding it together should be grounded in justice, parity and mutual interest. It aspires finally to direct its human resources against the scourge of poverty, famine, disease and natural calamity, toward the development of productive scientific and technical capabilities to enhance human wealth — all this in the hope of reducing the disparity between the developing and the developed countries. But all such aspirations cannot be realized in a world that is at present ruled over by tension, injustice, oppression, racial discrimination and exploitation, a world also threatened with unending economic disasters, war and crisis.

Great numbers of peoples, including those of Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Palestine, among many others, are still victims of oppression and violence. Their areas of the world are gripped by armed struggles provoked by imperialism and racial discrimination, both merely forms of aggression and terror. Those are instances of oppressed peoples compelled by intolerable circumstances into confrontation with such oppression. But wherever that confrontation occurs it is legitimate and just.

It is imperative that the international community should support these peoples in their struggles, in the furtherance of their rightful causes and the attainment of their right to self-determination.

He continued on for some time, repeating these same refrains: colonialism is the world’s greatest threat and most serious injustice; the West, by definition, is oppressive of and economically prejudiced against indigenous people; and Zionism is but a variety of racism.

The speech was eloquent.  It was powerful.  It blended intellect with emotion, unexpected sophistication with the more expected threat of violence.  It was an address the likes of which was unanticipated from the scruffy, unkempt desert guerilla.  It played upon sympathies and manipulated emotions.  In many ways, it shocked much of the foreign policy world and altered the way the PLO and its struggle were viewed.  In short, Arafat’s words inaugurated a decades-long reassessment of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the West and in the United States in particular.

The catch, of course, is that “Arafat’s words” were not Arafat’s at all.  They were written by and expressed the ideas of a then-obscure professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, Edward Wadie Said.  Said was a friend, confidant, and ghostwriter for Arafat for many years – right up to the moment that Arafat made nominal “peace” with Israel in 1993, a token of conciliation that the more radical Said simply could not stomach.

We have written before that it is impossible to understand the contemporary Middle East, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without first understanding Edward Said.  Today, in light of Hamas’s grotesque actions and the outrageous support for those actions throughout the West, our belief in the indispensability of Said is stronger than ever.  The Islamist historian Rashid Khalidi – who, fittingly, holds the Edward Said professorship of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia – is best known for his description of the “construction” of the “modern” Palestinian “identity.”  We would suggest that this “identity” would remain largely formless and inchoate, were it not for the efforts of Edward Said.  He, more than any single person – even more than Arafat himself – is responsible for the way in which the contemporary West views the “Palestinians” and their position in the Middle East.

Before Said, the Palestinians were revolutionaries, terrorists, murderers.  They were the people who tried to assassinate King Hussein of Jordan and succeeded in slaughtering Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics.  They were unsympathetic aggressors.

After Said, by contrast, the Palestinians were victims, a brutalized, oppressed, and subjugated people, forced to endure the yoke of colonization.

Said, you see, knew that Arafat’s biggest problem was neither political nor military.  Rather, his problem was one of perception.  Arafat understood neither post-war global dynamics nor the potency of the Americans’ intellectual aspirations and delusions.  Said knew that Arafat did not have to convince the Palestinians to wage war against Israel, and nor did he have to convince the rest of the Arab world to take up their cause.  All of that was long since accomplished.  What he had to do was play upon Americans’ general sentiment supporting “freedom” and self-determination, their naivete, and the collapse of American academia into post-realist disarray.

Enter “Orientalism,” “postcolonialism” and “decolonization.”

Said was steeped, intellectually, in both Theodor Adorno’s critical theory and Michel Foucault’s transgressive structuralism/postmodernism.  He believed deeply in the power of language to create narratives and of narratives to alter or reinforce the distribution of power.  He interpreted everything – history, literature, politics – from the perspective of the world’s “oppressed” peoples, those who had, from antiquity, been subjugated by Western intellectual and physical colonization.

Both with his magnum opus Orientalism and with its successor, The Question of Palestine, Said aligned his intellectual ambitions with what he believed were the Palestinians’ rightful political ambitions and, as a result, altered the debate and much of the sentiment in the West with respect to the “Arab question.”  In a 2005 piece for World Affairs Journal, Joshua Muravchik, an American Enterprise Institute Scholar and a fellow at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, described Said’s widespread influence as follows:

[Said] not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.

According to a 2005 search on the utility “Syllabus finder,” Said’s books were assigned as reading in eight hundred and sixty-eight courses in American colleges and universities (counting only courses whose syllabi were available online). These ranged across literary criticism, politics, anthropology, Middle East studies, and other disciplines including postcolonial studies, a field widely credited with having grown out of Said’s work. More than forty books have been published about him, including even a few critical ones, but mostly adulatory, such as The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said, published seven years after his death of leukemia in 2003. Georgetown University, UCLA, and other schools offer courses about him. A 2001 review for the Guardian called him “arguably the most influential intellectual of our time.”

There has been a great deal of metaphorical ink spilled this week over the reactions of Westerners, especially academics, to the events in Israel.  Much of it has focused on the idea of “decolonization,” and some of it is really quite good.  What is missing from the discussion, however, is an account of just how firmly embedded this idea is in American higher education and just how deeply and profoundly connected it is to the rest of the ideologically imbued intellectual structure of American academia.

It may seem like a wild and ridiculous stretch to say, for example, that ESG has the same intellectual roots as the people waving swastika pictures and chanting “from the river to the sea” in cities throughout the West, but it is nevertheless inarguably true.  As I note in the chapter on Critical Theory in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital:

Thomas Wheaton, in the conclusion of his Frankfurt School in Exile, argues that “‘The long march through the institutions’ which Rudi Dutschke and Herbert Marcuse envisioned, was accomplished, but, surprisingly, it was by invitation.”

Wheaton is correct, though one might be forgiven for questioning his surprise. This was the plan all along.

Edward Said was, inarguably, one of the most important and most destructive of both the planners and invitees noted by Wheaton.  The students and other activists running around the world demanding that Hamas “Gas the Jews” are his children, far more than anyone else’s.

This is not an issue that can be solved easily or quickly.  As we have said about the intellectual foundations of “stakeholder” capitalism, undoing this damage will take generations and will require a successful and sustained long march BACK through the institutions.

Settle in for a long ride, in short.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.