Had leukemia not stolen him from us fifteen years ago, one could feasibly presume that, were he still alive today, Edward Said would have had a field day with the people still being passed off as “intellectuals” in the West.
Said provides us many visions of what the intellectual should be in Representations, a slim but powerful volume- originally delivered orally for a televised BBC lecture before later being condensed into book form- which probes the role and responsibility of thinking in a world ripe with injustice.
Said, a Palestinian writer, critic and literary theorist whose works illuminated the gaps between Eastern and Western cultures, dedicated his life with a singular devotion to the defense of the oppressed Palestinian people. He wrote books on the history of Palestinian expulsion, spoke and lectured on the beleaguered people’s behalf, and used his powers as a writer and historian to cast light towards oceans of suffering which, in many cases, would have remained otherwise hidden in darkness.
But in his willingness to challenge power on behalf of the weak, Said was a minority in both the historical and present sense.
To the contrary, one of histories’ greatest ironies is that those who most visibly wave the flag of “speaking truth to power” often mouth the most obsequious platitudes in support of it. The same figures who, today, find their way into mainstream news networks and nationally syndicated op-eds- Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Peter Beinart, Charles Krauthammer, Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Max Boot– often are the very ones who, wielding sugar-coated language praised for its “objectivity” and “impartiality,” have condoned atrocities ranging from Vietnam to Latin America to the Middle East, from the invasion of Iraq to the bombing of Libya to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The list of prominent literary figures who’ve used their pedestals to publicly sanction and celebrate some of this century’s bloodiest exercises of state power is depressingly long.
From the first few pages of the book, Said doesn’t hide what he believes to be the responsibility of the intellectual:
To Said, a figure who upholds the intellectual vocation with integrity is a gadfly in the most annoying and unpleasant Socratic sense. To such irrational people- who are generally hated in their own times and only lionized long after their deaths (i.e. MLK, James Baldwin)- any form of thought cannot be completely cordoned off from the lived experience of society, and because of this knowledge they feel a certain responsibility to use, in at least some capacity, the power of their eloquence, their knowledge, or their analytical predispositions to challenge society’s orthodoxies (especially those of their own society) and stand on the side of the weak and the outcasted, the powerless and the oppressed. Anything less means merely being a sophist, someone who is contented to sell their skills to the highest bidder and adjust their beliefs as such.
“The central fact for me,” he writes, “…is that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”
He believes that an intellectual- whether they be a writer, an artist, a musician or poet or historian- is bequeathed with the responsibility of asking those hard and unpleasant questions which others are too afraid to publicly confront.
“The whole point,” Said notes tartly, “is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”
Said, who asides from his career as an essayist and activist was for many decades a teacher of American literature, uses novels as much as history as a means of illustrating the role of the intellect in society. As he writes early on: “It is in modern public life seen as a novel or drama and not as a business or as the raw material for a sociological monograph that we can most readily see and understand how it is that intellectuals are representative, not just of some subterranean or large social movement, but of a quite peculiar, even abrasive style of life and social performance that is uniquely theirs.”
Thus using the models of characters from canonical novels, Said paints us a picture of the intellectual as a character who’s forever alienated, never fully adjusted to the society in which he finds himself, and whose presence is impossible to incorporate into a societies dominant cultural narrative- precisely because he so vigorously questions and challenges those narratives in the first place.
We see this in Bazarov, the hero of Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev’s famous novel of 1860’s Russia, whose rebellious iconoclasm results from a fierce existential self-questioning, one which places him squarely at odds with the majority of people around him.
A young college educated man, he returns with a friend to the conservative world of the Russian countryside after having been transformed by the scientific, rational and materialist literature he immersed himself in at the university. Almost instantly, it becomes clear to the reader that his restless and irascible intellect are incompatible with the ossified and dogmatic religious world back home.
His wild intellect and furious rants, savaging religion and expounding rationalism, intimidate and perplex the piously religious peasantry he frequents. A simple woman who is attracted to him is simultaneously terrified, because “to her, his untrammeled, often anarchical intellectual energy also suggests chaos. Being with him, she says at one point, is like teetering at the edge of an abyss.” His challenges to the presumptions and norms of the society around him are so aggressive that he appears like a lightning strike, disappearing with the same sudden fury and speed by which he originally came.
“He appears,” Said writes, “he challenges, and just as abruptly, he dies, infected by a sick peasant whom he had been treating. What we remember of Bazarov is the sheer unremitting force of his quest and deeply confrontational intellect.”
Like the awful, awe-inducing meteorological phenomena that were witnessed by wide-eyed, terrified humans since time immemorial- lighting, hurricanes, tornados- but whose invisible logic were deciphered by science only relatively recently, intellectual figures such as Bazarov appear only briefly, perplexing us with the strange awesomeness of their presence, and if they are ever at all understood it is usually only many years later. They may fascinate or intimidate or intrigue or repulse us, but they nearly always, as it so happens, remain incomprehensible to the majority of people during their own times.
Said takes James Joyce’s classic A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as yet a further starting point by which to understand the intellectual in relation to society. The novel’s hero is Stephen Dedalus, an aspiring Irish writer whose self-proclaimed raison d’etre is to follow the old Luciferian motto non serviam– to serve no one save his own conscience: a philosophy befitting to a man on a quest for personal and artistic integrity. In the way of course are the entrenched cultural norms of the deeply Catholic Irish society from which Dedalus emerges and ultimately desires to escape. He is “a young provincial, the product of a colonial environment, he must develop a resistant intellectual consciousness before he can become an artist.”
True intellectuals are, to Said, forever doomed to exile.
Yet in the same way a mountain range is only perceived in its totality when one climbs to its highest peak- where one inevitably fields loneliness, the cold, and risk to one’s well being, including the possibility of death- so does exile, in the literal and metaphysical sense, provide us a platform whose distance allows us to understand our societies in their truest light. Only when we are cast out from the crowd can we understand what that crowd truly is.
By becoming exiles, we are forced to see the world in a different light that will place us at odds with others, thus giving us the responsibility to similarly agitate against the beliefs and perceptions of others.
“Exile for the intellectual in this metaphysical sense is restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others,” Said writes.
Reading through these passages on exile, I was struck continually by the story of Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya was a Russian writer and human rights activist who dedicated her life to exposing the crimes of her own government, especially its brutal invasion of Chechnya and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaign waged by its military in the snowbound Caucasus mountains. She spent many years reporting as a journalist from the wars frontlines, using her writing to amplify the voices of those oppressed in the Russian occupation’s bloody abattoir.
She was not appreciated by her compatriots in her own lifetime, facing regular accusations of being “anti-Russian,” of collusion with Islamist rebels, and of being idealistic to a point of dangerous naiveté. (Eerie comparisons can be made here with the American journalists who, in reporting on US atrocities ranging from Vietnam to Latin America to the Middle East, are regularly, oftentimes viciously, censured for their “anti-Americanism”). The isolation resulting from her writings and activism mounted to such a point that, despite being a native born Russian- who’s goal was to defend oppressed Russians and inform the Russian populace- she’d become an exile within Russia itself.
Only years later, when she was assassinated in 2006, was the true depth of her role entirely recognized. “People like Anna are rare,” one man said in a documentary later chronicling her life. “In life, people are angry with them. But when they die, we realize that they are our conscience.”
Becoming a conscience, alas, requires a harsh self-examination of the unspoken presumptions and prejudices that society slowly ingrains in us from the moment we’re born. Then and only then can we replace old ways of thinking with a new, more humane and just ones. But to do so one must square up to the unwavering reality of exile which will inevitably become ones cosmic due, and accepting that sentence of exile with equanimity, even joy.
Said is quick to emphasize that intellectual exile can, if approached with the right mindset, be a form of liberation:
“… (An advantage to being an intellectual exile) is that you tend to see things not simply as they are, but as they have come to be that way. Look at situations as contingent, not as inevitable, look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by human beings, and not as natural or God-given, therefore unchangeable, permanent, irreversible.”
He goes further:
“If you can experience that fate not as a deprivation and as something to be bewailed, but as a sort of freedom, a process of discovery in which you do things according to your own pattern, as various interests seize your attention, and as the particular goal you set yourself dictates: that is a unique pleasure.”
Thus, one does not have to literally be ejected from one’s home country to voluntarily adopt the exilic mindset, allowing us to see ourselves and our societies with clear and open eyes. As Said writes: “The exilic intellectual does not respond to the logic of the conventional but to the audacity of daring, and to representing change, to moving on, not standing still.”
In a poignant case study, Said relates us the story of Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist, writer, and political activist, and his first forays into realm politics during the mid-1960’s, when it was becoming clear that to remain silent about the deepening war in Vietnam was tantamount to being complicit in its crimes.
Already estranged from scholastic establishment thanks to the controversial linguistic breakthroughs that came with his 1957 publication of Syntactic Structures, Chomsky had nonetheless been bequeathed the privilege of a stable life: he had prestigious academic tenure at MIT, a growing family and a prosperous household. Though he’d long harbored deep political predispositions, he’d never allowed them to penetrate into his public life.
When he realized that remaining silent on growing American atrocities in Vietnam was a morally untenable position, however, he threw himself into the work of activism, writing articles, giving speeches, participating in marches and televised debates, refusing to pay taxes and ultimately penning a book about US foreign policy, American Power and the New Mandarins, now regarded as a seminal work on the subject. But to say the establishment received his book warmly in his own time would be a grave understatement.
For his efforts, Chomsky faced the possibility of jail time and, it later turned out, was put high on the list of Nixon’s notorious “Enemy’s List.”
“It was a very conscious, and a very uncomfortable decision,” he later remarked in an interview, “because I knew what the consequences would be… Everything looked perfect, and I knew I was giving it up. I expected to spend many years in jail, and I came very close to it.”
In his now-classic essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Chomsky writes with a characteristic simplicity that “the responsibility of intellectuals is to speak the truth and to expose lies.”
In the essay, he points out that a line is often drawn “between ‘responsible criticism,’ on the one hand, and ‘sentimental’ or ‘emotional’ or ‘hysterical’ criticism, on the other.”
Responsible critics provide unthreatening, uncontroversial views defined by a sense of false equivalency- which is seen as a hallmark of someone’s “fair-mindedness”- and an unwillingness to appear too heavily critical of one’s own government. Hysterical critics are identified as those who allow their emotions to seep into their judgments, and who become too heavily critical of their own governments.
It is of course the “responsible critics” who, through the passive regurgitation of government lies in an effort to seem “neutral,” often end up condoning some of the bloodiest injustices and atrocities. And it is the “hysterical critics”- those who dared to allow their emotions and sense of injustice to influence their thought- who are usually borne by history as the most cogent and clear-sighted thinkers in their own times.
Towards the end of his volume Said takes on a prickly phenomenon which, in recent decades, has been wielded as evidence to discredit intellectual dissidence, especially when it is articulated by those who criticize state and corporate power: contrarian writers, such as Christopher Hitchens or David Horowitz, who after a life in radical politics experienced ideological whiplash in middle to old age, renouncing their former revolutionary beliefs in exchange for reactionary and conservative worldviews. In a strange but perhaps not unsurprising turn of events, these same radical Trotskyists who were agitating for Marxist revolution against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1960s would by the 1990s be singing the praises of corporate Western power as some of the worlds leading neoconservatives.
In the early 2000s, intellectual figures such as these hawked the Iraq War (an act of aggression, one mustn’t forget, which was rooted in deliberate government deceit and which resulted in the deaths of up to a million people). They were notoriously potent in defusing the cannonades of criticisms over the war, particularly from the Left, because they could claim they had “seen the other side,” and that, thanks their previous membership in the old anti-war movements, they could verify accusations of hypocrisy then being leveled against the newest one.
Said diagnoses these figures as those who need an intellectual God, which are, he writes in the titular chapter, “the Gods that always fail.”
For these figures, the “God” is always interchangeable: whether it is Marx or Friedman or Jesus or Muhammad is, in the end, of negligible importance. What defines them is their pathological need to constantly identify themselves with a specific intellectual movement, guru, or thought system- subsequently defending their God with overblown Manichaean rhetoric- and by their opportunistic tendency to “jump ship” or “change sides” as the tides of history inevitably shift.
Said shares the story of several Middle Eastern friends who continually shifted allegiances as different “Gods” rose and fell with the evolution of the late 20th century, revealing an unsettling absence of their own independent thought:
“… They had once been militant Marxists, often Trotskyists, and supporters of the Palestinian movement. After the Iranian Revolution some had become Islamists. As the gods fled or were driven away, these intellectuals went mute, despite some calculated probing here and there as they searched for new gods to serve. One of them in particular, a man who had once been a loyal Trotskyist, later abandoned the Left and turned, as many other did, to the Gulf… He re-presented himself just before the Gulf crisis, and became an impassioned critic of one Arab regime in particular.”
In the West, the clearest and most recent iteration of the phenomenon was men like Hitchens and Horowitz, who, as the global ideological struggle was thought to be ending in 1990 and the “End of History” was being triumphantly announced, opportunistically decided it was time for a change of heart, one which, coincidentally, would place them on history’s winning team.
These people who most readily “jump ship” and “change sides” when socially or politically expedient are also, coincidentally, the most predisposed to use aggressive and arrogant rhetoric in the defense their beliefs and attacking of others. For those keen on regularly switching their Gods, the world is seen in black-and-white pastiche and nuance is suffocated beneath overblown waves of Manichean rhetoric.
Said notes that in the vitriolic atmosphere produced by 9/11, “the hardest thing to do as an intellectual is to be critical, to refuse to adopt a rhetorical style that is the verbal equivalent of carpet-bombing, and to focus instead on those issues like U.S. support for unpopular client regimes, which for a person writing in the U.S. are somewhat more likely to be affected by critical discussion.”
It was a rather seamless transition for the men who once savaged the fascist imperialism of the United States to suddenly begin savaging the barbaric “Islamofascism” of the morally-twisted Arabs, because in both cases they nonetheless saw the world as a black-and-white arena in which one had to pick sides and scream as loud as they could. The sides changed, but the rhetoric didn’t.
The choice to remain intellectually autonomous in the face of patronizing ideologies and authority, Said reminds us, is a choice that is ultimately left up to us: “… the only way of ever achieving it is to keep remind yourself that as an intellectual you are the one who can choose between actively representing the truth to the best of your ability and passively allowing a patron or authority to direct you. For the secular intellectual, those gods always fail.”
The image of Martin Luther King most remembered today is that of the preacher in sepia film who fought for and helped obtain civil rights for African Americans. But moreover, King was an intellectual figure, who repeatedly delineated in his speeches and writings the metamorphosis’ that America must undergo if it wished to become a more just society. When he was attacked late in his life by his fellow clergy and black leaders for lashing out at Capitalism and the Vietnam War, for calling for a moral revolution- all of which made him “too radical” in their eyes- he responded: “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the Kingdom of Truth.”
In a passage eerily redolent of King’s statement, Said lays waste to the mediocre modern punditocracy, all those spineless TV show hosts and newspaper editorialists who, in refusing to criticize bastions of power- the corporate state, the surveillance state- forgo a love for truth and justice to maintain proximity to power and prestige:
“Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.”
Scorn for the powerful in the defense of the weak anchors Said’s powerful little book. The intellectual is vested with a responsibility that can’t be wasted. As he writes, the intellectual “(must be) someone whose place it is to publicly raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”
To be an intellectual of that caliber is not easy. It won’t make us popular. And it most certainly won’t win us power and prestige.
But striving to be such a person could in the end help us- if anything else- to become good human beings. And that in itself is an end worth striving towards.