TCS Daily

Orientalism as Racism

By Lee Harris - April 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Israel is the foremost victim of the West's forgetfulness; the Arab world has been its chief beneficiary. And nothing illustrates this truth more neatly than the popularized version of Edward Said's celebrated concept of Orientalism.

Orientalism is based on the astonishing premise that it is wrong for the West to try to imagine what life is like in the East, because (guess what!) the way the West imagined the East often differed from how the East really was, thereby presenting a distorted view of the East.

But distorted by whose mirror? Did Said mean to suggest that the Arab world understood the Arab world because they were Arabs, and that however they decided to characterize themselves must be taken at face value and put beyond question? Would you turn around and do this with Americans? Would you endorse the idea that Americans alone have the right to characterize themselves, and that it is wrong for other cultures even to try to understand ours?

Yes, Westerners formed models and images and ideas about the East: it was in our nature to be curious about the ways of foreigners -- though foreigners never seemed to be the least curious about us. The Chinese didn't care to hear of our existence; the Japanese barred us from their island; some Arab travelers actually made an effort to learn about us, but that was many centuries ago.

So the West inquired into the East, and not all the answers it put forth were valid; but then not all the answers that the West has put forth to explain itself have been valid either. In which case, whose mirror is free from distortion, either the distortion brought about by lack of familiarity with a stranger's culture, or the distortion brought about by an over familiarity with your own?

Orientalism is sophistry; but one that worked quite well as an ideology, as sophistries so often do. Because the West could not see the East from the East's point of view, it could not judge the actions of Easterners by our own ethical standards.

Now there are two ways to take this. One is defensible, and it means that no one in the West has the right to interfere with the ethical standards that the Easterners chose for themselves, when they are on their own lands and around their own hearths. The other is madness, and it means that we are not permitted to judge the actions of the Easterners even when these actions are directed toward us; and even when they are clearly meant to harm us.

Does it need to be pointed out that such an ideology dehumanizes the very people whose interests it is supposed to be defending? If we exempt a group of people, like the Palestinians and the Arabs, from normal ethical demands we make on Europeans, Americans, and the Asians, are we respecting their culture, or pitying them for having such a rotten one? To say that we must apply a whole new set of ethical rules to the Arabs implies that they are not fit to be judged by ours. Furthermore, to fail even to bring our ethical standards to their attention, is to imply very strongly that they could not appreciate these standards if we did.

Thus Orientalism is racism turned to the advantage of the group that is being discriminated against. You cannot judge us the way you judge yourselves; therefore, you must lower the standards for us -- and continue to lower it until we tell you to stop.

This lowering of the standards for the Arabs has had a diabolical effect not only on the Middle East, but on the entire world order. It has allowed the Arab world to get away with murder, when the same actions by any other group of humans is greeted with horror -- an ethical asymmetry that explains the other inexplicable double standard that is applied to acts of violence committed by Israel against Palestinians, and acts of violence committed by Palestinians against Israel. The Jews know better; the poor Arabs don't.

To refuse to allow others to rise to your standard because you believe that they are inherently inferior to you is simple racism; but to refuse to demand that others rise to your standard for the same reason is also racism -- just a tad less blatant, and far more cruel.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies. He recently wrote for TCS about Criticizing America.


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