Book Review - Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward Said


The late Edward W. Said was one of the world's greatest literary and cultural critics. This book of interviews is one of his last works. In it Said puts forth his ideas for building a secular democratic Middle East and discusses the role of culture in the struggle of oppressed peoples to attain justice and equality.

Said points out that most Americans don’t understand the role that the US plays in the Middle East (or elsewhere). Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other extremists were praised as “freedom fighters” by the US government – when they fought the Soviet Union. Now they are “terrorists” because they have turned on their masters. Said agrees they are “terrorists” – they always were. He does not approve of any terrorist program. He rejects the attitude that if you try to explain the origins of terrorism you support it or sympathize with it.

Terrorism is inexcusable. But Americans should be aware of the fact that “some of the things that powers like Britain, the United States, and France have done against lesser people, like bombing them from the air, where the bomber cannot be reached by essentially defenseless people, are also inexcusable. This is what the Israelis are doing in the West Bank and Gaza, using F-16s ... that too has the structure of terror.”

Terrorism on both sides is the resulting “binary opposition,” where no one grants any legitimacy or humanity to the other side. Complicated social and cultural situations are simplified into a good versus evil scenario, which makes real understanding and real solutions impossible. Said thinks this is ridiculous and based on pseudo-religious principles. There is no military answer to terrorism. Said quotes the Italian playwright (and Communist) Dario Fo (1997 Nobel Prize): “The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people with poverty.... Regardless of who carried out the massacre [of 9/11] this violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation.”

Said also discusses the role of culture in resistance. “In the case of a political identity that’s being threatened, culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration. Culture is a form of memory against effacement.... But there is another dimension – the power to analyze, to get past cliché and straight out-and-out lies from authority, the questioning of authority, the search for alternatives.”

Ignorance of a people’s culture, thinking arms alone can solve all problems, brings nothing but tragedy to the victims of a resurgent imperialism as well as to the aggressors. This is true both in Palestine where the Palestinians are victims of Zionist imperialism (directed ultimately from Washington), and in Iraq where the US leadership has entangled itself without any consideration for the fact that Iraq is the “cultural center of the entire Arab world and indeed of Muslim civilization.” Treating Iraq as only a backward dictatorship is par for the course of the arrogant cabal now running the US.

It is the role of progressive intellectuals to awaken the people. Said says: “I think one of the roles of the intellectual at this point is to provide a counterpoint, by storytelling, by reminders of the graphic nature of suffering, and by reminding everyone that we’re talking about people. We’re not talking about abstractions.”

There is as yet no real organized force in the US, according to Said, that can counter the rule of the imperialists. Said has no faith in the Democratic Party as an alternative to the ruling “junta.” He thinks the true power of opposition is to be found “in the university, in the church, in the labor movement, and so on. I don’t think by any means it’s something to be done by star intellectuals or people from the top. Quite the contrary.” We should note however that at the present time only the Democratic Party offers any hope of unseating the reactionary anti-democratic ultra-right Republican junta that seized power in this country in 2000. As a long range perspective Said’s view is undoubtedly correct but it cannot be used as a justification to weaken the immediate short term struggles of the people to regain their democratic rights.

The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is, Said maintains, one state because “Israeli Jews and Palestinians are irrevocably intertwined demographically.” Israel has no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state in any case. The appended map shows this demographic reality. This map, virtually suppressed in all the major US media, shows the reality on the ground and that the US and its Zionist junior partner will only allow a non-viable, splintered, Palestinian state leaving everything under the control of Israel. This is a sham peace and just as bogus as the Israelis claiming “self-defense” when they massacre civilians. Whatever the merits of this argument may be, for the present both the international community and the majority of the progressive socialist and Communist parties (as well as the Palestinian leadership) favor a two state solution to this conflict.

Said said his opponents wanted him silenced. He remarks, “Unless I die its not going to happen.”Unfortunately for the progressive movement, Said did die – but he is not silenced. His many books, articles and interviews will educate us for years to come.