The late Edward Said contributed a great deal to uncovering the techniques by which we in the West come to understand those over whom we exercise a degree of control and authority. His work, starting with the epochal study, “Orientalism,” interrogated these techniques with due seriousness, separating the representation of a people from a people themselves and asking how that representation took shape and came to dominate popular understandings. As he himself said, “…the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” In other words, while the West studied, Said ensured they would be studied in return. It was a critical intellectual move whose lasting impact will be long felt.
His work has given rise to a contentious body of theory, some of whose value I have deep reservation, but as Said himself noted, “…the value and credibility of my case can be demonstrated by being much more specific, in the way, for example, Noam Chomsky studied the instrumental connection between the Vietnam War and the notion of objective scholarship as it was applied to cover state-sponsored military research.” This fact-intensive approach, in which the very process of cultural understanding is unveiled, has been a too-often-ignored part of Said’s thought, and yet remains the true avenue to bring alive the thrust of his ideas.
Perhaps my favorite example of this in Said’s own work is his “Covering Islam,” published in 1981 and several chapters of which are dedicated to what he calls the “Iran Story” (i.e., the revolution and its aftermath in the American media). Here, Said first approached an issue that would come to dominate U.S. political discourse up to the present: how the United States comes to make sense of the Islamic Republic and its challenge to U.S. hegemony. Said’s treatment is masterful, especially considering how early in the revolution’s aftermath he was writing, both during and right after the hostage crisis. Below, I extract two related pieces from these essays, both for their insight into past and present treatment of Iran in U.S. political folklore. Their relevance to today’s predicament should, no doubt, be obvious:
“Iran as a contemporary society going through extraordinarily important change had little impact on the Western press generally; certainly Iranian history for at least the first year of the revolution was rarely allowed to appear with much integrity. Clichés, caricatures, ignorance, unqualified ethnocentrism, and inaccuracy were inordinately evident, as was an almost total subservience to the government thesis that the only things that mattered were ‘not giving in to blackmail’ and whether or not the hostages were released. Conclusions were given recklessly; a contest in progress was rashly decided by the reporter, with the result that the distinctive continuities and discontinuities of Iranian revolutionary life never emerged…
And yet fairness enjoins us to note the changes taking place in the media as the hostage crisis wore on during 1980…The embassy seizure — immoral, illegal, and outrageous, politically useful in the short run but wasteful for Iran in the long run — had quite literally forced a crisis of awareness in the United States. From being an almost forgotten, taken-for-granted colony in Asia, Iran had intermittently become an occasion for self-examination on the part of the United States. The Iran story’s very persistence, its anxious, unseemly duration, gradually had modified the media’s early single-mindedness and narrow focus into something more critical and useful. In short, the embassy seizure instituted process where there had been only static anger; in time this process acquired a history of its own, through which the media — and Americans generally — saw more of themselves than they had hitherto.”