Essay, Research Paper: Orientalism

Politics

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Said describes Orientalism as, “...the generic term that I have been employing
to describe the Western approach to the Orient; Orientalism is the discipline by
which the Orient was (and is) approached systematically, as a topic of learning,
discovery and practice”. By this, Said is saying because we treated the East
like a school subject, we have learned to treat the East as an inferior. Which
has developed into something called Orientalism. The poets, authors and
statesmen of the nineteenth-century have made Orientalism every thing that it
is. They started out with the intent of learning about a civilization of people
that was extremely different from ours. Their intentions were academic and
nothing more really. Unfortunately, their almost unconscious prejudices and
fears of the unknown, led to the slow cultural and then political domination of
the place referred to as the Orient. I agree with Said on the matter of
knowledge leading to slow domination, but I think he needs to be much clearer on
the fact that it was arrived at with good intentions. Our predecessors wanted to
understand, unfortunately there were much too eager, and presumptuous. In 1798,
Napoleon invaded down through Syria. Although this was one of the first attempts
to invade the Orient, two people were ahead of him. Both were scholars from
Europe, Antiquetil-Duperron and Abraham-Hyacinthe. These men gave the first
images of language, text and civilization to Europe. The started the fascination
with the Orient, and Napoleon’s urge to dominate it. Out of his failed plan to
take over Egypt, came more people who wrote about the Orient without
experiencing it. Said called these authors “textual children”. Said also
goes on to describe the “textual attitude”; this mindset believes everything
you read. In this case reading about places, and the generalizations made, and
believing these simplifications of a rather complex area, to be the concrete
truth. This is an attitude, which I personally believe exists. It is apparent in
the Western world because an education is such a commonly valued, and widely
available institution. A common phenonmenon has developed in the West, using our
education as a barometer to measure our merit based on how much knowledge we can
cram, and regurgitate. Although that phenomenon doesn’t have a name, it’s
by-product would be the textual attitude. Said reasons that the textual attitude
comes from feeling threatened by the unknown, and formerly unattainable. With
this I would have to agree. So many times in history, whenever the Europeans or
even Americans, are threatened with change, or unfamiliraity we seek to dominate
it. For example our first colonist landed in the United States because our
freedome was being threatened by the Eurpeans, who were trying to control our
beliefs. We, then take over the native’s land, the native himself, and proceed
to oppress the Africans because they are different than us. Hitler oppressed the
Jews, and other cultures because they were different than him, and the United
States denies Communist countries because they choose to follow a different
style of governing. By the look of history, we are afraid of what is different,
Said argues that we battle our fear, with the ability to describe anything in
text. “The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can
always be described by a book, so much so that the book acquires a greater
authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.” To be evenhanded,
we must also recognize the textual attitude as a generalization, and because of
that it retains much less value. To be giving one culture stereotypes because of
the stereotype it has given another culture, is the same as two wrongs don’t
make a right. Of course Said has another theory on the textual attitude. He
argues that the thinking that books are always extremely accurate also comes
from trial and error. He stated that if a book on lions and how they are fierce
is read, and then the reader encounters a fierce lion, not only is the author
believed, but encouraged to write more, and in turn will be read more widely.
Edward W. Said’s theory is a profound one: “books on fierce lions will do
until lions can talk”. As the world expanded, so did the practices of
colonialism, and imperialism. Kipling’s poem about White Men “cleaning up”
a land, it also states that without freedom, war will be the consequence. Said
picked a wonderful poem to illustrate the Western man’s feeling of
superiority. He feels that he is responsible for all men. Kipling also implies
that the White Men will battle for their freedom, “freedom for our sons/And,
failing freedom, War”. This is when I ask myself; How and where did the
definition of freedom evolve into such a negative meaning? It is obvious that
too much power and freedom has left the author of this poem with the idea that
stealing freedom from one make you more free. Said does not mention that
attribute, but he does make the connection to Darwinism and natural selection.
“There was a general agreement too that, according to a strangely transformed
variety of Darwinism sanctioned by Darwin himself, the modern Orientals were
degraded remnants of a former greatness…” The strong will thrive, while the
weak will struggle. I would add to that by saying that our culture tends to
expedite that process, whether subconsciously or not, the history shows that we
have followed the “might equals right” theory. Our non-discretional use of
weapons and force, and our oppressive nature is what Said says has lead to the
West’s sustaining the Orientalist nature. Our culture has grown exponentially
more violent and powerful, the East has remained focused on religion and living
life accordingly. This has allowed the continuous oppression of Orientalist
views. I think Said could have been slightly more careful when it came to
generalizing about the West. It does not take very long to figure out what side
he is on, he does to almost seem to place blame. It begins to get touchy when
explaining something such as this prolonged ethnocentrism. It is easy to start
out explaining and end up blaming. I think it is important to recognize the fact
that when Orientalism started it was an attempt to understand. Born from that
was fear, and the fear was out of control. Fortunately now that we recognize
this fear, it can hopefully be addressed with the same analytical and scholarly
mindset that was applied in a negative way to the East originally hundreds of
years ago. About thirty years ago Princeton University was planning a reunion.
Said paints a vivid picture when he uses the Princeton reunion costume plans
(Arabian robes, headgear, and sandals). Ultimately the class did not wear these
costumes, but the insult was still there. “This is what the Arab had become.
From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted
caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was the scope
given to the Arab.” He goes on to say that images just got progressively
worse… “Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump
turned up consistently…their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer
on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population)
that ‘Semites’ were at the bottom of ‘our’ troubles, which in this case
was a gasoline shortage”. In television and cinema, Arabs are disgraced
also…Said infers that it has much to do with the oil boycott of 1973-1974,
most people do not realize how much the boycott benefited western oil powers.
“He (the Arab) appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of
cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low…Most of
these pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly
eccentric) gestures…a fear that Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the
world”. Said writes that Orientalism can be found in present day Western
deifications of the area referred to as the Orient. I do see that everywhere,
sadly along with many other cultures that we have either destroyed or
controlled. It appears that the western culture has trusted in subduing other
humans, in order to prosper. It is extremely disheartening to see the country
that you have been taught (falsely) that your country is one based upon
fundamental freedom, and equality, and the ingenuity of it’s forefathers. At
the occurrence of comprehending you have been lied to by Mother culture, you
understand that forefathers were not much more than greedy, sanctimonious
animals. Who built this country on the bones of the slain, while their culture,
now referred to as artifacts, sit in a European, or American museum. Said
writes: “For every Orientalist, quite literally, there is a support system of
staggering power…To write about the Arab Oriental world, therefore, is to
write with the authority of a nation…One would find this kind of procedure
less objectionable as political propaganda—which is what it is, of
course—were it not accompanied by sermon on the objectivity, the fairness, the
impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and
Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists…writing about Muslims are, by
definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westerness. This is the
culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter
but also blinds its practitioners”. Not many things in this world compares to
the weight of such knowledge. The occurrence of such ideologies and policies
against the East from the West has deterred the development of a fundamental
reverence between the two. It has infringed on the rights of the people of the
East, and has deprived the West from knowing the true benefits of recognizing
various cultures. My generation has been exposed to many new technologies, and
has seen great progression in the political world. Although Said makes a very
good argument in every aspect on how Orientalism developed and matured, I do
believe he takes a fatalist perspective. Considering how much times are
changing. I theorize that years from now we can correct the mistake of the past,
with plans of a harmonious future. Education, used properly and unbiased, is the
key to many of this worlds unpleasant situations. Equality is the goal for the
future.
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