Yesterday a friend of mine, aware of my own interests, humorously related being “informed” by a co-worker (imagine, if you will, the hushed, conspiratorial and revelatory tone of their conversation) of the close connection between President Obama and Edward Said. The nefarious (heh) Obama-Said link bubbled to the surface briefly in 2007 and 2008 as part of the right-wing's massive guilt-by-association attacks against Senator Obama, and now seems to have been resuscitated in the execrable Dinesh D'Souza's
propagandistic shit-fest film 2016: Obama's America, in which Said is listed among the President's five ideological “Founding Fathers.”
This line of attack is risible, but since when has that stopped the right wing? So, let's start by noting what we know of the association between President Obama and Edward Said, and then we can riff on the broader right-wing metanarration embodied in this attack.
As reported in David Remnick's The Bridge, Barack Obama did indeed take an undergraduate course in modern fiction at Columbia from Edward Said.
In 1998, State Senator Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were seated at a table with Edward and Mariam Said at a Chicago Arab-American community event at which Said delivered the keynote address.
And … wait for it … that's it.
Clearly, though, these two events are more than sufficient for right-wing conspiracists to flip their crazy little lids.
Edward Said !
OMFG !!1! EEEEEEEEEEEK !!1!
D'Souza's calumnies against Edward Said entertain me, though I doubt that they resonate altogether too strongly amongst the mouth-breathing attendees of 2016: Obama's America. Indeed, of the five "Founding Fathers" whom D'Souza implicates as profoundly shaping President Obama's "anti-colonialist" worldview—Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Edward Said, Roberto Unger and Jeremiah Wright—Said is equalled only by Unger in terms of general (i.e.: popular) obscurity. These are lines of attack that frankly go over the tin-foil-wrapped heads of your average sufferer of Obama Derangement Syndrome. The lack of resonance amongst most movie-goers likely accounts for D'Souza's recent posting (5 September 2012) at The Blaze entitled Edward Said: Obama's Founding Father, in which D'Souza offers a fuller explication of why his audience should regard Said as a bête noire and therefore fear President Obama.
Throughout his formative years and even later, Barack Obama sought out mentors who could teach him chapter and verse of the anti-colonial ideology. This is the “dream from his father” that Obama refers to in his own autobiography. Since the father wasn’t around–having abandoned Obama at birth–Obama sought our surrogate fathers, and together they form a group I call “Obama’s founding fathers.” This group includes the former Communist Frank Marshall Davis and the incendiary preacher Jeremiah Wright.Let's fact-check the Obama-Said association, shall we? First, D'Souza notes that "Obama studied with Said at Columbia University." OK. In David Remnick's The Bridge we are informed that Barack Obama did indeed take a class in modern fiction from Said. We're also informed that Barack Obama wasn't that impressed, if the interviewee is credible. No matter. What is important is D'Souza's rhetorical emphasis on "studied with" (as distinct from, say, "took a class from"), phrasing that overdetermines the relationship between Said and Obama as one of mentor to mentee. D'Souza is intent to represent Said in a close, personal and active rôle in Obama's education akin to that of a dissertation supervisor. The fact that Obama once took a class from Said simply doesn't justify this interpretation. Hell, I took classes (and I suspect that many of you did as well) during both my undergraduate and graduate studies with a host of professors with whom I disagreed, or to whose opinions and politics I was indifferent, yet somehow escaped their evil mentorish clutches. Nevertheless, D'Souza asserts the mentor-mentee relationship as fact, and you can bet ($10,000 anyone?) that this overdetermined interpretation is part of the right-wing shrieking for the President's school-records.
One of Obama’s founding fathers who remains relatively unknown is the Palestinian radical Edward Said. Prior to his death in 2003, Said was the leading anti-colonial thinker in the United States. Obama studied with Said at Columbia University and the two maintained a relationship over the next two decades. Obama attended a Palestinian fundraiser in Chicago in 1998 in which Said was the featured speaker, and Obama also befriended Said’s protege Rashid Khalidi, who currently occupies the Edward Said chair of Arab Studies at Columbia.
Second, D'Souza asserts that "the two maintained a relationship over the next two decades." I suppose it depends on how you choose to define "maintain," Dinesh. It is incontrovertible that then State Senator Obama and Michelle were seated at the same table as Edward and Mariam Said at the 24 May 1998 Arab-American Action Network annual banquet in Chicago, at which Said delivered the keynote address. Does it necessarily follow, as D'Souza suggests, that the (unsubstantiated) "relationship" was "maintained"? No, it does not. Yet evidence, facts and logic have never been D'Souza's strength, nor gotten in the way of one of his yarns.
While we're here, let's note as well the subtext of D'Souza's imaginative imagery of the Chicago event as "a Palestinian fundraiser." No doubt that Dinesh is following in Martin Kramer's, Stanley Kurtz' et alii conspiratorial footsteps here, inviting the reader to connect-the-dots and infer that the Obamas were active in fundraising at this event. Personally, I'd like to know whether D'Souza actually knows the subject(s) of Said's remarks that May evening. A précis of these remarks is available, though not easy to find, and my suspicion is that D'Souza hasn't bothered to read it. While Said does propose the creation of an unemployment fund for Palestinian laborers so that they need not work to put food on the table by building Israeli settlements, the event was not a fundraiser for that project. Rather, the evening coincided with the completion and release of AAAN's two-year study entitled "Meeting Community Needs: Building Community Strengths." Those pesky facts again, Dinesh.
In short, D'Souza's assertion of a profound, decades-long, mentor-mentee relationship between Barack Obama and Edward Said fails on the facts. No surprise, as that's pretty much D'Souza's schtick. The question remains, however, why is it that D'Souza feels such a compulsion to associate Obama and Said?
The simple answer is that D'Souza despises Said's 1978 publication Orientalism, a book which has fundamentally transformed the discourses of numerous academic disciplines. I won't go into detail here about the book, but will rather pose a brief summary copied from an old diary of mine, with all apologies for even attempting to reduce Said's complex thoughts in such a way and with an exhortation that you spend some time poking around the edges of this work:
Now, where Said’s treatment of Orientalism is provocative and in my opinion most powerful is in his recognition of the symbiosis among policy, science and popular public imagination, what Said denotes above as ‘the corporate institution.’ The core notions binding these three realms were: 1) the fundamental otherness or exoticism of the East, an otherness essentialized to the opposition of Eastern stasis versus Western vitality; 2) the natural and scientifically demonstrable superiority of the latter over the former; and 3) the privileged position of the Western construct of the East over actual Eastern narratives of their own cultural histories. Orientalism was in essence a Western cultural project to appropriate the East, a manifestation less of substantive knowledge of the East than of the production of knowledge to justify a will to govern the East.The reception of Orientalism set up what, for academics, is one of the great no-holds-barred-cage-matches of all time, pitting Edward Said against Bernard Lewis, two distinct and irreconcilable perspectives on the construction of Western knowledge of and power over the Middle East. Dinesh D'Souza, like Daniel Pipes and others among the cohort of right-wing "public intellectuals," remains wedded to the Lewis-model and is, like Lewis, an apologist for empire. Heck, Dinesh probably still has his knickers in a twist from being named in Said's Culture and Imperialism (2003: 321) as one of the purveyors of "the new conservative dogmatism claiming 'political correctness' as its enemy," a description which is indeed apt.
Let me boil all of this down to a single statement: we are the inheritors of a two-century project to manufacture an idea of a naturally and necessarily inferior East in order to rationalize the exercise of Western power upon the East.
It is the conflict between the views of Edward Said and Bernard Lewis that D'Souza is attempting to reference with his poorly formed and easily dismantled assertions of an Obama-Said relationship. For D'Souza, nothing can compare to the Bush-Cheney years when Lewis, the man and his ideas, dominated the court of empowered neoconservatives. I suspect, too, that D'Souza wriggled in ecstasy when Paul Ryan pronounced on 17 May 2012 that he had "read all of Bernard Lewis’ books." Yet another Ryan lie, to be sure.
Bernard Lewis was and remains the court-historian for neoconservatives on matters related to the Middle East and North Africa, and D'Souza is struggling mightily to suggest that Edward Said's writings (Said died in 2003) play the same fundamental part for President Obama. This attempt, however, fails on the facts. It is just more irrational right-wing guilt-by-association intended to reinforce the otherness—the essential un-Americanness—of Barack Obama. Moreover it is an association for which, even if true (and it's not), there should be no sense of guilt. Careful readings of both Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism would, in my opinion, benefit our policies in the Middle East.
Thanks for playing, Dinesh, your concerns have been duly noted.