Friday 6 March 2009

I’m not an Arab - get me out of here!

Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, by Steven Salaita (Zed Books)
‘The culture wars are at base a by-product of sanctimony usurping praxis. Their primary result has been the abrogation of common points of dialogue. The uncultured wars, I hope, will enable us to eliminate platitudes about tolerance, diversity and co-existence.’ (p166)

Dedicated ‘to the unheard victims of altruism’, Steven Salaita’s new book of essays, The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought would seem a timely intervention given rising tensions in Palestine-Israeli relations and the debacle over media bias. Arguing against US liberals’ defence of Israel and the Zionist cause and decrying moralism, Salaita gives an analysis in terms of institutionalised racism, showing how it fosters domestic legitimacy for aggressive interference in the Middle East whilst underpinning the stranglehold of ‘white liberals’ on what it means to be progressive, mainstream and American. Underneath, this is a humanist argument with Enlightenment roots, though one with an interesting twist.

Salaita traces the rise of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘anti-Arab’ sentiment from the underlying assumptions and inadequacies of the traditional Culture Wars, aiming to provide a corrective to American liberalism and asking how new lines of contestation might be drawn. A figure oddly absent from these well-mannered essays is President Obama, popularly seen to have replaced the old Red/Blue divide with a newfangled politics of pragmatism. But has the bid to overcome tension over values and claim consensus ushered in a profoundly anti-ideological stance at the top, which makes space for new cultural contestations and ways of thinking about politics in American society? Salaita’s over-arching theme is not simply anti-imperialist or even anti-racist; but simply, pro-culture.

Cultured barbarians

Salaita is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, and his recent work is based around the idea that: ‘a profound anti-Arab racism in the US…inspires the dehumanisation of Arabs and reduces complex social and cultural phenomena in the Arab world to the level of irrational barbarism’ (p6). Too uncouth for the standard Culture Wars, Salaita finds himself relegated to the ‘encroaching corpus of premodernity’, more happy fighting the ‘Uncultured Wars’ for recognition on his own terms.

He says the old culture wars were based on the idea that an absence of culture is seen in the Western imagination as barbarity: so that being uncultured means being uncivilised. This concept of ‘civilisation’ and its intimate tie with culture was born in eighteenth century Britain and France, where it was juxtaposed to the barbarity of peoples elsewhere, with civilisation to be imposed through colonial aggression. Whilst its moral authority came from Christianity and ideas of moral improvement and social progress; it was just as much tied up with desire for land, resources, labour power and international dominance.

In this period, culture was ‘something that refined people travel to encounter rather than something that is lived as an unspoken realness in the minutiae of daily life’. Though perhaps what this formulation misses is the fact of shared culture amongst societies throughout that period meant there was no need to draw attention to its ‘unspoken realness’. It was only through meeting other cultures that its tacit realness became a vocal issue that allowed it to be challenged. Nevertheless, being cultured meant being conversant with an accepted body of knowledge and artworks or exemplifying certain virtues and norms: culture was firmly embedded in social life, something to pursue in order to gain social standing and influence.

Today, the idea of culture as something to aspire towards and cultivate is more often dismissed as a happily discredited bourgeois affliction – often enough to place its defenders on the ‘Right’. The aspiration bound up with old social values has otherwise slid into slipshod cynicism. But especially since the anti-establishment challenges of the 1960s and resultant changes in society, the idea of ‘culture’ as a space for political contestation and liberation has gained new purchase. Whilst the historical Left won this culture war and secured greater freedoms and equality, there are now challenges from many quarters over the liberal rot of its legacy. Some have called for a reassertion of traditional values whilst others balk at the prospect – and whilst Salaita is a little too dismissive of past victories, he also seems to want to take up the old mantle under a new guise. And this is because he - writing as an Arab American - adds a further idea, that being uncultured means, ‘to be complicit somehow in the grand topic of our age, terrorism’. Terrorists are the new barbarians and everybody else is civilised. In common with the old elitist idea, not having the right culture is enough to keeps you on the outside.

This framework takes its template from the pioneering work of Edward Said (1935-2003), the Palestine-born, American-educated intellectual who wrote Orientalism, outlining the racist failures of Western understanding about the East, in 1978. Through diagnosing the stereotype of the dirty, inferior Arab who frequents Western literature, art and academic work, Said claimed that erroneous perceptions of the Middle East had become deeply embedded in the Western imagination. Though contested for its methodology and general line of argumentation, Said’s work was incorporated into academic life in the form of postcolonial studies – and it is a shame Salaita doesn’t take up the debate over ‘cultural imperialism’ itself.

Intercultural dialogue

Ironically, it is more commonplace today for Western elites – especially in the UK and Europe – to embrace ‘other’ cultures, foster ‘intercultural dialogues’, indulge in policies of positive discrimination and become hyper-sensitive about past colonial aggression. This hasn’t brought political tensions to a head, but simply served to institutionalise and dissipate them.

Terry Eagleton writing in the Guardian last year, claimed that it is now ‘them’ who have culture whereas ‘we’ are left with the empty shell of civilisation. He claims culture has becomes the new barbarism – it is precisely because Muslims and Arabs ‘have culture’ that ‘the West’ dislikes them so much. Salaita’s ‘postcolonial binary between modernity and premodernity’ that underlies the rhetoric of cultural imperialism seems to have mushed into a free-floating postmodern approval of plurality, making defences of modernity a minority affair. In fact, by rejecting ‘corporate modernity’, debunking the petty authoritarianism of the New Atheist wave and calling for greater equality, it seems that embracing his ‘premodernity’ is what has led Salaita to a sort of humanism ultimately based in Enlightenment ideas of liberty, free speech and self-determination – and that is what puts him on the ‘outside’; not the straightforward fact of being an Arab. The question though, is how this is linked to liberalism, and how far making an anti-racist argument along these lines will go if the point is to correct it.

For instance, ‘some of the anti-Arab racism generated on the right finds its way subtly to political analyses on the left’ (p12); and further, ‘...racism cannot take root in any society without liberal acquiescence. Liberalism confounds the problem by providing its advocates with a comforting illusion that the fact of being liberal is enough to identify as anti-racist’ (p18). But surely there is more to liberalism than anti-racism, and it is because liberals hold the keys to cultural life that makes their racism such a problem, and not their liberalism per se?

Sometimes, in calling for a more balanced media that portrays ethnic minorities in positive ways, the thesis takes the idea of anti-Arab racism too seriously. For example, supposedly status-quo critical programmes like Team America: World Police, Family Guy, or South Park might go some way to challenge the idea that non-white foreigners are dirty, irrational scum; but they could also be said to secretly support the status quo (American global dominance, the superiority of couch culture and decent family values). If many programmes that take a counter-cultural posture quickly become mainstream, making them does little to challenge any perceived mainstream and more to buttress the authority of popular media in creating one. Racist jokes will be funny as long as race is a sensitive issue and dominant social category of identity (perhaps why the ‘white liberal’ is such a potent stereotype that often veils deeper problems with their ideas), and whilst less racism means more equality for everybody, reasons for the entrenched nature of racial politics and low news media standards might go beyond liberalism’s often casual racism.

Indeed, Salaita writes it is the traditional culture wars that have ‘usurped common points of dialogue’ and led to a moralism that sees leading liberal commentators advocating foreign intervention. And further, the decay of many public institutions noted in the essay entitled ‘Zealots of clandestine faith’, hints at a more participative notion of politics and public life in response:

‘all kinds of secular institutions induce political lethargy and apathy: corporate media, secondary and post-secondary education, entertainments, sports…’ (p157)

The point is that fashionable attacks on religion – or more specifically, Islam – for inducing political apathy are often wrongheaded and always disingenuous given the fact that secularism does little better. Salaita highlights the violence carried out on the part many secular states, bringing up the history of Christianity in which he points out many liberal platitudes have their history. Ripping the carpet from under the feet of many New Atheists who rally for a ‘new secular Enlightenment’, he argues that religion can’t simply be ‘switched’ with unbending and culturally defunct atheism, and points out there are positive benefits to religion when it comes to forming bonds of solidarity and a more thorough-going moral code: especially, engagement with ‘traditional Indigenous beliefs’ can result in more responsible human beings.

Interesting Indignity

‘Indigenous peoples are the ones who most ardently and consistently reject corporate modernity but who nevertheless can indirectly affect its success – and can directly affect its demise’ (p155). 

Playing with the themes of culture and shared history, Salaita argues that many living in America share similar histories in postcolonial violence which might give them similar aims in resisting dominant ideas deeply embedded in American society. In an interesting essay on ‘Perils and Profits’, he argues there are such similarities in the settlement discourse of the early Puritans that arrived in New England and the European Jews who argue for a Zionist state in Palestine. Both have been bound up with fervent ideas of the Holy Land and constructed myths of ancestral belonging to ground their claims. Co-founding a new school of thought called ‘Indigenous studies’, Salaita hopes to overcome what he sees as the problems inherent in this sort of comparative work through challenging the notion of the objective and disengaged scholar. Indigenous studies, he writes, ‘should be engaged in projects of nation-building, not as an injunctive proposition but as a moral exemplar’. Though it is surprising, given how he has pointed out the violence involved in the making of both America and Israel as nation states, that he doesn’t further point out the coercive violence involved by any state on its people. It is not the notion of national myth he challenges wholesale, but the fact America’s dominant self-perceptions are deeply aslant to reality and excluding many of its citizens. But why does reality matter so much when it comes to myth-making? – elsewhere he says this is more an argument about exclusion and inclusion being ‘self regulating’ through a fairer and more democratic media.

So if objectivity is the aim of ‘proper culture’, then Salaita aims to discredit the myth of objectivity peddled by white liberals and instead defend ‘advocacy’ – having a world-view and allowing it to shape everything you write and do. Though it sometimes seems the end point of this line of argumentation is that culture be proportionally representational. Whilst Salaita points out it would be ridiculous to have Chinese terrorists featuring in films about 9/11, he doesn’t question is why the events of 9/11 have represented such a radical breaking point in American history, culture and national self-understanding in the first place. The final sentence of the book, which claims ‘unheard children of color’ have emerged to write white people a letter, seems to buttress the same self-made liberal authority Salaita says should be challenged without compunction. It seems whilst the postcolonial binary of modernity and premodernity hasn’t been overcome, the battle lines have been redrawn. Perhaps the uncultured wars, which seem more about modernity and postmodernity can signal a way forward. Nevertheless, the question of what a genuinely progressive liberalism would look like still remains.


Terry Eagleton, Culture Conundrum, Guardian, 21 May 2008
Mark Mazower, Paved Intentions: Civilization and Imperialism, World Affairs Journal, 2008
Roger Scruton, Forgiveness and Irony, City Journal, Winter 2009
Progressive radio interview about Anti-Arab Racism with Steven Salaita

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