Said, Rizal, and learning from history
“Where cruelty and injustice are concerned,” wrote the great Palestinian-American thinker Edward Said, “hopelessness is submission, which I believe is immoral.”
Steeped in the Western tradition, the accomplished pianist and Ivy League-trained academic never lost touch with his roots in the Orient. Throughout much of his youth, Said was primarily a student of Western civilization and Anglo-American ideology, which often portrayed his people through the lens of prejudice and colonial experience.
“All I could do,” Said lamented, “was note it.” Many of his colleagues were “champions of the strong” who showed little interest, never mind sympathy, for the struggles of the Palestinian people.
But the continuous disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people, who went from centuries-old residents of the Levant to refugees and formally occupied peoples in the West Bank and Gaza, gradually stirred in Said’s heart a lifetime devotion to social justice. He became not only a voice for his broadly voiceless people, who even struggled to secure the “permission to narrate” their side of history, but also for the whole postcolonial world, which still lingers in the shadow of the Occident.
In many ways, Said’s heroic journey echoes that of Jose Rizal, another Western-educated polymath who, instead of succumbing to the temptations of imperial ideology, instead devoted his talent and life-energy to the historical vindication of his people.
Said’s monumental book, “Orientalism” (1978), is not only among the most cited academic works, but is also a manifesto of liberation from self-imposed mental slavery across former colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Deploying his deep familiarity with Western literature and historiography, Said meticulously exposed the stubborn and self-serving Western biases that had colored much of modern academic studies on the so-called “Orient.” He also demonstrated how we, “colored people” across former colonies, tend to see ourselves and each other through the prejudiced perspectives of former Western empires and their modern heirs in mass media and academe, which tend to depict the “Third World” nations as passive, indolent, and decadent children of history who lack full subjectivity.
Said would transform from a philosopher-critic of the “orientalist” biases embedded in Western institutions of power to a brave, selfless advocate for the rights of his fellow Palestinian people. In the twilight decades of the 20th century, he was not just a celebrity professor in New York’s Columbia University; Said was also actively involved in the thorny and deeply frustrating negotiations to bring a just peace to the Israel-Palestine conflict, painfully captured in his book “The Question of Palestine” (1979).
For instance, Said indirectly contributed to the emergence of the so-called Oslo Accords, which advocated a “two-state solution” and reaffirmed the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination” based on relevant international regimes, namely the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
But the devil was in the details of the final agreement, which fell short of Palestinian demands for full and sincere recognition of their historic rights and collective dignity. No wonder then that Said emerged as the chief critic of what he described as the “Palestinian Versailles,” a historical reference to the punitive and ultimately doomed peace negotiations following the end of World War I in Europe.
Beyond his critique of realpolitik diplomacy, Said became an eloquent and charismatic voice for his people, inspiring a whole generation of writers, thinkers, and activists to assert and narrate the history of the Palestinian people against all odds. Thanks to activist-scholars like him, the world has now developed a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of the profound suffering and unspeakable injustice at the heart of the latest outbreak of tragic violence in the Middle East.
A century earlier, Rizal played a similar role for our country, drawing on Western canons such as Antonio de Morga’s descriptions of precolonial Philippines to build a credible narrative of national dignity and collective consciousness for the Filipino people.
Both Said and Rizal, two celebrated thinkers in the metropoles of their times, realized the value of historical consciousness and accordingly ended mental slavery among their colonized peoples. And yet, it seems the still-occupied brethren of Said have a deeper sense of national history than the ostensibly sovereign heirs of Rizal.
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