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An Unacceptabe Helplessness by Edward Said  Ravi Khanna
 Jan 20, 2003 09:25 PST 
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An Unacceptable Helplessness
Edward Said
Al-Ahram Weekly online
http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/
16 - 22 January 2003
Issue No. 621

Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? Edward Said urges an Arab alternative to the wreckage that is about to engulf our world One opens The New York Times on a daily basis to read the most recent article about the preparations for war that are taking place in the United States. Another battalion, one more set of aircraft carriers and cruisers, an ever-increasing number of aircraft, new contingents of officers are being moved to the Persian Gulf area. 62,000 more soldiers were transferred to the Gulf last weekend. An enormous, deliberately intimidating force is being built up by America overseas, while inside the country, economic and social bad news multiply with a joint relentlessness. The huge capitalist machine seems to be faltering, even as it grinds down the vast majority of citizens.

Nonetheless, George Bush proposes another large tax cut for the one per cent of the population that is comparatively rich. The public education system is in a major crisis, and health insurance for 50 million Americans simply does not exist. Israel asks for 15 billion dollars in additional loan guarantees and military aid. And the unemployment rates in the US mount inexorably, as more jobs are lost every day.

Nevertheless, preparations for an unimaginably costly war continue and continue without either public approval or dramatically noticeable disapproval. A generalised indifference (which may conceal great over-all fear, ignorance and apprehension) has greeted the administration's war-mongering and its strangely ineffective response to the challenge forced on it recently by North Korea. In the case of Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction to speak of, the US plans a war; in the case of North Korea, it offers that country economic and energy aid. What a humiliating difference between contempt for the Arabs and respect for North Korea, an equally grim, and cruel dictatorship.

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the situation appears more peculiar. For
almost a year American politicians, regional experts, administration officials, journalists have repeated the charges that have become standard fare so far as Islam and the Arabs are concerned. Most of this chorus pre-dates 11 September, as I have shown in my books Orientalism and Covering Islam. To today's practically unanimous chorus has been added the authority of the United Nation's Human Development Report on the Arab world which certified that Arabs dramatically lag behind the rest of the world in democracy, knowledge, and women's rights. Everyone says (with some justification, of course) that Islam needs reform and that the Arab educational system is a disaster, in effect, a school for religious fanatics and suicide bombers funded not just by crazy imams and their wealthy followers (like Osama Bin Laden) but also by governments who are supposed allies of the United States. The only "good" Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying modern Arab culture and society without reservation. I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about themselves or their people and language, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas already flooding the airwaves and pages of print. We lack democracy, they say, we haven't challenged Islam enough, we need to do more about driving away the specter of Arab nationalism and the credo of Arab unity. That is all discredited, ideological rubbish. Only what we, and our American instructors, say about the Arabs and Islam -- vague re- cycled Orientalist clichés of the kind repeated by a tireless mediocrity like Bernard Lewis -- is true. The rest isn't realistic or pragmatic enough. "We" need to join modernity, modernity in effect being Western, globalised, free- marketed, democratic -- whatever those words might be taken to mean. (If I had the time, there would be an essay to be written about the prose style of people like Ajami, Gerges, Makiya, Talhami, Fandy et. al., academics whose very language reeks of subservience, inauthenticity and a hopelessly stilted mimicry that has been thrust upon them).

The clash of civilisations that George Bush and his minions are trying to fabricate as a cover for a preemptive oil and hegemony war against Iraq is supposed to result in a triumph of democratic nation-building, regime change and forcible modernisation à l'américaine. Never mind the bombs and the ravages of the sanctions which are unmentioned. This will be a purifying war whose goal is to throw out Saddam and his men and replace them with a re-drawn map of the whole region. New Sykes Picot. New Balfour. New Wilsonian 14 points. New world altogether. Iraqis, we are told by the Iraqi dissidents, will welcome their liberation, and perhaps forget entirely about their past sufferings. Perhaps.

Meanwhile, the soul-and-body destroying situation in Palestine worsens all the time. There seems no force capable of stopping Sharon and Mofaz, who bellow their defiance to the whole world. We forbid, we punish, we ban, we break, we destroy. The torrent of unbroken violence against an entire people continues. As I write these lines, I am sent an announcement that the entire village of Al-Daba' in the Qalqilya area of the West Bank is about to be wiped out by 60- ton American-made Israeli bulldozers: 250 Palestinians will lose their 42 houses, 700 dunums of agricultural land, a mosque, and an elementary school for 132 children. The United Nations stands by, looking on as its resolutions are flouted on an hourly basis. Typically, alas, George Bush identifies with Sharon, not with the 16-year-old Palestinian kid who is used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority offers a return to peacemaking, and presumably, to Oslo. Having been burned for 10 years the first time, Arafat seems inexplicably to want to have another go at it. His faithful lieutenants make declarations and write opinion pieces for the press, suggesting their willingness to accept anything, more or less. Remarkably though, the great mass of this heroic people seems willing to go on, without peace and without respite, bleeding, going hungry, dying day by day. They have too much dignity and confidence in the justice of their cause to submit shamefully to Israel, as their leaders have done. What could be more discouraging for the average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than to see his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?

In this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the utter passivity and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole. The American government and its servants issue statement after statement of purpose, they move troops and material, they transport tanks and destroyers, but the Arabs individually and collectively can barely muster a bland refusal (at most they say, no, you cannot use military bases in our territory) only to reverse themselves a few days later.

Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness? The largest power in history is about to launch and is unremittingly reiterating its intention to launch a war against a sovereign Arab country now ruled by a dreadful regime, a war the clear purpose of which is not only to destroy the Baathi regime but to re-design the entire region. The Pentagon has made no secret that its plans are to re-draw the map of the whole Arab world, perhaps changing other regimes and many borders in the process. No one can be shielded from the cataclysm when it comes (if it comes, which is not yet a complete certainty). And yet, there is only long silence followed by a few vague bleats of polite demurral in response. After all, millions of people will be affected. America contemptuously plans for their future without consulting them. Do we reserve such racist derision?

This is not only unacceptable: it is impossible to believe. How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely dissolved? Even a prisoner about to be executed usually has some last words to pronounce. Why is there now no last testimonial to an era of history, to a civilisation about to be crushed and transformed utterly, to a society that despite its drawbacks and weaknesses nevertheless goes on functioning. Arab babies are born every hour, children go to school, men and women marry and work and have children, they play, and laugh and eat, they are sad, they suffer illness and death.

There is love and companionship, friendship and excitement. Yes, Arabs are repressed and misruled, terribly misruled, but they manage to go on with the business of living despite everything. This is the fact that both the Arab leaders and the United States simply ignore when they fling empty gestures at the so-called "Arab street" invented by mediocre Orientalists.

But who is now asking the existential questions about our future as a people? The task cannot be left to a cacophony of religious fanatics and submissive, fatalistic sheep. But that seems to be the case. The Arab governments -- no, most of the Arab countries from top to bottom -- sit back in their seats and just wait as America postures, lines up, threatens and ships out more soldiers and F-16's to deliver the punch. The silence is deafening.

Years of sacrifice and struggle, of bones broken in hundreds of prisons and torture chambers from the Atlantic to the Gulf, families destroyed, endless poverty and suffering. Huge, expensive armies. For what?

This is not a matter of party or ideology or faction: it's a matter of what the great theologian Paul Tillich used to call ultimate seriousness. Technology, modernisation and certainly globalisation are not the answer for what threatens us as a people now. We have in our tradition an entire body of secular and religious discourse that treats of beginnings and endings, of life and death, of love and anger, of society and history. This is there, but no voice, no individual with great vision and moral authority seems able now to tap into that, and bring it to attention. We are on the eve of a catastrophe that our political, moral and religious leaders can only just denounce a little bit while, behind whispers and winks and closed doors, they make plans somehow to ride out the storm. They think of survival, and perhaps of heaven. But who is in charge of the present, the worldly, the land, the water, the air and the lives dependent on each other for existence? No one seems to be in charge. There is a wonderful colloquial expression in English that very precisely and ironically catches our unacceptable helplessness, our passivity and inability to help ourselves now when our strength is most needed. The expression is: will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? We are that close to a kind of upheaval that will leave very little standing and perilously little left even to record, except for the last injunction that begs for extinction.

Hasn't the time come for us collectively to demand and try to formulate a genuinely Arab alternative to the wreckage about to engulf our world?

This is not only a trivial matter of regime change, although God knows that we can do with quite a bit of that. Surely it can't be a return to Oslo, another offer to Israel to please accept our existence and let us live in peace, another cringing crawling inaudible plea for mercy. Will no one come out into the light of day to express a vision for our future that isn't based on a script written by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, those two
symbols of vacant power and overweening arrogance? I hope someone is listening.

END

If the information from 1world helps you gain a better understanding of the issues you care about, then please consider making a contribution by clicking on this link http://svcs.affero.net/rm.php?r=surya&p=oneworld
_________________________________
Ravi Khanna, Director
voices from the global village
1world communication
P. O. Box 2476
Amherst, MA 01004
phone: 413-253-1960
cell: 617-620-9640
fax: 413-253-1961
e-mail: onew-@igc.org
subscribe to 1world communication's listserve by sending an e-mail to: 1worldcommunica-@topica.com


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<DIV><FONT face=Arial>An Unacceptable Helplessness</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>Edward Said<BR>Al-Ahram Weekly online<BR></FONT><A
href="http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/"><FONT
face=Arial>http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/</FONT></A></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>16 - 22 January 2003<BR>Issue No. 621</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>Will the last person to leave please turn out the
lights? Edward Said urges an Arab alternative to the wreckage that is about to
engulf our world One opens The New York Times on a daily basis to read the most
recent article about the preparations for war that are taking place in the
United States. Another battalion, one more set of aircraft carriers and
cruisers, an ever-increasing number of aircraft, new contingents of officers are
being moved to the Persian Gulf area. 62,000 more soldiers were transferred to
the Gulf last weekend. An enormous, deliberately intimidating force is
being built up by America overseas, while inside the country, economic and
social bad news multiply with a joint relentlessness. The huge capitalist
machine seems to be faltering, even as it grinds down the vast majority of
citizens. </FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>Nonetheless, George Bush proposes another large tax
cut for the one per cent of the population that is comparatively rich. The
public education system is in a major crisis, and health insurance for 50
million Americans simply does not exist. Israel asks for 15 billion dollars in
additional loan guarantees and military aid. And the unemployment rates in the
US mount inexorably, as more jobs are lost every day.  </FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>Nevertheless, preparations for an unimaginably costly
war continue and continue without either public approval or dramatically
noticeable disapproval. A generalised indifference (which may conceal great
over-all fear, ignorance and apprehension) has greeted the administration's
war-mongering and its strangely ineffective response to the challenge forced on
it recently by North Korea. In the case of Iraq, with no weapons of mass
destruction to speak of, the US plans a war; in the case of North Korea, it
offers that country economic and energy aid. What a humiliating difference
between contempt for the Arabs and respect for North Korea, an equally grim, and
cruel dictatorship.  </FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the situation appears more
peculiar. For<BR>almost a year American politicians, regional experts,
administration officials, journalists have repeated the charges that have become
standard fare so far as Islam and the Arabs are concerned. Most of this chorus
pre-dates 11 September, as I have shown in my books Orientalism and Covering
Islam. To today's practically unanimous chorus has been added the authority of
the United Nation's Human Development Report on the Arab world which certified
that Arabs dramatically lag behind the rest of the world in democracy,
knowledge, and women's rights. Everyone says (with some justification, of
course) that Islam needs reform and that the Arab educational system is a
disaster, in effect, a school for religious fanatics and suicide bombers funded
not just by crazy imams and their wealthy followers (like Osama Bin Laden) but
also by governments who are supposed allies of the United States. The only
"good" Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying modern Arab culture and
society without reservation. I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences
for, with nothing positive to say about themselves or their people and language,
they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas already flooding the
airwaves and pages of print. We lack democracy, they say, we haven't challenged
Islam enough, we need to do more about driving away the specter of Arab
nationalism and the credo of Arab unity. That is all discredited, ideological
rubbish. Only what we, and our American instructors, say about the Arabs and
Islam -- vague re- cycled Orientalist clichés of the kind repeated by a tireless
mediocrity like Bernard Lewis -- is true. The rest isn't realistic or pragmatic
enough. "We" need to join modernity, modernity in effect being Western,
globalised, free- marketed, democratic -- whatever those words might be taken to
mean. (If I had the time, there would be an essay to be written about the prose
style of people like Ajami, Gerges, Makiya, Talhami, Fandy et. al., academics
whose very language reeks of subservience, inauthenticity and a hopelessly
stilted mimicry that has been thrust upon them).</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>The clash of civilisations that George Bush and his
minions are trying to fabricate as a cover for a preemptive oil and hegemony war
against Iraq is supposed to result in a triumph of democratic nation-building,
regime change and forcible modernisation à l'américaine. Never mind the
bombs  and the ravages of the sanctions which are unmentioned. This will be
a purifying war whose goal is to throw out Saddam and his men and replace them
with a re-drawn map of the whole region. New Sykes Picot. New Balfour. New
Wilsonian 14 points. New world altogether. Iraqis, we are told by the Iraqi
dissidents, will welcome their liberation, and perhaps forget entirely about
their past sufferings. Perhaps.</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>Meanwhile, the soul-and-body destroying situation in
Palestine worsens all the time. There seems no force capable of stopping Sharon
and Mofaz, who bellow their defiance to the whole world. We forbid, we punish,
we ban, we break, we destroy. The torrent of unbroken violence against an entire
people continues. As I write these lines, I am sent an announcement that the
entire village of Al-Daba' in the Qalqilya area of the West Bank is about to be
wiped out by 60- ton American-made Israeli bulldozers: 250 Palestinians will
lose their 42 houses, 700 dunums of agricultural land, a mosque, and an
elementary school for 132 children. The United Nations stands by, looking on as
its resolutions are flouted on an hourly basis. Typically, alas, George Bush
identifies with Sharon, not with the 16-year-old Palestinian kid who is used as
a human shield by Israeli soldiers.</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority offers a return
to peacemaking, and presumably, to Oslo. Having been burned for 10 years the
first time, Arafat seems inexplicably to want to have another go at it. His
faithful lieutenants make declarations and write opinion pieces for the press,
suggesting their willingness to accept anything, more or less. Remarkably
though, the great mass of this heroic people seems willing to go on, without
peace and without respite, bleeding, going hungry, dying day by day. They have
too much dignity and confidence in the justice of their cause to submit
shamefully to Israel, as their leaders have done. What could be more
discouraging for the average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than
to see his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?<BR><BR>In
this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the utter passivity
and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole. The American government and its
servants issue statement after statement of purpose, they move troops and
material, they transport tanks and destroyers, but the Arabs individually and
collectively can barely muster a bland refusal (at most they say, no, you cannot
use military bases in our territory) only to reverse themselves a few days
later.</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>Why is there such silence and such astounding
helplessness?  The largest power in history is about to launch and is
unremittingly reiterating its intention to launch a war against a sovereign Arab
country now ruled by a dreadful regime, a war the clear purpose of which is not
only to destroy the Baathi regime but to re-design the entire region. The
Pentagon has made no secret that its plans are to re-draw the map of the whole
Arab world, perhaps changing other regimes and many borders in the process. No
one can be shielded from the cataclysm when it comes (if it comes, which is not
yet a complete certainty). And yet, there is only long silence followed by a few
vague bleats of polite demurral in response. After all, millions of people will
be affected. America contemptuously plans for their future without consulting
them. Do we reserve such racist derision?</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>This is not only unacceptable: it is impossible to
believe. How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the
blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud
proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely dissolved?
Even a prisoner about to be executed usually has some last words to pronounce.
Why is there now no last testimonial to an era of history, to a civilisation
about to be crushed and transformed utterly, to a society that despite its
drawbacks and weaknesses nevertheless goes on functioning. Arab babies are born
every hour, children go to school, men and women marry and work and have
children, they play, and laugh and eat, they are sad, they suffer illness and
death.  </FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>There is love and companionship, friendship and
excitement. Yes, Arabs are repressed and misruled, terribly misruled, but they
manage to go on with the business of living despite everything. This is the fact
that both the Arab leaders and the United States simply ignore when they fling
empty gestures at the so-called "Arab street" invented by mediocre Orientalists.
</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>But who is now asking the existential questions about our
future as a people? The task cannot be left to a cacophony of religious fanatics
and submissive, fatalistic sheep. But that seems to be the case. The Arab
governments -- no, most of the Arab countries from top to bottom -- sit back in
their seats and just wait as America postures, lines up, threatens and ships out
more soldiers and F-16's to deliver the punch. The silence is deafening. 
</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>Years of sacrifice and struggle, of bones broken in
hundreds of prisons and torture chambers from the Atlantic to the Gulf, families
destroyed, endless poverty and suffering. Huge, expensive armies. For
what?</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><BR><FONT face=Arial>This is not a matter of party or ideology or faction:
it's a matter of what the great theologian Paul Tillich used to call ultimate
seriousness.  Technology, modernisation and certainly globalisation are not
the answer for what threatens us as a people now. We have in our tradition
an entire body of secular and religious discourse that treats of beginnings and
endings, of life and death, of love and anger, of society and history. This is
there, but no voice, no individual with great vision and moral authority seems
able now to tap into that, and bring it to attention. We are on the eve of a
catastrophe that our political, moral and religious leaders can only just
denounce a little bit while, behind whispers and winks and closed doors, they
make plans somehow to ride out the storm. They think of survival, and perhaps of
heaven. But who is in charge of the present, the worldly, the land, the water,
the air and the lives dependent on each other for existence? No one seems to be
in charge. There is a wonderful colloquial expression in English that very
precisely and ironically catches our unacceptable helplessness, our passivity
and inability to help ourselves now when our strength is most needed. The
expression is: will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? We are
that close to a kind of upheaval that will leave very little standing and
perilously little left even to record, except for the last injunction that begs
for extinction. <BR><BR>Hasn't the time come for us collectively to demand and
try to formulate a genuinely Arab alternative to the wreckage about to engulf
our world? </FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>This is not only a trivial matter of regime change,
although God knows that we can do with quite a bit of that. Surely it can't be a
return to Oslo, another offer to Israel to please accept our existence and let
us live in peace, another cringing crawling inaudible plea for mercy. Will no
one come out into the light of day to express a vision for our future that isn't
based on a script written by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, those
two<BR>symbols of vacant power and overweening arrogance? I hope someone is
listening.<BR></DIV></FONT>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>END</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>If the information from 1world helps you gain a better
understanding of the issues you care about, then please consider making a
contribution by clicking on this link </FONT><A
href="http://svcs.affero.net/rm.php?r=surya&;p=oneworld"><FONT
face=Arial>http://svcs.affero.net/rm.php?r=surya&;p=oneworld</FONT></A><BR><FONT
face=Arial>_________________________________<BR>Ravi Khanna, Director<BR>voices
from the global village<BR>1world communication<BR>P. O. Box 2476<BR>Amherst, MA
01004<BR>phone: 413-253-1960<BR>cell: 617-620-9640<BR>fax:
413-253-1961<BR>e-mail: </FONT><A href="mailto:onew-@igc.org"><FONT
face=Arial>onew-@igc.org</FONT></A><BR><FONT face=Arial>subscribe to 1world
communication's listserve by sending an e-mail to: </FONT><A
href="mailto:1worldcommunica-@topica.com"><FONT
face=Arial>1worldcommunica-@topica.com</FONT></A><U><FONT
face=Arial color=#0000ff></FONT></U></DIV>
<DIV> </DIV>
<DIV><U><FONT face=Arial color=#0000ff><BR>---<BR>Outgoing mail is certified
Virus Free.<BR>Checked by AVG anti-virus system (<A
href="http://www.grisoft.com">http://www.grisoft.com</A>).<BR>Version: 6.0.443 /
Virus Database: 248 - Release Date: 1/10/03</FONT></U></DIV>

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