Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Dumbest Reading of Edward Said Ever

The Bertrand Russell of Islam - December 12, 2007 - The New York Sun:

Mr. Warraq's beef with Said, however, is more a matter of reductionism than prevarication: that 'Orientalism' misses two crucial points about human nature in its discussion of relations between East and West. The first is that even the worst offenders aren't always motivated by bigotry or grand imperial designs. The second is that the institutions they erect are often more significant and enduring than their venality and greed.

Mr. Warraq praises the British of the 18th and 19th centuries for their role shepherding India's cultural renewal — not to mention in combating the corruption of British colonialism. Edmund Burke led the moral and legislative charge against Warren Hastings, the notorious head of the East India Company. James Prinsep, a secretary of the celebrated Asiatic Society of Bengal, drained the malarial swamps of Calcutta, restored the collapsing mosque of Aurangzeb stone by stone, and discovered that once-indecipherable rock inscriptions were made by the Mughal emperor Asoka Maurya. Mr. Warraq relies on several modern Indian historians, such as A.L. Basham and Nirad Chaudhuri, to emphasize the great esteem in which British Orientalists are still held — men such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who agitated for the end of the East India Company's monopoly and composed a systematic study of Sanskrit and Hindu law as well as the only authoritative analysis of the Veda; Sir William Jones, the 'father of Indian history' and one of the early discoverers of the Indo-European linguistic nexus (he thought Sanskrit 'more exquisitely refined' than Latin or Greek), and William Carey, the 'father of Bengali prose,' who single-handedly restored a lost literature.

This is the most lucid part of the article. I could give lots of reasons why this purported takedown of Said is problematic, but instead, I'll just quote Tacitus, quoted today in Latin primers for everybody. - By Emily Wilson - Slate Magazine:
Yet cultural imperialism is only partly a linguistic phenomenon. Ostler's claim that Latin was 'the glue that held the empire's people in place' for more than 2,000 years seems less plausible when we remember that for a long period, most educated Romans were bilingual (in Latin and Greek), and in the first and second centuries A.D., many intellectual Greek writers under the empire—such as Plutarch—had only a sketchy knowledge of Latin, or none at all. (The place of Spanish in modern America provides an interesting counterpart to Greek under Rome.) But, of course, the Romans had many other instruments by which to spread Romanitas through the world. Tacitus' account of the Roman conquest of Britain, in his Agricola (a passage quoted by Mount), provides a useful reminder of how language and education could be combined with other means of cultural domination or seduction: Roman religion, law, art, and architecture were visible signs of the empire even without the Latin language. As Tacitus remarks of the Britons, 'They even adopted our fashion of dress, and started wearing the toga; little by little they were drawn to touches of vice, such as colonnades, baths, and fancy conversations. Because they didn't know better, they called it 'civilization,' when it was part of their slavery' (idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset). The analogy with the modern world is not hard to draw: the 'Americanization' of China, Russia, and Europe has as much to do with the spread of Nike, Coca-Cola, and modern big-business capitalism as with the spread of the English language.

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