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Other-wise admirable

Orientalism shines some light on British views of the Irish.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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  • Other-wise admirable

As James Heartfield has written elsewhere on spiked, the late Edward Said was a groundbreaking and controversial character who leaves a decidedly mixed legacy (see What Edward Said).

Said certainly got up the noses of Israeli sympathisers, who saw him as a stone-throwing troublemaker who falsified his personal history so as to portray himself as a victim of Zionist brutality. And for those with a concern with society at large, one of his legacies has been the regrettable fetishisation of ‘culture’ and ‘identity’; and the demonisation of truth and reason as cynical, Eurocentric pursuits, the main aim of which have been to exploit and dehumanise ‘the Other’.

At the same time, we should not underestimate or belittle the achievements of his breathtaking Orientalism (1978). True, the idea that power and knowledge are intimately connected was hardly new. Orientalism drew heavily on Foucault, who in turn borrowed his power/knowledge theory from Nietzsche – and Plato raised the matter in his Republic. But if Foucault was the first to apply his theory to historical reality, Said was the first to apply it specifically to a case-study: that of the relationship between the West and the Orient.

The book made a compelling argument for how Europeans fashioned stereotypes of the Arab world, both to exploit it, and to project all the characteristics about itself that it found uncomfortable on to ‘the Other’: the spiritual, the irrational and the savage. But it is not just his particular investigation of East-West relations that is stimulating.

As someone who has an interest in Anglo-Irish relations, I have found that ‘orientalism’ mirrors heavily the way the English have perceived the Irish. For instance, Said wrote that ‘The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’; that it was overvalued ‘for its pantheism, its spirituality, its stability, its longevity, its primitivity, and…appeared lamentably under-humanised, anti-democratic, backward, barbaric’. This might as well be an analysis of England’s traditional perception of Ireland, an obsessive, decidedly ambivalent one that has mixed fear and hatred with intrigue and adoration.

Moving wider afield, as Malcolm Chapman has pointed out in The Celts: The Construction of a Myth (1992), there is in north-western Europe, in countries such as Britain, France and Germany, ‘an apparent similarity in reported character of the Celtic, Latin and Slavonic peoples of Europe – all of them inconstant, emotional, eloquent, moody, unreliable, free from structure, overlapping into nature, and so on’. Said’s thesis is almost Jungian in hinting at a universal in human nature – the constant propensity to create ‘the Other’, who is always regarded with ambivalence, employing the same stereotypes.

Still, his critics are correct on certain points. It is ironic that someone who illustrated how human cultures are fluid and in a sense, artificial, should be idolised by those who contend that depriving someone of their ‘identity’, or merely questioning it, is the most heinous crime imaginable. Said’s thesis skates over the fact that perceptions were sometimes legitimate. Westerners may have regarded some Arab states as brutal and autocratic – this is often because they were exactly thus, and regrettably, remain so today.

Lastly, and one can hardly blame him for this, he is responsible for the creation of one of the hoariest clichés of modern times: ‘the Other’. Can journalists and academics please desist from employing this tiresome phrase, which represents the epitome of our wretched, identity-obsessed world? The same goes for ‘imagined communities’, too.

  • Blame it on the box

Sir Ludovic Kennedy has been criticised for complaining that there are too many black people on television. Writing in the Oldie magazine he says: ‘I am all in favour of black advancement but there’s now hardly a TV pub, police station, soap, vox pop or ad without rather more than its fair share of black participation.’

Kennedy was not, I suspect, being racist. What I think he was trying to say is that compared to the ethnic and demographic breakdown of the country, there were disproportionately more black faces on television. As anyone who watches soap operas, news bulletins or television dramas knows, Kennedy is of course correct.

The problem of over-representation in the media raises familiar concerns about the divisive consequences of affirmative action. Yet when it comes to television, it raises another matter. One complaint from the professional ‘anti-racist’ industry is that the public overestimates the number of black and Asians who comprise the British population.

For instance, an Observer survey from two years ago showed that the UK population thought Britain was 24 percent ethnic minority, when the true figure was seven percent. The inference is always that such a misconception is a function of deep-seated racism (and no doubt fear of ‘the other’), or that we spend too much time being fed poison by the Daily Mail. But this is television’s fault, an artefact most Britons consider a window on reality. Most Britons, of all colours, think Britain is browner than it is because this is how they see it on the box.

  • Growing pains

I must confess that having recently past my twenty-ninth birthday, I am getting a little tetchy about getting old. I’m thoroughly embarrassed because I’ve always professed to loath our youth-obsessed culture and morbid fear of old age. But noticeable too is my peers’ reaction to it, especially from those in their mid-twenties, who mock my growing geriatrification in a way that betrays their own terror of ageing too. To them I say two things: one day you’ll hit the age of 30. And one day, we’ll all be dead.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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