What nations are for

Tom Nairn

  • The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994 by Edward Said
    Chatto, 400 pp, £20.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6135 3
  • Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures by Edward Said
    Vintage, 90 pp, £4.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 09 942451 7

The politics of dispossession is nationalism – an over-generalisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that not all nationalists are dispossessed: possessors have their own (often strident) variations on the theme. It is also true that nationality politics did not originate among the crushed and uprooted: indeed its primary source was the nouveaux riches or upwardly mobile of Early Modern times, in Holland, England and France.

However, their national-state politics only became national-ism later on, when these entrepreneurial societies inflicted their success on the rest of the world in the 19th century. This infliction was Progress, which caused the un-progressed to feel for the first time dispossessed in the general and inescapable sense which amounts to an ‘-ism’. And it was out of that sense that the storm of modernisation emerged. The rest of humanity’s patchwork-quilt could neither evade industrialisation nor put up with it on the imperial terms initially offered. The result was a counter-blast aiming at modernity ‘on our own terms’ – the terms (inevitably) of what existed before the newly-rich (and armed) nations emerged to rewrite the entire script.

That script – the ‘history’ which some imagined terminating around the year 1990 – was mined by the very reality which it sought to recompose. In the dominant storm-centre itself a certain calmness could prevail: a false calm, as Edward Said repeatedly says in these books, founded on arrogance, ignorance and superior military force. The metropolitan view was that Progress was greater than its bearers and destined to triumph, regardless of the particular language it spoke. The Russo-Soviet or Anglo-British empires were simply vehicles for its dissemination. But outside the centre, wherever the contemporary frontiers of ‘development’ happened to be, metropolitanism was perceived as the exploitation of Progress in order to eternalise a particular national hegemony. Their civilisation will end by dispossessing us.

For collectivities, dispossession brings decease. The same is not of course true for individuals. All individual Palestinians could theoretically have opted to become, or at least have tried to become, Israeli, Jordanian, Syrian or (one of Said’s own identity-dilemmas) American. This option has always been warmly viewed in imperial or sub-imperial capitals like Tel Aviv. But in practice it applies only to the educated. The unvoiced logic beneath it goes like this: if only the ‘intellectuals’ (trouble-makers) would mind their own (individual) businesses and honestly assimilate, then the non-intellectual majority would, after a certain lapse of time, well ... disappear. Before nationalism arrived to change things, most ethno-linguistic communities we know about did disappear – or more accurately, were ‘disappeared’ in the Argentinian sense, like the Picts of North-Eastern Scotland. There was a time not long ago when the Palestinians looked like ideal candidates for disappearance. They could see the last sky coming, and after it nothing. Right up until the peace agreement last year there was no certainly of reprieve.

Another way of reading nationalism is just that: no more disappearance. For the majority of the collectivity, the collectivity itself remains the sole redemptive possibility. Hence its ‘death’, though metaphorical, is all too easily translatable into individual or familial terms. On the West Bank and Gaza, even though many Palestinians became successful exiles and émigrés like Said, there could never have been two million individual escape-routes of that kind. If ‘Palestine’ doesn’t make it, few Palestinians will. The point is not quite that nationalism is a matter of life or death – like the rawer nature which once prevailed – but that ‘nationalism’ has altered the nature of the species to make it such a matter.

The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual can be read as a single meditation on this theme. An intellectual ear marked for escape and successful metropolitan assimilation has turned back, and tried to assume the burden of those left behind. The burden is a crushing one. In a sense frankly admitted in these pages, it is too much for him or for any other individual. He has become the best-known intellectual spokesman of the Palestinian cause, yet was always far too honest and too honourable to be merely its loudspeaker. As the gross contradictions and failings of the cause have accumulated over thirty years, he has been unable to avoid registering and criticising them. So more is collected in Politics of Dispossession than scattered essays and reviews. It reads like a memoir of the Stations of the Cross, one continuous journey through the agonies and humiliations which have broken him apart – above all when inflicted, as so often, by those ‘on his own side’. The critique of Arab nationalism and Palestinian parochialism in these pages is more devastating than anything put out by Zionists or the US Israeli lobby.

Said suffers from acute identity problems. So do all nationalist intellectuals. But since he is a famously fashion-conscious individual critics have rarely resisted the temptation to mock his identity-pangs. Paul Johnson wrote of him recently in the Sunday Times as ‘a fashionable figure’ with ‘modish problems of identity ... It is not clear to me,’ Johnson continued, ‘who, or what, the real Edward Said is.’ The implication is that ‘identity’ in the political or nationalist sense is something like posturing in front of a mirror, but Johnson is the poseur here, not Said.

My father as a boy sold crowns of thorns to tourists near the Sepulchre ... Yet a few yards away, underneath a declivity in the city wall, we stumbled on Zalatimo, the renowned pastry shop whose speciality mtaqaba was a great family favourite. A wizened old baker was in there stoking the oven, but his ancient form suggested something only barely surviving.

Astonishingly, Said Sr, the Jerusalem relicvendor, turned into an ace moderniser: he was the man who, via his Egyptian business, introduced filing and the typewriter into Arabic culture. He saw identity principally as a question of backbone, and was chronically upset by his son’s inability to stand up straight, in the ramrod style approved by the Boy Scouts and Victoria College, Cairo. The family were Greek-Orthodox Christians, converted to Anglicanism in the late 19th century. When young Edward’s vertebral slackness got too pronounced for them he was packed off to America, aged 15. He had never seen snow, and was compelled to invent a new personality at a puritanical New England boarding school. A few years later he escaped to Princeton, and then in 1963 to New York’s Columbia University as a teacher, where he has remained for thirty years.

This background provides an unusual identity-humus. What he likes most about New York is its anonymity. Self-consciously nationalist intellectuals are often susceptible to cosmopolitanism: secretly (or in Said’s case openly) they feel most at home on the neutral terrain of exile and alienation. The very mechanism of identification – ‘standing up for’ a people and a cause – requires a certain distance, an implicit separation of the self from background and community. A nation can only realise itself – register its patent rights, so to speak – in a voice that is recognisable to another, broader community, and which can give those rights an objective, inter-national resonance. The intellectuals, who articulate the message, can seem to occupy an ambiguous position; both sides can accuse them of betrayal. Said has had more than his fill of this.

Conservative metropolitans such as Johnson like to portray nationalism as an invention of intellectuals. There is some trite truth in this: all ideologies, including fogeyism, must initially be synthesised by the educated, a process which may then be misrepresented as wilful ‘forging’, ‘dreaming up’ etc. However, an ideology which has convulsed the world must be more than wilful. At this deeper level it is nationalism which has invented modern intellectuals. Their prehistory lay in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment; but these only prepared the ground for the increasingly extra-European modernity of which nationalism is an inescapable part.

The development of industrial modernity could not avoid gross unevenness; the antagonisms that arose from such disparity were bound to be registered; those observing and reacting to them sought another language for the new facts; that language had to be at once vernacular (accessible to the less educated) and universal (translatable into rights and principles). It had to transcend, rather than ‘disappear’, the parochial and ethnic. It had to establish a new connection with the universal and only the paradox of ‘nation-ism’ (as it might also have been called) could do this. Its machinery for doing so took the form of distinct nationalist intelligentsias: egg-heads of ethnos, who placed (as Said does) increasing emphasis on the choice of what once lay far beneath any conscious choice: ‘identity’.

‘Nationalism’ is in one sense no more than a general title for this language – the evolving tongue of modernity. Said began to speak it in earnest in 1967, after the Six-Day War: ‘That awful week in June’, he calls it, when he grasped more fully that ‘I was an Arab, and we – “you” to most of my embarrassed friends – were being whipped.’ From this cat-o’-nine-tails initiation was born Orientalism, his most celebrated work. Imperialism had fostered a self-interested mythology of the Arab Orient, he argued, in which academics and poets had colluded with missionaries, statesmen and entrepreneurial desperadoes. The result was a romantic conception frequently exalted by love. But (alas) this was love for the noble natives as they were, or rather as they were imagined to have been – infants of an Edenic Islam untarnished by Atlantic pollution (including filing cabinets and typewriters). The converse of such affection was of course contempt, mutating into hatred whenever the natives went ‘beyond themselves’. Orientalism demanded they stick to their true, veiled selves. Failure to do so merely revealed (as in the 1967 war) their congenital inability to adapt to modern ways: as useless with tanks as with democracy and women.

Arabism and anti-Arabism have something in common: the belief in a Pan-Arab Geist capable of effective, nationalist-style unity. Although he started off wanting to subscribe to this, an irreverent observer like Said could not long put up with it. He soon realised that it was no better than Pan-Hellenism and Pan-Slavism: conservative ideological trances induced by a rhetoric of racial solidarity to stifle popular and national trouble-makers – notably trouble-makers like him. In the Introduction to The Politics of Dispossession (one of the best parts) he recounts how an earlier study of Palestine failed to find an Arab publisher:

It’s an interesting footnote to all this that when The Question of Palestine came out ... a Beirut publishing house approached me about an Arabic translation. When I agreed, I was stunned to learn a moment later that I would be expected to remove from the text any criticism I had made of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the rest. I refused, and to this day none of my books on Palestine has been translated into Arabic.

His new one stands even less chance, unless West Bank self-rule makes unexpectedly quick progress.

To get anywhere, Palestinian nationalism had to distinguish itself from this miasma. The author’s quaint way of putting it is as ‘a reductive process’, or ‘an attempt to decompose Arab nationalism into discreter units finely sensitive to the true cost of real independence’. It took the Palestinians twenty-five years, through a series of fearful defeats – the worst of them at Arab hands, in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. ‘The countries that make the loudest noise in support of Palestine treat Palestinians the worst,’ he remarks angrily. On the other hand, when the intifadah mobilised the population of the Occupied Territories against Israeli control from 1987 onwards, it met with at least limited success quite rapidly. ‘Recognition’ is not a gratuitous extra benefit for a nationalist movement: in a sense it is the whole point (even if elaborate negotiations are needed subsequently to establish a polity). By March 1988, Said recalls, this was in effect won and symbolised in the meeting between himself, another Palestinian professor and Secretary of State George Shultz: the world now had to confront the reality of a limited but indefeasible national demand, one which would not be disappeared. Even so the effects of the confrontation were further postponed by the Gulf War, and the PLO’s reckless support for Saddam Hussein.

Said sometimes wobbles badly on the latter topic. ‘Both wrong and embarrassingly silly,’ he concedes; but at the same time he denounces Israeli peaceniks for using such support as an excuse to break off relations – ‘as if the Palestinian situation under Israeli military occupation had been just wonderful before the Gulf War.’ This is feeble rhetoric. I shouldn’t imagine the Israelis thought that for a second; but the Iraqi Government had just been raining missiles down on them (as well as preparing a new big-gun variant of the Final Solution).

Orientalism was a scathing analysis of metropolitan-racialist nonsense. But nationalist counterblast always carries its own danger: an obsessive over-attunement to its object of denunciation. Reading these pages, one feels that the-cat-o’-nine-tails will never cease its work, the skin never grow back over the tortured nerve-endings. In part this has been a consequence of Said’s particular circumstances. In New York he has had to endure daily combat with another kind of exile intelligentsia, the formidably organised Israeli-American lobby. European readers who are not aware of how aggressive and unscrupulous that mode of nationalism can be will find The Politics of Dispossession enlightening. It must have been like fighting the Six-Day War over and over again.

The obsessive undertow of Orientalism brought Said into conflict with Ernest Gellner. Reviewing a successor-volume, Culture and Imperialism, in the Times Literary Supplement, Gellner accused him of ‘inventing a bogy called Orientalism’ and attributing to it a far too pervasive cultural influence. The attack was twofold. First, Gellner was accusing Said of not locating his chosen cultural polemic accurately enough within a grander, epochal framework – the ‘transition from agrarian to industrial society’, which has long been Gellner’s own preferred theme. He argued, secondly, that because it lacked this degree of theoretical articulation, the anti-Orientalist crusade had too often sunk into a banal vindication of its victims. If most Western scholarship and writing about the East is Orientalist conspiracy, then hope must lie exclusively on the other side: in the camp of those put down, crassly categorised, or adored for the wrong reasons. But the trouble with this anti-imperialist ‘camp’ is the hopelessness of so much of it: vile dictators, censorship, clerical mania, and traditionalism incompatible with any sort of modernisation (Western-led or not).

On the first count I feel Gellner is quite right. Said is no theorist, and rarely situates his cultural forays within a wider historical perspective. It is quite true that Progress was bound to take off in one region of the world rather than another. Unevenness could only have been avoided with guidance from outer space by something like the miracle-stones in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. Progress might have erupted out of China, in which case some Atlantic equivalent of Edward Said might by now be denouncing Occidentalism and the near-universal contempt displayed by the academic lackeys of Peking for the bulbous-nosed and straight-eyed. Or it might (like homo sapiens itself) have come out of Africa. In that case both Said and Gellner would today be fulminating jointly over Septentrionalist delusions about colourlessness: the vacant brain-pans supposed natural to the pigmentally-challenged, with their slime-grey eyes, ratty hair and squeaky-voiced irrationality. In fact, for reasons still imperfectly understood, it originated in Atlantic seaboard societies and gave the initial leverage to a congeries of pinkoid clans.

On the second count, I am not so sure. Out of unevenness came nationalism, including the sort Edward Said defends, and I would have thought that in the long run the victims would be likely to tell a better and more accurate story about what happened to them, and about their own social and cultural histories before the big developmental change.

The trouble is, we live in the short run. And within this they will go on finding it extremely difficult to tell their story without rhetorical aspiration (which is what Gellner was denouncing). The reasons for this are not (as the victim-ideology tends to assume) subjective and moral ones – betrayal, bad faith and so on. They are institutional. Colonised and lessdeveloped societies lack the means to evolve an adequate cultural riposte to the ‘advanced’ offensive. By contrast, the imperialists are over-endowed with professorships, research institutes, well-heeled anthropologists and literary periodicals (as well as with missiles and aircraft-carriers). Most serious inquiry can only be done from their point of view, even if the risks of Orientalist astigmatism remain inherent in it. All the same, to get a sense of the opposite and what it means, The Politics of Dispossession will serve better than Gellner. ‘There isn’t a single decent library in the Arab world,’ Said complains:

To do research on our own past, our culture, our literature, we still have to come to the West, to study at the feet of Orientalists, many of whom have openly declared themselves enemies to Islam and the Arabs ... [But neither has there been] any effort to pour money into Western universities to promote the study of Arab and Islamic civilisation, to promote that study in our interests. On all sides it is evident that as Arabs we are the world’s intellectual and moral lumpenproletariat.

So what ‘the long run’ entails is long indeed: a more integral process of modernisation, within which ‘lumpenproletarian’ status can be left behind, and both state and civil institutions built up. That is what nations are for. Or at least, no better way of doing it has yet been lastingly demonstrated. ‘The Arab world,’ Said continues, ‘is undergoing a premature technocratisation’ on the lines laid down by his own father: typewriters before democracy, as it were, leading to the ascendancy of the rightwing brutalism typified by Saddam Hussein and President Assad.

However, ‘the Arab world’ is a large part of this problem, not a solution. It denotes not a nation but something more like a ‘people’, in that purplish after-dinner sense so dear to Winston Churchill: ‘the English-speaking Peoples’ who have spread themselves round a bit, acquired a sense of destiny, retained certain elements of common culture – and never quite got over it. Under Thatcher some of us thought that curse would never go away. One of the few alleviating features of Majorism has been that it too has faded amid the general grime. Feeling that ‘a world’ is on one’s side is a serious malfunction. Yet victim-status makes it more tempting to indulge such feelings, since ‘worlds’ may always be imagined as possessing a redemptive secret denied to mere nationalities. If the secular version lets down the dispossessed, then an even headier possibility can step in: the ‘other world’ of a common faith, in this case Islam.

Not that Said can be accused of wobbling in that direction. He remains aggressively secular: ‘We must see the issues concretely, not in terms of the happy and airy abstractions that tend to dominate our discussions. What distinguishes the truly struggling intellectual is, first, his or her effort to grasp things as they are in the proper methodological and political perspective, and, second, the conception of his or her work as activity, not as passive contemplation.’ This is the recipe for struggle which is also outlined in Representations of the Intellectual. Said has nobly lived up to its criteria during his long activity as champion of the Palestinian national cause. Among nationalist intellectuals I know or have read about, I cannot think of anyone less like the ‘Professor of Terrorism’ so often invoked by the US-Israeli lobby.

The accusation has been revived none the less, in connection with his denunciation of last year’s agreement between Arafat and Rabin. The story here is mainly in the Introduction and the Epilogue to The Politics of Dispossession. The former recounts his mounting disillusionment with the PLO leadership long before the historic accord. The most surprising aspect of this to many readers will be the mulish parochialism of that leadership. In Said’s account it had no idea at all of how American politics and public opinion functioned. All through the Eighties

Arafat was neither fighting to expand solidarity for Palestinians in the West nor nurturing the logical Palestinian constituency ... of liberals, dissenters, the women’s movement, and so on. Instead he and his associates seemed to be looking for patrons in the West who would get them a solution of some sort. This quixotic fantasy originated in the notion that the United States worked like, say, Syria or Iraq: get close to someone close to the Maximum leader and all doors will open.

When the door did inch open at last, Arafat rushed to get his foot in. In 1985 he had told Said thin he had no intention of ending up ‘with nothing to show for his decades of effort against the Zionist movement’. Said now accuses the PLO of accepting something uncomfortably close to nothing: the tiny roof of Gaza and Jericho against the last sky, the most cramped space for manoeuvre one can imagine qualifying for ‘self-government’.

But Said’s denunciation of this climb-down is at once accompanied by modest, practical proposals for making the most of it – for enlarging the space and turning his country into a genuine nation. He contrasts the old nation-building slogan of Zionism – ‘another acre, another goat’ – to the apocalyptic assertiveness which has dogged both Arab and PLO rhetoric. In the new situation, he suggests, a version of the former must now be worked out for Palestinians.

This ‘counter-strategy’ is a nation-building prospectus founded upon maximisation of the very few assets the Palestinians possess. This almost uniquely dispossessed people, he argues, has one hugely under-exploited advantage: perhaps the largest, most able and most dispersed intelligentsia any national movement has ever been able to claim. Zionism is the obvious historical precedent; but it should also be remembered how divided Jewish intellectuals were, and how strong anti-Zionism remained among them until World War Two. By contrast, Said observes:

Throughout the Arab world, Europe, and the United States there are extraordinarily large numbers of gifted and successful Palestinians who have made a mark in medicine, law, banking, planning, architecture, journalism, industry, education, contracting. Most of these people have contributed only a tiny fraction of what they could to the Palestinian national effort.

What is now required is an international effort at nation-state building – qualitatively different from the earlier efforts of the PLO and the intifadah – an invention of ‘ways of countering the facts with our own facts and institutions, and finally of asserting our national presence, democratically and with mass participation’. Small-country, secular, democratic, institutional, acre-and-goat nationalism, in other words, assisted by a diaspora middle class. It resembles Jewish nationalism minus the Zionist component. Also, it is virtually the opposite of what Saddam Hussein, King Hussein, President Assad and (intermittently) the PLO have stood for: the ‘Arab world’ of dictatorial cliques, violent paranoia, mass oppression and (potentially) theocratic convulsions. No wonder they hate the Palestinians so much: paradoxically, the most hopeless of causes offers the only real hope on the Middle Eastern scene.