Dreams and delusions-II: The language and reality
By Edward Said
August 30, 2003

The truth of the matter is that reality is neither at the individual's command (no matter how powerful) nor does it necessarily adhere more closely to some peoples and mentalities than to others.

The human condition is made up of experience and interpretation, and those can never be completely dominated by power: they are also the common domain of human beings in history.

The terrible mistakes made by Wolfowitz and Leith came down to their arrogant substitution of abstract and finally ignorant language for a far more complex and recalcitrant reality. The appalling results are still before us.

So let us not accept any longer the ideological demagoguery that leaves language and reality as the sole property of American power, or of so-called western perspectives.

The core of the matter is of course imperialism, that (in the end banal) self-assumed mission to rid the world of evil figures like Saddam in the name of justice and progress.

Revisionist justifications of the invasion of Iraq and the American war on terrorism that have become one of the least welcome imports from an earlier failed empire, Britain, and have coarsened discourse and distorted fact and history with alarming fluency, is proclaimed by expatriate British journalists in America who don't have the honesty to say straight out, yes, we are superior and reserve the right to teach the natives a lesson anywhere in the world where we perceive them to be nasty and backward.

And why do we have that right? Because those wooly-haired natives whom we know from having ruled our empire for 500 years and now want America to follow, have failed: they fail to understand our superior civilization, they are addicted to superstition and fanaticism, they are unregenerate tyrants who deserve punishment, and we, by God, are the ones to do the job, in the name of progress and civilization.

If some of these fickle journalistic acrobats (who have served so many masters that they don't have any moral bearings at all) can also manage to quote Marx and German scholars - despite their avowed anti-Marxism and their rank ignorance of any languages or scholarship not English - in their favour, then how much cleverer they seem. It's just racism at bottom though, no matter how dressed up it is.

The problem is actually a deeper and more interesting one than the polemicists and publicists for American power have imagined.

All over the world people are all experiencing the quandary of a revolution in thought and vocabulary in which American neo-liberalism and "pragmatism" are made on the one hand by American policy-makers to stand for a universal norm, whereas in fact - as we have seen in the Iraq example I cited above - there are all sorts of slippages and double standards in the use of words like "realism," "pragmatism," and other words like "secular" and "democracy" that need complete re-thinking and re-evaluation.

Reality is too complex and multifarious to lend itself to jejune formulae like "a democratic Iraq amenable to us would result."

Such reasoning cannot stand the test of reality. Meanings are not imposed from one culture on to another, any more than one language and one culture alone possesses the secret of how to get things done efficiently.

As Arabs, I would submit, and as Americans we have too long allowed a few much-trumpeted slogans about "us" and "our" way to do the work of discussion, argument, and exchange.

One of the major failures of most Arab and western intellectuals today is that they have accepted without debate or rigorous scrutiny terms like secularism and democracy, as if everyone knew what those words meant.

America today has the largest prison population of any country on earth; it also has the largest number of executions than any country in the world.

To be elected president, you need not win the popular vote, but you must spend over 200 million dollars. How do these things pass the test of "liberal democracy?"

So rather than have the terms of debate organized without scepticism around a few sloppy terms like "democracy" and "liberalism" or around unexamined conceptions of "terrorism", "backwardness," and "extremism," we should be pressing for a more exacting, a more demanding kind of discussion in which terms are defined from numerous viewpoints and are always placed in concrete historical circumstances.

The great danger is that American "magical" thinking 'a la Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush is being passed off as the supreme standard for all peoples and languages to follow. In my opinion, and if Iraq is a salient example, then we must not allow that simply to occur without strenuous debate and probing analysis, and we mustn't be cowed into believing that Washington's power is so irresistibly awesome.

And so far as the Middle East is concerned, the discussion must include Arabs and Muslims and Israelis and Jews as equal participants. I urge everyone to join in and not leave the field of values, definitions, and cultures uncontested.

They are certainly not the property of a few Washington officials, any more than they are the responsibility of a few Middle Eastern rulers.

There is a common field of human undertaking being created and recreated, and no amount of imperial bluster can ever conceal or negate that fact.