Another week, another pile of victims of those who pride themselves on courageously “speaking truth to power,” as the saying has it. This time, it was the unlikely figures of Cher and Gwen Stefani—the former accused of racism, the latter of the catch-all “cultural appropriation.”
These latest incidents occurred while I was reading Places of Mind, Timothy Brennan’s fascinating new biography of Edward A. Said, the controversial left-wing academic, polymathic scholar, and influential founder of postcolonial studies. The juxtaposition allowed me to reflect that the much remarked upon intellectual bankruptcy of the contemporary conservative movement has its counterpart in the bankruptcy of the left. The major difference is that the left now controls every significant cultural institution, which allows rhetoric and volume to compensate for hard work and thoughtfulness.
For many years I read everything I could find by Said. While I sympathized with his immigrant status and the insider-outsider tension that marked his life and work, I deplored his politics. Said was a man of the left, the militant left. He was closely connected to the PLO and he made no secret of his opposition to the State of Israel as currently constituted. These were not the reasons I read him. What most interested me was his approach to literary and cultural criticism, specifically his appropriation of figures such as Lukacs, Freud, and Foucault for the critical task.
As one of the founders of postcolonial studies, Said is arguably the harbinger of today’s left-wing culture warriors. What, I wondered as I read Places of Mind, would he make of today’s left? Not a lot, I would hazard to guess, if Brennan is a competent guidee.
First, Said’s reading of Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun, two early cultural theorists, persuaded him that fixation on personal identity—with its overriding emphasis on difference and its negation of underlying humanity—leads to nothing but sectarian conflicts. As a result Said, as Brennan puts it, objected “to the ‘silliness' of younger professors and grad students who publicly attacked senior scholars as racists or pilorried their peers for being politically incorrect.” Indeed, as politically engaged as Said was, he was happy to cite John Henry Newman on the importance of the uselessness of university education and never taught a course on the Middle East. “I do not believe in politicizing the classroom,” he declared. The doyen of post-colonialism was not very “woke,” it would seem.
Second, he knew and appreciated the Western canon. He had read the great works of English and French literature. He was familiar with the classics of the philosophical tradition. And he appreciated them. Like Georg Lukacs, he did not reduce a book to the class or race of its author, and thought that even those whose politics he repudiated had deep insights into the human condition. That is clear from what is arguably his most important work, Culture and Imperialism. It is hard to imagine that the aficionado of Conrad and Swift would have much time for recent calls to cleanse the literary canon of anything that might run against the grain of today’s political tastes.
Third, Said’s critique of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis pointed to an important, and often neglected truth: Culture on the ground, at the local level, where real people and real communities come into contact with one another, is a complicated matter. Culture is rarely a straightforward collision of one world against another. More often than not, it involves negotiations and compromises. In short, we might say that in reality culture is a dynamic, ever-shifting phenomenon, not a matter of pure, hermetically sealed forms of life. And we can draw a rather obvious inference from this: Culture is cultural appropriation. Only a benighted fool would claim otherwise.
Turning from the Said biography to the current day, it is clear that the new New Left of the latest tastes in critical theory is not the old New Left of Said. Brennan comments on Said’s later reflections on postcolonialism: “He had become the nominal father of a field that he was reluctant to disown but that no longer resonated with his vision.” A world where elastic terms such as “male privilege” or “whiteness” are used as quick ways to delegitimize a text or an author is a world where there is no need to read, let alone understand, that which one wishes to reject. It can be done a priori, with minimal effort. Without, one might say, having to look up from one’s smartphone to open an actual book.
Erich Fromm observed that it is the rule, rather than the exception, in the historical process that ideas deteriorate into ideologies. He forgot to mention that, when ideologues win the culture war, their ideologies also turn into career opportunities. The various contemporary forms of New Left theory, not least those concerned with gender and race, are now pathways to promotion, to lucrative book deals, to New York Times op-eds, and to well-paid speaking gigs at prestigious schools. The road from the polymathic Said to today’s leftism is one marked by intellectual decline. Now one merely needs to recite the liturgy—white privilege, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.—to establish one’s critical credentials.
Does anyone seriously think Cher is a racist because she tweets about wishing she could have helped George Floyd? Or that Gwen Stefani’s fashion choices are cultural appropriation? Indeed, is cultural appropriation even a coherent concept? The new New Left seems to prefer games of “gotcha!” to anything resembling real critical thinking. Of course, the Left can do so with impunity because it is so powerful. And that is why any claims it makes to “speaking truth to power” are now nothing more than misdirection. As Said’s work itself indicates, when you control the culture, you are the power.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
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