Monday, March 23, 2009

Orientalism, hmm, maybe not the menace we've been told it was.

There's a weird phenomenon that's been going on for several decades, and that is to focus on liberal accounts of other cultures that are positive but naive as being destructive as opposed to focussing or paying attention to outright racism and hostile dismissal of these same cultures. The image of the Middle East in the West in the 19th century has been raked over the coals so much that we forget, if we ever really learned, that at the same time that some writers were conjuring up images of palaces and seraglios others were dismissing Arabs as being inferior mentally, culturally, and racially, as well as outrightly dismissing Islam and Muhammad as being cheap frauds. While folks like Gerard Nerval were journeying to Egypt and to Syria and viewing it through the lens of everything that they thought Western culture wasn't, the French and British armies were conquering the world, massacring the indigenous peoples in fights to seize their territories as colonies. There may have been a fascination with India because of the Theosophical Society, but while Westerners were eagerly taking in accounts of foreign religions the British were very concretely playing local leaders off against one another in a game that ended with India's very real subjugation.

The worlds of the decadent writers weren't the cold hard facts of colonial exploitation, and I think that they shouldn't be treated as if they were, with their Orientalism being invoked to dismiss their insights and their artistic achievements, and in the case of travelers their understanding, though flawed, of these cultures flowing from a time before mass media and communications.

I think that the truth of it is that the idea of malicious Orientalism is really a comment on our own time, although with antecedents. The sixties were so good at liberating people from racism that instead of having to only fear bigots who thought they were inferior minorities now had to contend with well intentioned but naive young people who ultimately wanted to trivialize their culture. The idea of Orientalism provides a good justification for refusing these attempts, but the thing is that the racists are still out there.

Native American culture has been hurt most of all by this, to an extent that even black culture has not been, but there are still the descendants of settlers who live on and around Indian Reservations who beat up Native Americans, harass them, see them as drunks and lazy, mock them and their customs. Surely, while doing harm to Native American culture, New Agers aren't on the same level as these people. Surely, as well, white people in the suburbs who have no idea of what life in the poor black sections of cities is like who affect the style of "gangsters" are less malicious than people who want to physically attack blacks when they feel they've strayed too far from 'where they belong'. Even the blues is the same situation, although one that's more accepted because less obviously demeaning than white 'gangsters' driving daddy's Mercedes-Benz.

So I think that while Orientalism within the context of current society is a valid concern the pendulum has swung too far, so far that more energy is spent attacking liberals than is outlining racists, real racism, and oppression.

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