Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Question for discussion: H.R. 3077 and Postcolonial Studies

There has been much discussion of a bill now pending in the U.S. Congress called H.R. 3077. It is aimed at monitoring Middle East Studies at universities that receive federal funding, but some of its advocates have specifically targeted postcolonial theory as anti-American.

It seems there are two issues here.
First, what is the significance of the gap between what was said at the Committee hearings on HR 3077 and the text of the bill now under consideration? Critics of the bill have said that it is undoubtedly going to result in partisan allocation of funding, and de facto government censorship. But the bill itself has some clauses suggesting this is not the purpose of the 'advisory board' that will be created to oversee Middle East Studies if the bill is to pass. What does the bill really say and how do we interpret it?

Second, what is the role of postcolonial studies in this? One of the witnesses who appeared before the house committee on HR 3077, Stanley Kurtz, singled out postcolonial theory and Edward Said in particular as a hub for anti-American ideology. Here is an excerpt from his statement:

The ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle Eastern Studies) is called "post-colonial theory." Post-colonial theory was founded by Columbia University professor of comparative literature, Edward Said. Said gained fame in 1978, with the publication of his book, Orientalism. In that book, Said equated professors who support American foreign policy with the 19th century European intellectuals who propped up racist colonial empires. The core premise of post-colonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.

In his regular columns for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said has made his views about America crystal clear. Said has condemned the United States, which he calls, "a stupid bully," as a nation with a "history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." Said has actively urged his Egyptian readers to replace their naive belief in America as the defender of liberty and democracy with his supposedly more accurate picture of America as an habitual perpetrator of genocide.

Kurtz is obviously misstating the intention and purpose of postcolonial studies, and egregiously distorting Said's argument in Orientalism (he may be right on Said's views of the role of America's foreign policy as expressed in his journalistic writings). If one disagrees with Kurtz, what is the best way to counter his smear? He cannot be ignored as a right-wing crank. He is highly influential, and these remarks were delivered to the U.S. congress. One has to respond to his comments on their merits.

Here are some other documents that might be helpful in sorting out these issues.

Here is the text of the bill that has passed the U.S. House and is now going to be considered by the Senate

Here is the text of the section of the bill requiring the creation of an advisory board to monitor academic research in institutions receiving federal grants.

Here is a page with many links. Here is the Campus Watch page. Here is a National Review article defending H.R. 3077.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amardeep said...

I just deleted a useless comment.

Did I mention that pointless insults will be promptly removed? Sorry trolls, your fun is over: find another site to terrorize.

I won't be removing posts that are critical, only posts that use profanity, or are utterly irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

What's a pointless insult? Is calling Naipaul a bigot not an insult?

Rob Breymaier said...

I think the question is do we really need Congress monitoring academia. With the state of the media what it is (corporate owned and largely uncritical), universities are now an increasingly important source for restraint of government power. Sure, most of them receive funding from the government but there's really no ombudsmanship (if that's a word) of academia from the government. I find the idea of government advisory boards to be a slippery slope.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh:

Stanley Kurtz is wrong, of course, in stating that the core premise of PoCo is the immorality of using academic knowledge to further American interests.
A better way of putting this thesis is that some in the American (humanities) academy think such a conclusion is mandated by Said's analysis. Those academics are mistaken, but then I don't think much of Said's original argument, in any case.

Assume, for the moment, that Said's thesis about a particular piece of 'knowledge' advancing Western imperial interests is correct. But Said doesn't even show--as he must--that 'orientalist knowledge' necessarily advances imperial interests. At most, he shows that such knowledge is sufficient to further Western power.

But even if he had, I have to ask, so what? Orientalism may have (necessarily) advanced the cause of both the West as well as the truth! I raise this as a theoretical possibility only to underscore that Saidian (Is that the right spelling?) analysis ignores the facts-on-the-ground: In the Indian case, for example, much Orientalist knowledge was generated well before there was a British Empire to defend.

Again, a question for you: Isn't Said's argument merely 'ad hominem'? I ask this out of genuine puzzlement at its popularity--have I missed something obvious?