Features, Literature, Politics

Racism, Anti-Racism, and Orientalism at LitHub

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism, one of the most influential works of our time, and one of the most ubiquitous: scan the bookshelves of any liberal-arts major, and you likely will find the 1978 book with pride of place alongside such contemporaneous post-colonial classics as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

Even those who’ve never opened Orientalism will be familiar with some of its broad themes, especially the idea that Western scholars have systematically denigrated the cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa with insulting stereotypes, depicting the Orient as an exotic “Other” full of backwards, mystical man-children. One sometimes even hears the word used as a verb or gerund — “othering” — as a means to attack arguments perceived to be Eurocentric.

The idea of the Other has become a laugh line among conservatives over time. (“Stop Othering me!”) But even right-wing critics should acknowledge that Said’s book offered genuinely valid critiques of the condescending way in which Western writers often depicted non-Western civilizations. These critiques took on a new urgency after 9/11, when it became common for Western pundits (some of whom had never set foot in an Islamic country) to casually write off the entirety of Muslim civilization as a misogynistic death cult that remains mired in the seventh century.

But Said’s critique of Western attitudes — like all strong forms of cultural and literary criticism — can be taken too far. He died in 2003, and so never got a chance to witness the rise of social media and today’s furious Twitter wars over word usage and cultural appropriation. The arguments in Orientalism now are being used to support allegations of Islamophobic ‘othering’ that even Said himself might find dubious, and perhaps even hysterical.

Poster of Professor Edward Said, near Ramallah. Pic: Justin McIntosh.

No better example could be hoped for than the teapot tempest surrounding Adam Valen Levinson, an affiliate of the Middle East Institute, and a Fellow at Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology. After reading a selection of his work — including his new book, The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East — I would judge that he has all the reliably humane and vaguely leftist positions that one would expect from an intellectual whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Haaretz, and The Paris Review. Indeed, the main focus of his literature is the search for “cross-cultural understanding.” But he is also an American — and a Jewish one at that – and for many post-colonial culture critics, that is really the only thing that matters.

Valen Levinson’s troubles came to a boil when an excerpt from The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah appeared on Literary Hub, a prestigious (if niche) site that caters in large part to writers keeping up with the work of other writers. The excerpt gives a good flavour of Valen Levinson’s style: playful, ironic, self-deprecating. The action, such as it is, takes place on an Emirati flight out of Chicago. The gag is that Valen Levinson is fascinated with the Arab world, and has even learned Arabic well enough to speak the language conversationally — yet he’s still completely clueless about basic aspects of Arab culture:

“Juice?” said the pretty attendant in a pretty hat, balancing three glasses on a tray, two of them shades of orange.
“What’s the orange one?” I asked.
“It’s orange,” she said.

Later in the excerpt, Valen Levinson discusses his motivation for dedicating his life to understanding a culture and language that has no real connection to his roots or upbringing. Suffice it to say that he hardly comes off as a right-wing cultural warrior seeking to embed himself among the enemy:

9/11 had forced Arab and Muslim and Middle Eastern on to the airwaves—it was wartime with rhetoric to match, and the battle lines of our new enemies were painted with huge, clumsy brushstrokes. The attack had made us all forcefully self-conscious. We perceived them, assumed their perceptions of us, and then canceled all the flights to Beirut. But by learning the primary language of this region, some of us thought, we might be able to figure out what them were really thinking.

As I tell Valen Levinson’s story, I feel a bit like a broken record — not so long ago, I wrote an article for Quillette about a somewhat symmetrical saga involving a white Canadian writer who was pilloried for including a First Nations character in her novel. In that case, too, the author bent over backwards to demonstrate good intentions and generosity of spirit. But the outcome in both cases was the same: critics looked straight past the text and into the author’s white DNA.

Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian-American writer and translator, not only assailed LitHub’s editors for publishing Valen Levinson’s excerpt; she predicted it might even lead to the site’s collapse:

You guys actually published a man discovering and then whitesplaining Arabic and tossing in racist orientalist shit left and right. Bye. Arab American writers are talking shit about you and we will never stop. RIP Lithub. Hope it was worth whatever connection you made with some publicist at Norton [publisher of The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah].

Aaminah Shakur — a self-described “First Nations/Indigenous/Black …queer/Two-Spirit/non-binary, crip/disabled…self-taught artist,” wrote: “LitHub could publish actual Arab writers, but instead you publish insulting trash like this.” Other critics adopted more militant language—and more explicitly segregationist metaphors. “The settlers must be stopped and pushed back to where they came from,” one wrote. “We cannot let people who were not born speaking a language every write about this language. Stick to your own kind and write only about what you embody.”

So many critics piled on in the comments section of the LitHub excerpt that an English-language UAE newspaper, The National, ran an article about it. Scroll through, and you can see Valen Levinson accused of every thought-crime imaginable. In some cases, the criticisms are so strange that I was not quite sure if they were meant as satire. Several people, for instance, made much of the author’s observation that “the triangle of Abu Dhabi stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava.”

Greek Baklava is triangle-shaped,” declared Fatima Khansahib. “Everyone knows baklava in the Middle East is either rolled or diamond shaped…Only a true orientalist would want to come to the Middle East with so much enthusiasm and would have the arrogance not to understand the complexities of what is an incredibly important cultural pastry.”

As for Valen Levinson’s many years spent learning Arabic, this appeared to count for little. Perhaps less than nothing, in fact. “What right does this racist imperialist Jew have to write about the Arabic language and his experience of its culture?” one asked. “Arabic culture can never be understood by a non-native speaker and it is disgusting that people like this author would even attempt to do so…I think the likely reason is that Lithub like many organizations in the publishing business is run by greedy colonialist Jews.”

That last comment was posted on the LitHub site in December. When I saw it in mid-January, it surprised me that such explicit anti-Semitism would not have been purged by the site’s administrators (although the commenter did step back from the Jewish angle in a subsequent exchange). But to the extent the site’s editors were concerned, it was with Valen Levinson, not his critics — as they made clear with a craven apology appended at the top of the excerpt by Editor in Chief Jonny Diamond and Managing Editor Emily Firetog, so that it is now the first thing any reader sees upon opening the article:

The following excerpt from Adam Valen Levinson’s memoir should never have made it through our editorial process. Though the memoir in question recounts the writer’s dawning understanding of the orientalist gaze, and how corrosive it can be, in excerpting the beginning of the text without context, we let down our readers…The exoticizing language in any piece like this, the casual Othering, is not only a failure of literary empathy and observation, but it reinforces a toxic framework within which racism flourishes and power retrenches…We live in a precarious era of untruth and weaponized language, in which life and death is often a matter of the syntactical ‘us’ and ‘them’—so it is fundamental to our job as editors to be vigilant about the power of words to harm and dehumanize, and in this case, we failed.

Writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Palestinian-American poet and translator Fady Joudah grudgingly praised this act of contrition from LitHub, declaring it to be the sort of “peace offering the powerful often extend to the assaulted.”

But he also encouraged readers to make their own penance for America’s racist sins, urging them to respond to Valen Levinson’s excerpt by reciting a sort of rosary: “For each negative, stereotypical mention of anything Arab, say it, write it, seven times to erase the adverse effect: The Arab is beautiful. This is the kind of erasure you should practice. Stick with it long enough. You will see how it changes you. I’m Arab and beautiful!”

*     *     *

As overwrought as the criticism of Valen Levinson has been, I have tried to keep in mind just how sensitive many Muslims and Arabs are about the way they are treated in the American media. The United States is currently led by a president who has used his Twitter account and campaign speeches to spread demagogic lies and inflammatory conspiracy theories, and these have understandably stoked interfaith tensions and existing anxieties in the Islamic and Arab communities. Almost two decades after 9/11, there continue to be prisoners held at Gitmo, an arrangement that has led some to conclude that American protections against torture and indefinite detention without trial don’t apply to Muslims.

But Joudah’s denunciation of Valen Levinson — like the scathing comments about him that appear on LitHub — seems to willfully ignore the author’s intention to fight hatred, not incubate it. And though I am no expert on Edward Said’s theories, there seems to be a major difference between a humble, self-mocking hipster intellectual such as Valen Levinson, and the Arabist and Orientalist scholars Said attacked, or the colonialists who drew lines on maps and invented R-rated pulp stories about the sex lives of polygamous sultans.

“An argument used against Adam is that it is intellectually impossible and morally reprehensible to write about other peoples that are not your own,” says Wisam Alshaibi, a fellow at UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies who is studying the de-Ba’athification of Iraq. “I understand where this reaction comes from—there is a long, troubled history of colonial travel writing and anthropology, that continues into the present, that made racialized subjects out of Arabs, and many others. Adam, however, did no such thing. He was writing from the point of view of a young Jewish American learning Arabic and all its subtleties — thus connecting on a human level with the very people he likely grew up learning were his enemies.”

As is typically the case in all sorts of online dust-ups of this nature, the Muslim and Arab voices that denounced Valen Levinson on LitHub were not necessarily representative of broader community attitudes. It’s notable, for instance, that when Valen Levinson was interviewed (in Arabic) on a U.S.-based satellite TV channel, Alhurra, the conversation was a completely friendly exchange about the dangers of travelling in the Middle East, what it’s like to work in Abu Dhabi, and navigating Arabic’s many dialects.

When I ask Alshaibi (whose family came to the United States from Iraq and Palestine) what Said might have thought about the Valen Levinson controversy, he tells me that “the young Said probably wouldn’t care — if you remember in Orientalism he argued that there is nothing wrong with trying to understand the Middle East” (though he also added that “the older Said was kind of a reactionary and prone to polemics” — so who knows).

As for Alshaibi’s own take on orientalism, he feels it is Valen Levinson’s critics who are the more retrograde party in the LitHub dispute.

“Take one example from the comments that I think is typical of the others,” he tells me in our email exchange. “‘What right does this racist imperialist Jew have to write about the Arabic language and his experience of its culture?’…That comment was astonishing to me — because my guess is that its author would call themselves anti-imperial and anti-racist. However, note the deep contradiction, which is that, according to this statement, both Jews and Arabs are totally determined by their culture. This is what we call racial essentialism, an imperial and colonial way of looking at identity through and through. The irony here is that the commenter is calling Adam a ‘racist imperialist’ while actually recycling an old orientalist trope — that ‘Arab culture’ is somehow fixed and homogenous, and impenetrable to all but Arabs themselves.”

This irony is entirely at the expense of Valen Levinson’s critics. For it is Valen Levinson — the ‘racist imperialist Jew’ — who seems to be earnestly seeking cross-cultural knowledge and understanding, while it is his detractors — and even his editors — who seem intent on slapping away his outstretched hand.

 

Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based author, columnist and reporter whose articles have appeared recently in The AtlanticForeign AffairsNational Post and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay

15 Comments

  1. I thought at first that this article was going to eviscerate Said’s Orientalism. His argument is constructed on a very convenient historical narrative that ignores small details like oh you know…the Ottoman Empire. Would love to read a Quillette article like that.

  2. So all anthropologists are now to be scorned…got it. After all, they write about cultures they were not born into and that is the jist of the criticisms of Valen Levinson.

    One thing I found interesting occurs in the 16th paragraph with this sentence: “As overwrought as the criticism of Valen Levinson has been, I have tried to keep in mind just how sensitive many Muslims and Arabs are about the way they are treated in the American media. ” It then goes on with the usual media anti-Trump stuff. The irony is that you could replace the last part of that sentence and have it fit numerous groups:
    …I have tried to keep in mind just how sensitive _____ are about the way they are treated in the American Media…. Let’s see, Conservatives, President Trump, …. Funny how there is such concern to the sensitivity of Muslims and Arabs but not to “the Others” of current society. Even the slam about “spreading of lies and inflammatory conspiracy theories” remarks. Like all the Nov 9, 2016 “OMG, the Trumpvoters are attacking Muslims in the streets, Burning Crosses, and spreading KKK flyers!” which turned out to all be acts perpetrated (or falsely reported) by anti-Trumpsters? Or how anyone who remarked about HRC’s fitness was blasted as misogynist or attacking women, yet those attacking Trump on the same grounds now are cheered? Or how anyone who says “you know, a DA in California went after body-parts sellers uncovered by the PPA video about selling body parts” gets you suddenly facing charges and smears of “war on women, want to lock them in rooms and forcibly impregnant them” Or anyone mentioning “due process” around #metoo gets you charged with encouraging rape and victim blaming/shaming?

    My point is, this is the culture that the Left (vocal as opposed to traditional political), with the hysterical scream/shout down tactics has brought. If one does not talk exactly to the talking-points, you are labeled/shamed/and shouted down as Valen Levinson was in this case or the canadian author in your prior piece (which I found an interesting read as well and encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to check the Quillette history back a week or so)

  3. That last comment was posted on the LitHub site in December. When I saw it in mid-January, it surprised me that such explicit anti-Semitism would not have been purged by the site’s administrators

    You mean you missed the antisemitic dog whistle earlier?

    “The settlers must be stopped and pushed back to where they came from,” one wrote. “We cannot let people who were not born speaking a language every write about this language. Stick to your own kind and write only about what you embody.”

    Said’s dreary screed is little more than an exercise in Occidentalism. The entirety of Western history is reduced to a knee- jerk response to the East. You might think that Romantic poets were obsessed with urns and daffodils but no, it’s all about keeping Johnny Foreigner in his place.

  4. Deafening Tone says

    “Said’s dreary screed is little more than an exercise in Occidentalism. The entirety of Western history is reduced to a knee- jerk response to the East.”

    Terrific comment.

  5. Well personally I prefer the “colonialists who drew lines on maps and invented R-rated pulp stories about the sex lives of polygamous sultans” than the sultans who invaded and conquered the lands of other peoples, imposed death or taxes on them, stole the first-born males and indoctrinated them and kidnapped the girls for their harems.

  6. Furthermore, any “Others” concerned about “Othering” are free to go around “Othering” as well. They might enjoy it more than playing the inept and pathetic victim who has such an inferiority complex they want to make others recite “Arab is beautiful”.

  7. Shugtastic says

    I enjoyed the core of this article but found the anti-Trump paragraph to be every bit as cowardly and inflammatory as the racist and derogatory comments directed at Valen Levenison. Kay here posits that Muslim grievances must be traced to the way ‘others’ have historically treated them, that institutional – presidential even (but just Trump, of course) – abuses of power can justify the religious and cultural sensitivities of Muslims. This disavows them of personal power and intellectual responsibility and is but an obsequious nod to the destructive and demanding doctrine of cultural Marxism.

  8. ArSkeeDhar says

    Kay posits no such thing. He is merely pointing out that in the current American political environment, Muslim sensitivities are heightened.

    • Shugtastic says

      Then why didn’t he just say that? Muslim sensitivities have been heightened since 9/11 so why wrap his point in anti-Trump rhetoric? It was intellectually dishonest.

      • B. Terclinger says

        Were muslim sensitivities heightened after they slaughtered EIGHTY MILLION Hindus?

        Edward Said was a Neo-marxist closet nazi and a fraud. And Fanon was a communist and “critical theory” is propaganda to train gulag guards with lit degrees.

        And who CARES what some marxist homosexual jihadis think about some Leftist JINO who learns arabic but knows nothing about the faith that kept his ancestors going for millennia.

        I’m a an American.
        And a Jew.

        I defecate on the koran and use Das Kapital for toilet paper.

  9. Wokieleaks says

    It’s incredible the editors of Lithub felt the need to apologize when these are the kinds of comments criticizing the piece

    “What right does this racist imperialist jew have to write about the Arabic language and his experience of its culture? Arabic culture can never be understood by a non-native speaker and it is disgusting that people like this author would even attempt to do so.”

    “At this point, Americans either know Arabic or they don’t. It is no one’s job to explain Arabic to you, and honestly, trying to learn is just going to end up in a fetish.”

    “It is the hubris of the OCCUPIER to look at a land, a people, a culture, a history — and yes, a language — and declare it “nothing.””

    “The settlers must be stopped and pushed back to where they came from, and further. We cannot let people who were not born speaking a language every write about this language. Stick to your own kind and write only about what you embody.”

    “Gone are the days when white voices should be heard in America.”

    “You have literally no write to speak in this conversation — your white voices, Jacob King, are all the same”

    Levinson is a Jew who lives in AMERICA and yet he is attacked repeatedly as a ‘settler’ and an ‘occupier’ in those comments solely on the basis that he’s a Jew. He isn’t even an occupant of Israel.

    Furthermore, the comments argue that we should never attempt to understand anyone else, that learning a language is itself racist (???) and that people should all stick to their own “kind.”

    The comments are filled with a bunch of Jew-hating, white-hating Islamist racists and the wobbly-kneed cowards who run that website apologized for offending a bunch of bigoted psychopaths. Pathetic.

    • Jay Salhi says

      100 years ago, 25% of the population of the Middle East was Christian. Today, the number is 5%. The ridiculous comments you site where people complain about “occupiers” in indicative of a world view that has enabled this trend wherein non-Muslim minorities have been driven to the brink of extinction.

  10. Jay Salhi says

    ““As overwrought as the criticism of Valen Levinson has been, I have tried to keep in mind just how sensitive many Muslims and Arabs are about the way they are treated in the American media. ”

    With kid gloves by journalists who are scared to death of being falsely accused of having a phobia?

  11. Flat Eric says

    I read the comments on the Lithub site. I find any of the calls for censorship baffling but most of the more objectionable and quotable comments seemed to come from just two people. Who appear to be either insane or – and maybe this phrase is culturally specific to Brits but what the hell – “taking the piss”.

    Either is a bit worrying. First, crazy opinions are more interesting than sane ones, so the insane are given more screen time than their views deserve. Secondly, whether insane or piss-taking they got the site’s editors to apologise! Bizarre.

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