No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding - and more difficult - to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).
Tracker Marks was of a different opinion. Though he seemed more white than a white man, he had no time for their ways. For him his dress, his deportment was no different than staying downwind in the shadows of trees when hunting, blending into the world of those he hunted, rather than standing out from it. Once he had excelled at the emu dance & the kangaroo dance; then his talent led him to the whitefella dance, only now no-one was left of his tribe to stand around the fire & laugh & praise his talent for observation & stealthy imitation.The whites have no law, he told Capois Death, no dreaming. Their way of life made no sense whatsoever. Still, he did not hate them or despise them. They were stupid beyond belief, but they had a power, & somehow their stupidity & their power were, in Tracker Marks’s mind, inextricably connected. But how? he asked Capois Death. How can power & ignorance sleep together? Questions to which Capois Death had no answer.
Consider the great Samuel Clemens. Huckleberry Finn is one of the few books that all American children are mandated to read: Jonathan Arac, in his brilliant new study of the teaching of Huck, is quite right to term it 'hyper-canonical.' And Twain is a figure in American history as well as in American letters. The only objectors to his presence in the schoolroom are mediocre or fanatical racial nationalists or 'inclusivists,' like Julius Lester or the Chicago-based Dr John Wallace, who object to Twain's use—in or out of 'context'—of the expression 'nigger.' An empty and formal 'debate' on this has dragged on for decades and flares up every now and again to bore us. But what if Twain were taught as a whole? He served briefly as a Confederate soldier, and wrote a hilarious and melancholy account, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. He went on to make a fortune by publishing the memoirs of Ulysses Grant. He composed a caustic and brilliant report on the treatment of the Congolese by King Leopold of the Belgians. With William Dean Howells he led the Anti-Imperialist League, to oppose McKinley's and Roosevelt's pious and sanguinary war in the Philippines. Some of the pamphlets he wrote for the league can be set alongside those of Swift and Defoe for their sheer polemical artistry. In 1900 he had a public exchange with Winston Churchill in New York City, in which he attacked American support for the British war in South Africa and British support for the American war in Cuba. Does this count as history? Just try and find any reference to it, not just in textbooks but in more general histories and biographies. The Anti-Imperialist League has gone down the Orwellian memory hole, taking with it a great swirl of truly American passion and intellect, and the grand figure of Twain has become reduced—in part because he upended the vials of ridicule over the national tendency to religious and spiritual quackery, where he discerned what Tocqueville had missed and far anticipated Mencken—to that of a drawling, avuncular fabulist.
I resolutely refuse to believe that the state of Edward's health had anything to do with this, and I don't say this only because I was once later accused of attacking him 'on his deathbed.' He was entirely lucid to the end, and the positions he took were easily recognizable by me as extensions or outgrowths of views he had expressed (and also declined to express) in the past. Alas, it is true that he was closer to the end than anybody knew when the thirtieth anniversary reissue of his Orientalism was published, but his long-precarious condition would hardly argue for giving him a lenient review, let alone denying him one altogether, which would have been the only alternatives. In the introduction he wrote for the new edition, he generally declined the opportunity to answer his scholarly critics, and instead gave the recent American arrival in Baghdad as a grand example of 'Orientalism' in action. The looting and destruction of the exhibits in the Iraq National Museum had, he wrote, been a deliberate piece of United States vandalism, perpetrated in order to shear the Iraqi people of their cultural patrimony and demonstrate to them their new servitude. Even at a time when anything at all could be said and believed so long as it was sufficiently and hysterically anti-Bush, this could be described as exceptionally mendacious. So when the Atlantic invited me to review Edward's revised edition, I decided I'd suspect myself more if I declined than if I agreed, and I wrote what I felt I had to.Not long afterward, an Iraqi comrade sent me without comment an article Edward had contributed to a magazine in London that was published by a princeling of the Saudi royal family. In it, Edward quoted some sentences about the Iraq war that he off-handedly described as 'racist.' The sentences in question had been written by me. I felt myself assailed by a reaction that was at once hot-eyed and frigidly cold. He had cited the words without naming their author, and this I briefly thought could be construed as a friendly hesitance. Or as cowardice... I can never quite act the stern role of Mr. Darcy with any conviction, but privately I sometimes resolve that that's 'it' as it were. I didn't say anything to Edward but then, I never said anything to him again, either. I believe that one or two charges simply must retain their face value and not become debauched or devalued. 'Racist' is one such. It is an accusation that must either be made good upon, or fully retracted. I would not have as a friend somebody whom I suspected of that prejudice, and I decided to presume that Edward was honest and serious enough to feel the same way. I feel misery stealing over me again as I set this down: I wrote the best tribute I could manage when he died not long afterward (and there was no strain in that, as I was relieved to find), but I didn't go to, and wasn't invited to, his funeral.
Hitherto, the Palestinians had been relatively immune to this Allahu Akhbar style. I thought this was a hugely retrograde development. I said as much to Edward. To reprint Nazi propaganda and to make a theocratic claim to Spanish soil was to be a protofascist and a supporter of 'Caliphate' imperialism: it had nothing at all to do with the mistreatment of the Palestinians. Once again, he did not exactly disagree. But he was anxious to emphasize that the Israelis had often encouraged Hamas as a foil against Fatah and the PLO. This I had known since seeing the burning out of leftist Palestinians by Muslim mobs in Gaza as early as 1981. Yet once again, it seemed Edward could only condemn Islamism if it could somehow be blamed on either Israel or the United States or the West, and not as a thing in itself. He sometimes employed the same sort of knight's move when discussing other Arabist movements, excoriating Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, for example, mainly because it had once enjoyed the support of the CIA. But when Saddam was really being attacked, as in the case of his use of chemical weapons on noncombatants at Halabja, Edward gave second-hand currency to the falsified story that it had 'really' been the Iranians who had done it. If that didn't work, well, hadn't the United States sold Saddam the weaponry in the first place? Finally, and always—and this question wasn't automatically discredited by being a change of subject—what about Israel's unwanted and ugly rule over more and more millions of non-Jews?I evolved a test for this mentality, which I applied to more people than Edward. What would, or did, the relevant person say when the United States intervened to stop the massacres and dispossessions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo? Here were two majority-Muslim territories and populations being vilely mistreated by Orthodox and Catholic Christians. There was no oil in the region. The state interests of Israel were not involved (indeed, Ariel Sharon publicly opposed the return of the Kosovar refugees to their homes on the grounds that it set an alarming—I want to say 'unsettling'—precedent). The usual national-security 'hawks,' like Henry Kissinger, were also strongly opposed to the mission. One evening at Edward's apartment, with the other guest being the mercurial, courageous Azmi Bishara, then one of the more distinguished Arab members of the Israeli parliament, I was finally able to leave the arguing to someone else. Bishara [...] was quite shocked that Edward would not lend public support to Clinton for finally doing the right thing in the Balkans. Why was he being so stubborn? I had begun by then—belatedly you may say—to guess. Rather like our then-friend Noam Chomsky, Edward in the final instance believed that if the United States was doing something, then that thing could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.