Arthur Bueno on Fri, 3 Mar 2000 18:35:54 +0100

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Syndicate: Reflections on American injustice by Edward Said

>Date: Fri, 3 Mar 2000 02:33:16 EST
>Subject: Reflections on American injustice by Edward Said

>Al-Ahram Weekly, 24 Feb. - 1 March 2000
>Issue No. 470, Cairo, AL-AHRAM established in 1875
>Reflections on American injustice
>By Edward Said
>   A few days ago the third United Nations official in charge of the oil
>food program in Iraq, Jutta Purghardt, resigned the job in protest,
>in the same sense of outrage and futility by the two men who had filled the
>post before her, Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, both of whom had
>resigned. So terrible are the results of the US-maintained sanctions
>that country's civilian population and infrastructure that not even a
>seasoned international humanitarian official can tolerate the agony of what
>those sanctions have wrought. The toll in human life alone on a daily basis
>is too dreadful even to contemplate; but trying also to imagine what the
>sanctions are doing to distort the country for years and years to come
>exceed one's means of expression. Certainly the Iraqi regime seems largely
>untouched by the sanctions and, as for the Iraqi opposition being
>by the US to the tune of $100 million, that seems pretty laughable. A
>of Ahmad Chalabi, that opposition's leader, that appears in a recent Sunday
>supplement of the New York Times is intended I think to balance the actual
>disaster of US Iraq policy with a portrait of the person supposedly
>for the future of his country. What emerges instead is a picture of a
>shady man (wanted for embezzlement in Jordan) who in the course of the
>profile says not a single word about the sufferings of his people, not a
>single syllable, as if the whole issue was just a matter of his grandiose
>(somewhat silly) plan to try to take Basra and Mosul with 1,000 men.
>  Purghardt's resignation may bring the matter of sanctions back to
>for a little while, as may a stiff letter of objection sent by 40 members
>the House of Representatives to Madeleine Albright about the cruelty and
>uselessness of the policy she has defended so vehemently. But given the
>presidential campaign now underway, and the realities of American social
>political injustice over the years, the sanctions against Iraq are likely
>continue indefinitely. The Republican contender George W Bush has just won
>the South Carolina primaries by basically appealing to the most
>stiff-necked, reactionary and self-righteous segment of the American
>population, the so-called Christian Right (Christian, in this instance,
>an adjective rather woefully inappropriate to the sentiments this group and
>its chosen candidate habitually express). And what is the basis of Bush's
>appeal? The fact that he sticks up for and symbolises such values as
>the death penalty to more people than any other governor in history, or
>presiding over the largest prison population in any state in the US.
>  It is the organised, legalised cruelty and injustice of the American
>that many of the country's citizens actually cherish and, in this electoral
>season, want their candidates to defend and support, not just the cynical
>machismo of its random acts of violence like the gratuitous bombing of
>or last spring's sadistic offensive against Serbia. Consider the following:
>recently released report reveals that, with five per cent of the world's
>population, the US at the same time contains 25 per cent of the world's
>population of prisoners. Two million Americans are held in jails, of whom
>well over 45 per cent are African American, a number that is
>disproportionately higher than the black population itself. (The US also
>consumes 30 per cent of the world's energy and ravages a rough equivalent
>the earth's environment). Under Bush's tenure as governor of Texas, the
>number of prisoners rose from 41,000 to 150,000: he actually boasts about
>these numbers. So in light of this contemporary savagery against its own
>citizens, one should not be surprised that the poor Iraqis who undergo
>long-distance starvation, absence of schools and hospitals, the devastation
>of agriculture and the civil infrastructure are put through so much.
>  To understand the continued punishment of Iraq -- and also to understand
>why Mrs Albright was so "understanding" of Israel's totally unwarranted and
>gangster-like bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon -- one must pay close
>attention to an aspect of America's history mostly ignored by or unknown to
>educated Arabs and their ruling elites, who continue to speak of (and
>probably believe in) America's even-handedness. The aspect I have in mind
>the contemporary treatment of the African American people, who constitute
>roughly 20 per cent of the population, a not insignificant number. There is
>the great prior fact of slavery, first of all. Just to get an idea of how
>deliberately buried this fact was beneath the surface of the country's
>official memory and culture, note that until the 1970s no program of
>literature and history paid the slightest attention to black culture or
>slavery or the achievements of the black people. I received my entire
>university education between 1953 and 1963 in English and American
>literature, and yet all we studied was work written and done by white men,
>exclusively. No Dubois, no slave narratives, no Zora Neal Hurston, no
>Langston Hughes, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright. I recall asking a
>distinguished professor at Harvard, who lectured for 30 more or less
>consecutive weeks during the academic year on 250 years of American
>literature, from the Puritan 17th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards to
>Hemingway, why he didn't also lecture on black literature. His answer was:
>"There is no black literature." There were no black students when I was
>educated at Princeton and Harvard, no black professors, no sign at all that
>the entire economy of half the country was sustained for almost 200 years
>slavery, nor that 50 or 60 million people were brought to the Americas in
>slavery. The fact wasn't worth mentioning until the civil rights movement
>took hold and pressed for changes in the law -- until 1964 the law of the
>land discriminated openly against people of colour -- as a result of a mass
>movement led by charismatic men and women. But it bears repeating that when
>such leaders became too visible and powerful -- Malcolm X, Paul Robeson,
>Martin Luther King preeminently -- as well as politically radical, the
>had to destroy them. Be that as it may, there is a Holocaust Museum in
>Washington, but no museum of slavery which, considering that the Holocaust
>took place in Europe and slavery here, suggests the kind of priorities that
>still govern the official culture of the US. Certainly there should always
>reminders of human cruelty and violence, but they should not be so
>as to exclude the obvious ones. Similarly, no museum in Washington
>commemorates the extermination of the native people.
>  As a living monument to American injustice, therefore, we have the stark
>numbers of American social suffering. In relative but sometimes absolute
>terms, African-Americans supply the largest number of unemployed, the
>number of school drop-outs, the largest number of homeless, the largest
>number of illiterates, the largest number of drug addicts, the largest
>of medically uninsured people, the largest number of the poor. In short, by
>any of the socio-economic indices that matter, the black population of the
>United States, by far the richest country in recorded history, is the
>poorest, the most disadvantaged, the longest enduring historically in terms
>of oppression, discrimination and continued suppression. This is by no
>about only poor African-Americans. A recent television documentary about
>black opera singers in which I participated displayed an ugly picture of
>naked discrimination at the very highest levels. Just because a singer is
>black, he or she is expected to perform in Gershwin's appallingly
>condescending opera Porgy and Bess (every one of the singers interviewed on
>the programme expressed cordial loathing of the opera, which is always
>performed by travelling American opera troupes, even in Cairo, where I
>it was given in the late '50s) and, when they are given roles in works like
>Aida, seen as essentially OK for "coloured" people, although it was written
>by an Italian composer who hated Egypt (see my analysis in Culture and
>Imperialism), they are treated as less equal than white singers. As Simon
>Estes, the distinguished black baritone, said on the programme: if there
>two absolutely equal singers, one black, one white, the white will always
>the role. If the black is much better, he will get the role, but will be
>  Against the background of so vicious a system of persecution, then, it is
>no wonder that as non-Europeans the Arabs, Muslims, Africans, and a handful
>of unfortunate others receive so poor a treatment in terms of US foreign
>policy. And it is not at all illogical that the New York Times abets Mrs
>Albright in being "understanding" of Israel's violence against Arabs. One
>its editorials around the time of the Beirut bombing urged "restraint" on
>both sides, as if the Lebanese army was occupying Israel, instead of the
>other way round. The wonder of it, as I said earlier, is that we still wait
>for the US to deliver us from our difficulties, like some benign Godot
>to appear in shining armour. Left to my devices as an educator, I would
>stipulate across the Arab world that every university require its students
>take at least two courses not in American history, but in American
>history. Only then will we understand the workings of US society and its
>foreign policy in terms of its profound, as opposed to its rhetorical,
>realities. And only then will we address the US and its people selectively
>and critically, instead of as supplicants and humble petitioners. Most
>importantly, we should then be able to draw sustenance from the struggle of
>the African-American people to achieve equality and justice. We share a
>common cause with them against injustice, but for some reason our leaders
>don't seem to know it. When was the last time an Arab foreign minister on a
>visit to the US pointedly refused to address the Council of Foreign
>in New York and Washington and requested instead to visit a major African
>American church, university or meeting? That will be the day.

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