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[Nettime-bold] 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 for 
food program in Iraq, Jutta Purghardt, resigned the job in protest, preceded 
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 also 
resigned. So terrible are the results of the US-maintained sanctions against 
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 simply 
exceed one's means of expression. Certainly the Iraqi regime seems largely 
untouched by the sanctions and, as for the Iraqi opposition being cultivated 
by the US to the tune of $100 million, that seems pretty laughable. A profile 
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 battling 
for the future of his country. What emerges instead is a picture of a shifty, 
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 awareness 
for a little while, as may a stiff letter of objection sent by 40 members of 
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 and 
political injustice over the years, the sanctions against Iraq are likely to 
continue indefinitely. The Republican contender George W Bush has just won 
the South Carolina primaries by basically appealing to the most hard-headed, 
stiff-necked, reactionary and self-righteous segment of the American 
population, the so-called Christian Right (Christian, in this instance, being 
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 applying 
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 system 
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 Sudan 
or last spring's sadistic offensive against Serbia. Consider the following: a 
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 of 
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 is 
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 Ernest 
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 by 
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 system 
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 be 
reminders of human cruelty and violence, but they should not be so selective 
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 largest 
number of school drop-outs, the largest number of homeless, the largest 
number of illiterates, the largest number of drug addicts, the largest number 
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 means 
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 recall 
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 are 
two absolutely equal singers, one black, one white, the white will always get 
the role. If the black is much better, he will get the role, but will be paid 

  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 of 
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 about 
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 to 
take at least two courses not in American history, but in American non-white 
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 Relations 
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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