Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
24 Feb. - 1 March 2000
Issue No. 470
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Reflections on American injustice

By Edward Said

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 less!

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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