Michelle and Barack Obama dining with Edward Said and his wife.
The great French political philosopher Jean-François Revel once wrote, “Democracy cannot survive without a certain diet of truth. It cannot survive if the degree of truth in current circulation falls below a minimal level. A democratic regime, founded on the free determination of important choices made by a majority, condemns itself to death if most of the citizens who have to choose between various options make their decisions in ignorance of reality, blinded by passions or misled by fleeting impressions.” If Revel is correct, the rapidly diminishing level of truth in our public discourse suggests that we are in dire straits.
I’m not talking about the sordid lies politicians tell in order to survive. Lechers like Bill Clinton or Bob Filner caught in the act have lied from time immemorial. But that sort of desperate lie, whatever larger damage it may do, is nothing compared to ideological lies of the sort corrupting our society. Those lies reflect peculiarly modern ideas, particularly the notion that since truth is relative, presumed noble aims in the service of some bright future of peace and justice make it acceptable to tell lies or ignore the truth.
The history of communist support and subversion by those living in Western democracies is obviously filled with such lies and liars. Marxism, with its promised future world of equality, peace, and justice, made lying a moral obligation. After all, there were so many “enemies of the people” hindering and resisting the inevitable communist utopia, and standing in the way of a “scientific” political and economic evolution. Of course it was noble to lie away “inconvenient truths” that gave ammunition to reactionaries and fascists who, out of irrational spite or selfishness, were fighting against the paradise to come. Thus a Walter Duranty or a Lincoln Steffens could eagerly lie about the millions starved to death or slaughtered in the Soviet gulags, for nothing, not even the truth, could be allowed to derail the locomotive of revolution steaming toward the perfect world.
A similar form of ideological lie has compromised our understanding of Islam and the roots of Islamic terror. For nearly 2 decades now we have heard over and over that Islam is the “religion of peace,” that neo-jihadist violence is a “distortion” of Islamic theology, and that the violence, failures, and disorder rife throughout the Muslim world reflect stagnant economies, oppressive dictators, or the lingering effects of colonialism, imperialism, or even the Crusades. What is astonishing about this depiction of Islam is its complete contradiction of how the West consistently evaluated the religion of Allah for over 13 centuries, an evaluation based not just on the explicit doctrines of Islam and the records of its own historians, both of which celebrate and justify violence against the infidel, but on painful, first-hand experience of raids, invasions, plundering, and enslavement.
Winston Churchill, for example, in his 1898 memoir of fighting on the Northwest Frontier in what is now Pakistan, wrote of Islam, “That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword––the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men––stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism.” Such comments were once unexceptional, for they were supported by the facts of history and the triumphalist chronicles of Muslim historians. They were true, as anyone alive at the time would have acknowledged, even those who admired Islam to some degree.
Of course today, Churchill’s description is dismissed as the bigotry of the imperialist telling lies to justify the continuing oppression of colonial peoples, and those like him who insist on repeating the truth once known by every schoolboy are attacked as “Islamophobes” or racists. Repeating such “distortions” must be avoided in order not to alienate all those millions of “moderate” Muslims who will reject jihadist violence and evolve into tolerant liberal democrats if only we convince them how much we respect and admire their wonderful religion. This bizarre view of truth is a toxic brew of Marxian “false consciousness,” pop-psychological self-esteem theory, and postmodern relativism in which power constructs “truths” that serve political and economic interests.
This idea found its most influential and baneful voice in the work of the late Edward Said, a Westernized Arab, child of affluence, and left-wing postmodern literary critic who lied about being a displaced Palestinian refugee and transformed himself into a Third-World victim of Western historical crimes. Given that pedigree, unsurprisingly Orientalism has become one of the most popular books for progressive academics and multiculturalist propagandists, and has shaped 4 decades of academic studies on the Middle East. All this despite the fact that it is, as historian Robert Irwin writes, “a work of malignant charlantry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.” Worse yet, its influence has been particularly destructive in Middle Eastern programs, the discipline government often calls on for help in determining policy in the region. According to Martin Kramer and his invaluable history Ivory Towers on Sand, Said’s work “crippled” Middle Eastern studies with a “take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology.”
The lies told today about Islam have been given their intellectual and moral justification by Said’s distorted and philosophically garbled interpretation of history. Unfortunately, that interpretation, Lee Smith points out, “set the terms by which Western intellectuals and reporters could write about Arabs and Islam.” The facts once known by every scholar of the Middle East Said reduced to “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Everything written by a Western scholar serves only to justify this domination, and so “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” In a later book Said decried academic work critical of Islam for displaying “both a peculiarly immediate sense of hostility and a coarse, on the whole unnuanced, attitude toward Islam.” Such scholars are reflecting “national and corporate needs,” and as a consequence “anything said about Islam by a professional scholar is within the sphere of influence of corporations and governments.” Said was particularly disdainful of “speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, [and] sabotage commercial airliners,” which Said called “highly exaggerated stereotypes.” Of course, the “stereotypes” soon became horrific reality, but that hasn’t stopped Said’s apologist disciples from repeating this line about jihadist terror.
This ideological lie persists because it serves the anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Zionist dogmas and aims of progressive politics. It has shaped the thinking of many intellectuals and journalists, and has become an unthinking reflex for those like Obama whose world-view reflects the fashions of the left-wing university. Indeed, so pervasive has been this malign influence that even some who should have known better, like George Bush, unwittingly indulged some of these fantasies about the “religion of peace.” But the Obama administration has most severely compromised our foreign policy in the Middle East by indulging this delusion. The ideological lies most famously articulated by Edward Said have made him one of Obama’s “founding fathers,” as Dinesh D’Souza put it, his influence traceable throughout Obama’s foreign policies and statements, from his groveling Cairo speech, his appeasement of the mullahs, and his precipitate overthrows of Gadhafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt, to his lies about Benghazi, his attacks on Israel, and his designation of Nidal Hasan’s jihadist murders at Fort Hood as “workplace violence.”
Following Revel, we can say a healthy democracy is one in which truth is allowed to circulate freely and inform citizens so they can make the right decisions. But today institutionalized lies have more influence than the truth, with baleful effects visible all around us. This suggests that we are a sick culture, and our condition is worsening.