Philip Bobbitt: Occidentalism

Philip Bobbitt, the author of the forthcoming War on Terror, holds the Walker Centennial Chair at the University of Texas Law School; in the NYT (April 4, 2004):

The idea of ''the enemy'' is uncongenial to the countries of the post-cold-war West, countries that until recently believed they had no natural predators. Two new titles address the post-Sept. 11 recognition that we do indeed have enemies in the world.

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit's book ''Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies'' is written against the backdrop of the late Edward Said's influential work ''Orientalism.'' Said drew attention to the West's elaborately constructed accounts of an exotic East, and to the grotesque generalizations of the many writers who depicted an Orient where life was cheap, the mentality inscrutable and people were either hopelessly passive or irrationally volatile.

As Said noted in one of his last essays, however, many in the Middle East had themselves ''slipped into an easy anti-Americanism that shows little understanding of what the U.S. is really like as a society.'' They had adopted their own kind of overgeneralizations about ''the Other,'' the West of the East. Buruma, a noted British journalist, and Margalit, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, call this ''Occidentalism,'' and in their fine book they show that although such an image serves the purpose of militant Islamism, its history is far older than Al Qaeda and its influence far wider than Asia.

Occidentalism consists of a complex of assumptions about Western culture -- that it is arrogant, materialistic, secular, superficial and rootless, and that the United States, against which such charges are scarcely without foundation, is its chief representative. The authors discover the origin of this stereotype not in the East, however, but in the reaction of elements within the West itself to the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment, a reaction that then spread to non-Western societies.

This claim is the most ambitious and impressive aspect of ''Occidentalism,'' and yet as an argument it surely needs further development. Heidegger, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong may all have despised the cosmopolitan city, with its political corruption, loose sexual mores and commercialized glamour. Solzhenitsyn, Osama bin Laden and Herder may all have preached against sterile rationalism and the instrumental, secular view of life. But it is unpersuasive to locate the universalizing goals of Maoism in the ideas of the supremely localist Counter-Enlightenment, and just as unpersuasive to link the blood-and-culture movements of the Counter-Enlightenment to radical, global Islam. Buruma and Margalit are on firmer ground when they show that all these elements are united in their portrayal of the cowardly West as so weakened by its addiction to material pleasures that it is unable to make the sacrifices necessary for its own defense.

If Occidentalism can be found in the minds of Al Qaeda's supporters, it also makes an appearance in the writings of some of the West's defenders, like Lee Harris, the author of ''Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.'' The title of this work brings to mind classic predecessors: Freud's ''Civilization and Its Discontents'' and Karl Popper's ''Open Society and Its Enemies.'' Unlike Buruma and Margalit, Harris does not strive to complement earlier work so much as to extend it to the contemporary political scene. Bin Laden, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein are treated to a socio-psychological critique that would not be out of place in a Freudian analysis of a family: by bestowing unearned wealth, status and even statehood on certain groups, Harris argues, the West has encouraged their ''fantasy ideologies,'' which intoxicate and decivilize them. As a consequence, we face antagonists who, regardless of our attempts to placate them, have made us their enemies for no other reason than that they profoundly wish to be our enemies. Because we do not appreciate this dynamic, we persist in trying to propitiate rather than confront them.

Much as Popper once attacked illiberal dogmatism, Harris now reproves the liberal West. In its complacency and comfort, it has forgotten the basis of its own existence -- namely, a ruthlessness that it once practiced. We need, he says, to attend to the lesson of Kurosawa's ''Seven Samurai'' -- that only violent men of honor can save us from the violent thugs who beset us. Unfortunately, he says (in his own display of Occidentalism), we have so debased our virility, our sense of shame and honor, that we risk not being able to produce men who can honorably practice the ruthlessness required to protect our society.

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