Books of the century

Stuart Burrows pays tribute to the polemical vigour of Edward Said

"The trouble with the Engenglish," stutters Whisky Sisodia in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, "is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do- do-don't know what it means." Only in the past few years have we begun to grapple with our history of empire and slave-trading, asking what it might actually mean. A short stroll down Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace - past the tributes to the colonisers of East and West Africa, India and Burma - should be enough to remind us how far we have to go.

My own process of decolonisation from the sticky quarter-truths of the history I was taught at school began when I read Edward Said's monumental Orientalism (1978). Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, revealed how colonial rule was justified and made possible through an exhaustive system of cultural representations of the colonised - representations that still haunt us. His contribution was not merely to develop a vocabulary to describe the ways in which non- Europeans are demonised in our society, but to reverse the way we think culture works - rather than reflecting the political, Said argues, culture actually produces it, so that "texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe". The inelegant name for this form of inquiry is "discourse analysis", and the footsteps of its founder, the French historian Michel Foucault, are all over Said's work.

What makes Orientalism such a vital and powerful book is the way Said extends Foucault's investigation of the discourses of sexuality and the law to the post-Enlightenment European imagination. Said's own intellectual map is as large as that of the empire itself. Fluent in French and Arabic, he also reads Spanish, German, Italian and Latin. Orientalism reflects this polyglot learning, ranging from analysis of Aeschylus's The Persians and Flaubert's Salammbo to Balfour's foreign policy and the speeches of Henry Kissinger. His book can be read as both corollary and antidote to Erich Auerbach's magisterial Mimesis (1946). Its influence has been almost as widespread, not only in English departments across America and Europe but in sociology, anthropology and history. Orientalism has inspired its own academic field, postcolonial studies, which has generated some of the best critical work of the past two decades. It is almost inconceivable to imagine someone receiving a humanities PhD today without having come to terms with Said's legacy.

Orientalism identifies a range of strategies by which 19th- and 20th-century scholars, writers and artists imposed their authority on the East. The Orient was represented as a theatrical stage affixed to Europe, a place where jaded aristocrats, earnest second sons and tyrannical explorers could discover timeless truths, or perhaps unimagined erotic delights. Stereotypes of eastern wise men and exotic harems removed the colonial world from history altogether, substituting a timeless realm, where western man could either find (Kim) or lose his precious sense of self (The Heart of Darkness). Orientals disappear from these texts, and are seen not as people but as problems, subjects, races; the term "oriental" itself became charged with "an already pronounced evaluative judgement" it continues to possess.

Yet even as Said relentlessly catalogues the way European culture managed and produced the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively from 1798 to the present day, he remains generous in his judgements and scrupulously fair in his tone (he is also a courageous speaker for the plight of the Palestinians, "the victims of the victims", in his unforgettable phrase). Admitting that his love for Verdi and Kipling, Conrad and Flaubert remains undiminished by his recognition of their complicity in the imperial project, Said even suggests that the internal constraints produced by the fact of empire may have proved productive rather than inhibiting for these artists. The thought is terrifying: could the enslavement of millions of people round the globe in the name of Queen Victoria actually have acted as aesthetic stimuli for George Eliot and Charles Dickens? Ignoring such questions in the name of an aesthetic snobbery that damns the work of literary theorists such as Said - without reading them - is certainly no answer, despite the best efforts of a section of the British literary establishment.

That is not to say that Orientalism does not have its faults. Said's championing of the imagination ahead of the real begs the question of how Britain and France actually ruled their empires, if their only knowledge of them was largely imaginary. As the equally wide-ranging, if somewhat unsatisfying Culture and Imperialism (1993) makes clear, much of Said's academic career has been a not altogether successful attempt to articulate the relationship between cultural artefacts and the reality they represent. Yet there is much to be said for an analysis that, if not actually making a hero out of Caliban, at least hears the pain behind his mockery of Prospero: "For I am all the subjects that you have/Which first was mine own King".

If Britain is now beginning to understand its recent history, a recognition apparent in the work of Stuart Hall, Terry Eagleton and Peter Hulme among others, we have Said to thank in large part. Nevertheless, as long as Jim Davidson can continue to entertain Her Majesty's forces and the Daily Telegraph spew out supplements celebrating our glorious imperial legacy, Whisky Sisodia's judgement upon us is worth remembering.

Stuart Burrows, a British writer based at Princeton University, reviews regularly for the "New Statesman"

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.