The various contemporary forms of New Left theory, not least those concerned with gender and race, are now pathways to promotion, to lucrative book deals, to New York Times op-eds, and to well-paid speaking gigs at prestigious schools. The road from the polymathic Said to today’s leftism is one marked by intellectual decline. Now one merely needs to recite the liturgy—white privilege, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.—to establish one’s critical credentials.
Another week, another pile of victims of those who pride themselves on courageously “speaking truth to power,” as the saying has it. This time, it was the unlikely figures of Cher and Gwen Stefani—the former accused of racism, the latter of the catch-all “cultural appropriation.”
These latest incidents occurred while I was reading Places of Mind, Timothy Brennan’s fascinating new biography of Edward A. Said, the controversial left-wing academic, polymathic scholar, and influential founder of postcolonial studies. The juxtaposition allowed me to reflect that the much remarked upon intellectual bankruptcy of the contemporary conservative movement has its counterpart in the bankruptcy of the left. The major difference is that the left now controls every significant cultural institution, which allows rhetoric and volume to compensate for hard work and thoughtfulness.
For many years I read everything I could find by Said. While I sympathized with his immigrant status and the insider-outsider tension that marked his life and work, I deplored his politics. Said was a man of the left, the militant left. He was closely connected to the PLO and he made no secret of his opposition to the State of Israel as currently constituted. These were not the reasons I read him. What most interested me was his approach to literary and cultural criticism, specifically his appropriation of figures such as Lukacs, Freud, and Foucault for the critical task.
As one of the founders of postcolonial studies, Said is arguably the harbinger of today’s left-wing culture warriors. What, I wondered as I read Places of Mind, would he make of today’s left? Not a lot, I would hazard to guess, if Brennan is a competent guide.