How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World
In Orientalism (1978), Said denounced the ethnocentric distortions of (primarily) the Islamic world by Western scholarship, past to present. Here, he 1) recasts the argument to apply to present-day American attitudes and perceptions generally; then 2) reviews American media treatment of the first two months of the hostage crisis; and finally 3) suggests ways out of "the interpretive circle." The book is somewhat disjointed as a result (sizable portions appeared first as articles in The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review), and somewhat repetitive: there is also an outtake on the PBS-Saudi Arabian conflict over the showing of the film Death of a Princess. Nonetheless, the first section is valuable as a summary of the "tendency to favor certain views" of a supposedly monolithic "Islam"--to see it as intransigent, and from the oil crisis onward, as hostile and threatening. It is also valuable for Said's observation that the Islamic world reacts against that particular image, "the so-called Orientals acting the part decreed for them by what so-called Westerners expect." Islamic internal energies are real and diverse, Said stresses, and "Muslims need to emphasize the goal of living a new form of history." The second section, on the hostage-crisis coverage, is both a bill of particulars, focusing on the elite--Walter Cronkite couldn't pronounce names correctly, the New York Times' Flora Lewis' "scurrying about in sources and unfamiliarity with her subjects gave her readers the sense of a scavenger hunt"--and a case study of a skewed, ultimately inflammatory response to a little-understood situation. (It's only too bad that room was not found, in an appendix, for the letters of protest to Columbia Journalism Review, and Said's replies.) The third section very precisely works over "how knowledge [of Islam] gets produced"--implicitly addressing the problems of how to deal with any alien culture. On this last, Said is probably the most trenchant commentator around.