Few individuals in recent memory have had a more pervasive, lasting, or pernicious influence on the humanities than Edward Said. The life of the Columbia University English professor, who helped make anti-Semitism acceptable in the academy, is the subject of Places of Mind, a new biography by Timothy Brennan. Theodore Dalrymple writes in his review:
As with so many intellectuals, Said’s cultural influence was greater than his merits; if he had not had such inflated influence, he would hardly merit as long a biography as this. It would not be quite fair to call Places of Mind a hagiography, for it admits of minor criticisms of its subject, . . . but it is clearly a work of apologetics.
It is bad in a number of respects. To begin with, much of it is appallingly written, as one would now, alas, expect of an author who is a professor of humanities. . . .
[W]e read that “as a Christian in the Middle East who, like others, had to navigate inherited colonial arrangements, Said was only too aware of the pitfalls awaiting multiethnic political arrangements based on identitarian allocations of power.” This suggests, without quite saying so, that religious conflicts were inventions of colonial arrangements, but only willful ignorance or dishonesty could sustain such a view. In 1860, for example, in Lebanon and Syria, there was a war between the Maronites and the Sunni and Druze, with massacres on both sides. The Christian quarter of Damascus was destroyed with a thoroughness reminiscent of the present war, and 12,000 Christians were killed. This had nothing to do with “colonial arrangements.” And I doubt that today’s average Coptic Christian would agree with the author’s statement either.
Brennan [also] has a strange way of dealing with criticisms of Said. He calls the famous article in Commentary, drawing attention to Said’s fabrications about his own past, “malicious”—as if proof of malice were refutation in itself. The article was indeed intended to destroy, or at least severely damage, Said’s reputation: but if the allegations were true, such that he falsely claimed to have fled Jerusalem in 1948, it deserved to be destroyed. And there is no strong denial in the book that Said did sometimes fabricate his history in a very gross fashion, let alone refutation of it.