The exotic East

Taking a break from primary blogging, there's a minor discussion going on in various bits of the blogosphere over what texts the Pentagon should have been reading to learn about the Middle East. Over at Crooked Timber, Kathy G. suggested that they should have been reading Orientalism instead of the somewhat kooky Arab Mind. Matt is skeptical. James Joyner suggests "Wouldn’t we be even better off if, instead, they used a book that hadn’t been widely discredited? Say, Bernard Lewis’ Islam and the West?"

This is basically a fruitless debate, because as in the Israel/Palestine debate--for which this is basically a proxy--there is precious little middle ground. Middle Eastern Studies professors are, as far as I can tell, overwhelmingly in the Edward Said camp; they regard Bernard Lewis the same way those in the Lewis/Pipes camp regard Said.

The fundamental problem with all the books is the same: they're all trying to offer an inside perspective on the culture from outside the culture. The Pentagon is not going to read Edward Said for the same reason that most Middle Eastern scholars like him: he writes as an outsider deeply critical of western culture. No government institution can accept such a text as canonical, certainly not here.

The problem is, Kathy G. is right: regardless of the book's errors, those are the sort of things the Pentagon should be reading, even if the work in question has problems. Our planners spent too much time reading western opinions on Arab culture, when it was at least as important to know how we looked to them. That's not something an outsider can or will tell you. And I'd say that Edward Said's main error was in thinking that because the west is the hegemonic culture, he was immune from this problem.