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Orientalism and Occidentalism: Where do the Central Europeans stand?

April 2002

Orientalism and Occidentalism: where do the Central Europeans stand?

After the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), the title word began to designate an attitude of Western elites toward nonwestern countries and peoples, the attitude replete with condescension and ignorance. Adding insult to injury, the Westerners tended to apply their own categories of thinking (judging them universal) to a set of problems and phenomena that could be articulated only by partaking of the categories of thinking characteristic of the East.

But the tables have been reversed. On January 17, 2002, in the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit published an essay on "Occidentalism" charging that third world elites have demonized the West and what it stands for: urban civilization, commerce, mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual license, scientific pursuits, leisure, personal safety, wealth and its usual concomitant, power.

What is the Central European stance in this grand debate? It might seem obvious that the non-Germanic Central Europeans would side up with Buruma and Margalit against Said. Central Europe thinks of itself as Western. But things are not so simple. First, Poland and the rest of non-Germanic Central Europe have been colonized by the great powers of the region. Colonization left deep marks on the Polish psyche and it crippled the Polish economy. The colonizers came from East and West; most recently, they came from the East (the half-century of Soviet occupation). In some ways, they acted toward Poles like the British colonizers have toward the Asian nations. Furthermore, they were perceived by Poles as inferior (no such perception was evident in Asia or Africa with regard to the British). The invaders have monopolized discourse about Poland on the world arena. They made the world believe that Central European nations had to be represented by others, rather than allowed to speak for themselves. Just as the Western image of India or Malaysia was influenced by the "orientalizing" writings of British historians, novelists and explorers (Joseph Conrad!), so has the image of Poland and Poles been drawn in the West by Russian and German historians such as Nicholas Riasanovsky and Heinrich von Treischke, by such novelists as Fyodor Dostoevsky, and by politicians.

Thus Poles in particular have good reasons to sympathize with Edward Said and his charge that certain nations have been forced into the straightjacket of categories and images generated by those who wielded raw military power over them.

Does that mean that Poles have to take Said's side against Occidentalism? Not at all. Poles in particular have prided themselves on being a Western nation (although located on the margins of Western geographical space), and thus public opinion in Poland and among Polish Americans is firmly pro-Western.

But many Poles do not subscribe to the interpretation of Occidentalism espoused by the American intellectual establishment. The Polish notion of the West is grounded in the idea of Christian Europe, and not in the idea of the secular Enlightenment, social contract and the rest. Alongside such historians as Christopher Dawson and such writers as G.K. Chesterton, Poles see the roots of democracy in the Christian precept of equality of all before God. Paradoxically, this vision of Western culture as originating in (but not limited to) Christian Europe is shared even by those in Poland who are not Christian, let alone Catholic--e.g., Leszek Kolakowski.

Buruma and Margalit see the roots of Westernism in the Enlightenment. The rights of man and the reliance on reason which the Enlightenment proclaimed supposedly sprang from nowhere; they just appeared in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland and Germany like a deus ex machina. For most Central Europeans, this notion is unacceptable.

There are other statements in the NYRB article with which most Central Europeans (including the greatly secularized Czechs) would disagree. Buruma and Margalit blame the "German-inspired ethnic nationalism" in Europe and Asia for a great deal of trouble the world experienced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They seem to believe that Herder and other Germans invented the notion of national unity in the West and in the East. Yet, as Anthony Smith has shown, national identity goes back to the European Middle Ages. It did not arise solely because of the rise of literacy and a refusal to allow "others" to be members of a nation (pace Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson). While nationalism of the strong and aggressive nations (such as Germans and Russians) has proven deadly in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the smaller nations of Europe practiced defensive nationalism meant to preserve their identity and heritage rather than to de-nationalize others.

Furthermore, it is not true that the cult of heroes (originating in medieval chivalry and in the cult of the saints) is an invention of fascists and Talibs, and that one should proclaim the happy mediocrity of capitalism, or Americanism (of which Alexis de Tocqueville spoke) as preferable to any worship at all. The cult of heroes is deeply rooted in any society that has a sense of the sacred. In fact, the medieval heroes, from King Arthur and Roland to Krakus and Zawisza in Poland, have often provided a yardstick with which to measure achievement.

There are in Central Europe pockets of resistance to any version of Occidentalism. There exists in certain circles an exaggerated worship of the Polish village (wsi spokojna, wsi wesola. . . . niech na calym swiecie wojna. . . etc.). There are good reasons to consider nature and agrarian life to be a source of renewal and a reminder of where we came from, but that does not mean that primitivism is a virtue. This kind of anti-urban mentality has to be rejected. But one should not pour the baby out with the bath water. Shallow Occidentalism is as bad as unexamined primitivism.

To see where Americans of Central European background stand in this grand debate, it is necessary to delve deeply into their past and present, and hear their voices unmediated by those who presume to speak for them. These Americans have to speak through their own organizations and publications. They can perhaps provide a more satisfying definition of Occidentalism than one issuing from the flawed philosophical system called Enlightenment rationalism (Thomistic rationalism, which Poles have traditionally espoused, is a better choice). They can also provide an insight into Western arrogance (Said wrote about it a great deal) without condemning Western values (as third world intellectuals sometimes do). In doing so, these Americans (and their Central European cousins) prove themselves truly Western, for it is in the nature of the West continuously to supply a critique of itself, so that improvements can be made. This is also what Buruma and Margolis assert, and in this matter we agree with their provocative essay.

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