Edward Said’s Obfuscations, a Philosophy of Housework, and the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy
The many obfuscations of Edward Said: “The first point to be made is that he and his family were Episcopalians (American Anglicans), not Muslims or even native Middle Eastern Christians like the Copts or Maronites. Said stated repeatedly that he was a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, which is true, but, like so much else in the autobiographical accounts he gave, it is economical with the truth. His family actually lived in Cairo; Said was born in Jerusalem because his mother thought she would receive better medical care in Jerusalem than in Egypt, because of the higher level of care provided by its Jewish doctors . . . While Said repeatedly implied that he grew up as a Palestinian in Jerusalem, this is simply not true, although he had (wealthy) relatives there, whom he occasionally visited. Said’s father was one of the richest men in Cairo; his family lived in a luxury flat and Said was driven to school in a chauffeured limousine. Said was not educated in Palestine, but in Egypt at Victoria College, Alexandria, an exclusive private school, founded in 1900 by Lord Cromer, the British viceroy, for the local rich and powerful of all backgrounds. Many of its students were Jews or Maltese; few were Palestinians. Among Said’s classmates was the future King Hussein of Jordan . . . Before 1978 Said was virtually unknown outside of the academic ivory tower and, indeed, was probably best known for a study of Joseph Conrad, the great Polish-born English novelist who, like Said, was always a wanderer and an outsider, and with whom Said must have felt a great affinity. In 1978, however, Said published Orientalism, which became one of the best-known and most influential works of non-fiction since the Second World War. It initiated a veritable industry of similar works, almost always by radical academics and critics . . . On many grounds the arguments made in Orientalism are deeply flawed and seriously misleading.”
The New Statesmanhas apologized for its selective quotation of Roger Scruton in an April interview that made him out to be a racist and an anti-Semite, but it’s not enough, Douglas Murray writes: “It is good of the New Statesman to finally admit what any fair observer has known for months. And to catch up with what I revealed on the cover of The Spectator magazine three months ago. Which is that Eaton misrepresented statements by Sir Roger Scruton which led to his immediate sacking from his unpaid government appointment. This sacking was carried out by the relevant government minister, the otherwise irrelevant James Brokenshire. I do not doubt that the New Statesman feels ‘regret’ at ‘any distress’ that Eaton’s reporting has caused. And it is good to finally admit its reporter’s errors. But at least three very serious questions remain unaddressed.”
Michael Auslin remembers the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy: “One hundred years ago, on July 7, 1919, a procession of over 80 U.S. Army vehicles embarked on the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy across the United States. Today, such an effort is not even something to consider extraordinary. Like thousands of others, my family drove across country last summer, and back again in the winter. We took a leisurely ten days to cross the continent, stopping at historical sites along the way, including Promontory Point, Utah, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in May 1869. Our trip on well-maintained highways and interstates, staying at clean motels, filling up at regularly placed gas stations, and eating safe food could not be more different from what faced the troops of the Motor Convoy, let alone any civilian travelers foolhardy enough to try and drive across the United States. Enduring constant breakdowns, broken bridges, nonexistent roads, knee-high mud, sand dunes, storms, and heat, the 300 men of the convoy successfully crossed the country in exactly two months, reaching San Francisco on September 6.”
The meaning of medieval beasts.
Tim Rice reviews Wilfred McClay’s history of America: “Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope wastes no time making its purpose known. The first thing you notice about it is that it looks like a textbook. From its heft and glossy pages to its artistic cover and evocative subtitle (“An Invitation to the Great American Story”), this volume would look perfectly at home on a school desk, in a backpack, or jammed into a locker. Without even opening it, though, you can tell that Land of Hope is very different from that other book with which it is being been compared—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Land of Hope is a fact-driven history, open to the now radical-seeming notion that America is good.”
The publisher of Liturgy of the Ordinary says that Amazon sold fakes of the book worth $240,000.
Essay of the Day:
In The Hedgehog Review, Mary Townsend writes in defense of housework:
“‘Is it better to be a coal-heaver or a nursemaid; is the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less value to the world than, the barrister who has made a hundred thousand pounds?’ asks Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf comes to no conclusion. But if we wanted to finish her argument, how would we do it? Woolf herself found certain aspects of domesticity easier to recommend than others. She took pride in her slowly growing knowledge of basic cookery, but doing the dishes she found hard to bear: ‘I’ve been washing up lunch—how servants preserve any sanity or sobriety if that is nine 10ths of their lives—greasy ham—God knows.’
“Woolf’s private consternation reflects the problem with any merely public evaluation of housework. Cleaning is mindless work, we say, and a task we are happy to leave to others; should we have the money, there are maid services or one of the many ‘Uber for housework’ services to take the work off our hands. The repairman, the electrician, the carpenter, and so on, earn our respect because of the intelligent skill they put into their labor; but the sting of domestic work is that it appears to require no particular skill: doing the floors, the dishes, doing the corners, picking up all the things strewn about the house; taking out the trash not once, but again and again, on down into the grave.
“Such work, when it is paid for at all, is among the lowest of the low, economically speaking—we have more civic and monetary respect for garbage collectors. But worse, the very character of the janitor or the charwoman is suspect. Their grumpiness and meanness of spirit is catalogued from the fairy tales of the Grimms to the lyrical dialectics of Kierkegaard. In the grip of mindless, endless repetition, the temper and even the soul are said to suffer permanent distortion. The best that can be said for housework is that it is unavoidable, and so someone or other will have to decide to do it.
“It’s not easy to speak up for the charwoman. Unless I can argue that housework is more than a utilitarian good or a necessary evil, I doubt whether my arguments will do much to dignify the worker, or to persuade others to pick up the work themselves. Furthermore, the question requires phenomenological honesty. It would be a great mistake to consider Woolf uniquely blameworthy for the disparity between her official inquiry into the worker, and her secret lament at the deed. We can’t afford to leave ourselves out of the argument.
“But I’m suspicious of the infamous mindlessness of housework. Having been persuaded that our best thoughts are at their best when most rooted in the world they profess to describe, I find I’m very much interested in it. I suspect we can do more than praise its necessity, and that our inability to make a better case reflects an impoverished understanding of the nature of work, and of thought itself. Housework is a job in which our things and possessions become unavoidably concrete. So why should the work that forces us to reckon with things we usually ignore be mindless? Why would the most concrete work be the most absentminded?”
Photo: Le moulin de Verzenay
Poem: Jamie Grant, “What about the Groom?”
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.