In 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Behold the difference between the Oriental and the Occidental. The former has nothing to do in this world; the latter is full of activity. The one looks in the sun till his eyes are put out; the other follows him prone in his westward course” ( 1985, 120). Thoreau’s “Orientals” included the people of India and China, although his contemporaries often added the people of the Arab world. At the same time, Thoreau and other Boston Brahmins used the even more vaguely defined term “Occidental” to refer to Anglo-Protestant civilization (and only rarely included Catholics and non-Anglos). The point they made was simple: the world had to be sundered between East and West. The former once had a great history, but it had since descended into timelessness and stasis; the latter remained dynamic and cultivated wisdom. Thoreau, being a pacifist, forswore the values of conquest, but his confreres did not. They shared his revulsion toward the contemporary Orient and yet wanted to dominate it. He only wanted its knowledge.
A critical analysis of this Orientalist discourse is made easier because of the valuable work of such scholars as Anwar Abdel Malek (1963) and Edward Said (1978), as well as the field that is now known as postcolonial studies. This tradition lifted the commonplace category of Orientalism and filled it with analytical meaning. Before Abdel Malek and Said, the term referred to the academic study of all that lives in the lands outside Europe, the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia. Orientalists toiled away on the languages and cultures of regions of the world not often considered to be central to the activity of the US and European academy. Said, in contrast, wrenched the term out of its disciplinary context and demonstrated how European and US government bureaucrats, academics, cultural workers, and common sense defined and circumscribed knowledge about the “Orient.” The first step of Orientalist discourse is to sunder the world into a West and an East. Here the lonely academic and the public imperialist share a remarkable feat. Both collect vastly different areas of the world into a zone called the “East,” albeit the former for purposes of study, the latter for conquest and rule. The premise for both the academic and the imperialist is that these diverse regions can be assembled into a singular “Orient” and, in consequence, that their own lands can be seen as an equally singular “Occident.” The second step is to impute values to these zones, with the West being productive, dynamic, adult, and masculine, while the East is slothful, static, childlike, and feminine. Once these two steps have been accomplished, it is easy to say that the West must have dominance over the East. Frequently, Orientalist discourse provided a useful justification for colonialism, as colonial rulers attempted with varying degrees of success to fashion real, living cultures into their image of the “Orient,” while older historical traditions and the resistance of colonized peoples made such a divine act impossible.
As with any good theory, this early critique of Orientalism has its flaws. Some of these are conceptual, as pointed out by the literary critic Aijaz Ahmad. Said is unclear whether Orientalism is the ideology of colonialism or is rooted in the very psyche of European thought. If it is the latter, then Said’s use of the term is an “Orientalism-in-reverse,” in which the “West” has an inherently flawed understanding of the rest of the world (Ahmad 1992, 183). Additionally, Said underestimates the strong tradition within Arabic writing that draws ontological distinctions between East and West. The concept of Orientalism also suffers from an overly general application. It may aptly describe the English and French—though not the German—view of what they called the “Near” or “Middle East.” Without alteration, however, it would not be of much use for understanding US intellectual and political policy toward either Asia or the Middle East. Literary critics and historians have demonstrated that US Orientalism was both heterogeneous and “far more mobile, flexible, and rich than the Orientalism binary would allow” (McAlister 2001, 270). While Thoreau shared a great deal with his English colleagues, he did not condone colonialism: “They may keep their rupees,” he wrote of “Orientals”—he sought only their wisdom ( 1958, 398). This was already a difference.
To fully understand US Orientalism, we thus need to locate it within the context of the emergence of the US empire as a truly global behemoth. US imperialism was rooted in the wars against Amerindians, in the push westward after the Revolutionary War, in the Monroe Doctrine’s implications for South and Central America, and in the war to supplant Spain in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Still, the United States remained a junior partner to the dynamic northwestern European empires (Dutch, English, French) until the close of World War II. Only during the Cold War did the United States become the political leader of the advanced capitalist states. At the same time, nationalist movements around the world and the horror of the Holocaust finally delegitimized formal racism on a global scale, producing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the many United Nations conventions against racial discrimination, and the intellectual work of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Whereas earlier forms of Orientalism could quite openly truck in racist stereotypes, the US Orientalism of the era had to adjust to this assault on racism and direct colonial dominion.
US domestic law eventually submitted to the dictates of international opinion and of the civil rights movement, overturning the Jim Crow laws of the South. Alongside the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts came a 1965 revision of US immigration law that finally allowed legal entry and naturalization to Asians (another complex category), who had either been barred or subjected to quotas for much of the twentieth century. The state claimed that its new immigration policy was designed to counter “communist propaganda” about US racism against Asians (Prashad 2000). US pundits and policymakers welcomed highly skilled Asians, whose demographic advantages then became a foil for the indisputably wretched condition of most people of color. In 1966, U.S. News and World Report noted that the experience of Chinese Americans confirms “the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check—in order to reach America’s ‘promised land’” ( 2004, 158). Asians worked hard to make it “at a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions of dollars be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities” (158). The sorting logic of this new US immigration policy began to blur older categories of racist discourse. The post-civil-rights epoch inaugurated a discourse of color-blind racism, in which the rhetorics of economic efficiency and cultural difference masked claims about racial inferiority. This shift is crucial to an understanding of US Orientalism.
But just because the media began to praise immigrants from Asia, in part by substituting the newer keyword “Asian” for the older keyword “Oriental,” does not mean that they were sheltered from rebuke. The state allowed the racism nurtured by the long history of Orientalism to flourish in civil society, despite having disavowed it as public policy. The language and emotive charge of racism often drew its power from the ongoing US wars in Asia. Beginning with the wars in the Philippines in the nineteenth century, the US media and military pummeled the public and the troops with racist imagery of the Japanese (during World War II), the Koreans (during the Korean War), the Vietnamese (during the Vietnam War), and the Chinese (during the seemingly endless animosity toward Communist China). The examples are legion, from virulent comments from a US military officer in Korea who threatened to “give these yellow bastards what is coming to them” (qtd. in Cumings 2005, 287) to the experience of Japanese American troops in Vietnam (“This is what the Viet Cong looks like, with slanted eyes,” said a drill instructor as he pointed to a Japanese American recruit; qtd. in Whelchel 1999, 104).
Today, US Orientalism remains inherently ambiguous and heterogeneous—deeply committed to US primacy and to multiculturalism. It posits that Asians are both required and repellent, both necessary to the economy (and as a weapon against other people of color) and a danger to society. Asia is also laid out on an international plane: the fears of outsourcing are linked directly to the rise of India and China as an alternative to US supremacy. Asians in the United States cannot distance themselves from these global dynamics, as racist events substitute planetary-scale anxiety for the bodies of actual people (the 1982 beating of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, for the deindustrialization of Detroit in relation to the rise of the Japanese auto industry is an early example). Thoreau’s views still resonate because it is commonplace to appreciate the culture of the ancient “East” and goods from the modern “East” and, at the same time, to be uneasy about the actual people who inhabit that entire region. Bindis and temporary tattoos are easier to accept than are those who wear bindis on a regular basis. If, however, those who would wear bindis choose not to and simply work hard, they then become acceptable. That is the contradiction of US Orientalism.
The analytical category Orientalism thus enables an analysis of the ambiguity of US imperialism, which is driven by the twin goals of supremacy and liberation. The Iraqis and Afghans could not liberate themselves, the logic goes, because they are supine, so the GIs must liberate them, especially Iraqi and Afghan women (Armstrong and Prashad 2005). So the US army arrives as a force of liberation. At the same time, the army secures raw materials and creates markets for global corporations and for the dynamic of advanced capitalist states. The urge to liberate is as fundamental as the requirement to subordinate. What is forbidden in the Orientalism of our period is for the “native” to speak in its vital variety—and, because that voice is muted, the native might choose means that are unspeakable. That too is the price of Orientalism.